Since the Columbine massacre last year, the Secret Service wondered whether it could help prevent school shootings by analyzing violent students the same way it analyzes the mind of the assassin. Correspondent Scott Pelley reports on this innovative approach.
Working within their newly created National Threat Assessment Center, the authors of the assassin study are interviewing school shooters to understand their motivations. No one has done this before.
One of those they interviewed was Luke Woodham.
On Oct. 1, 1997, Woodham walked into his high school in Pearl, Miss., with a rifle, pressed it to his ex-girlfriend's chest and killed her. He murdered another girl, then wounded seven others. At home, police found his mother stabbed to death.
"In my life things have never been OK," Woodham told agents during the interview. "It never seemed like anybody cared."
When agents asked a remorseful Woodham why he had acted as he did, he said it seemed like the only alternative: "I couldn't find a reason not to do it."
Secret Service psychologists Marisa Pynchon and Robert Fein and Special Agent Bryan Vossekuil want to find out what motivated these young shooters.
"The approach we are taking with this project is looking to [the killers] for [their] expertise," Pynchon said.
The goal: to help protect schools by using the lessons they've learned from studying assassins.
The Secret Service is now analyzing 40 attacks on schools from the past 20 years - not simple school-yard violence but organized, planned assaults in which the school was the target. All the shooters are boys and nearly all are white. Together they killed 59 people and wounded 124.
One of them is Clay Shrout, who has an IQ of 160. At Ryle High School in Kentucky, he was something of a math genius. One morning in 1994, Shrout murdered his father, mother and two sisters. Then he went to school.
Shrout took a class hostage but the vice principal traded himself for the hostages and convinced him to give up the gun.
The Secret Service came to Kentucky to talk to Jeff Martin, the detective who led the investigation, and to Stephen Sorrel, the vice principal who stopped Shrout.
Martin says that in the weeks before the incident, Shrout talked over his plan with a group of friends. He even told them that he planned to kill his English teacher.
"I think one of the very powerful things that is going to come out is that there's communication to somebody," Vossekuil said.
Shrout was not only telling his friends, he was drawing disturbing sketches and writing poetry.
These forms of communication also are frequently used by assassins, Vossekuil said.
But schools looking for signs have few places to turn. Metal detectors and security cameras are going up all over the country. Few believe, though, that these measures can stop a determined gunman.
Although the study is ongoing, educators are so eager for information that they want the Secret Service to tell them what it has found so far.
One of the things that they are teaching is that school shooters were most often victims of harsh teasing. "They'd always talk about me and push me around and start fights with me and stuff," Woodham told agents during the interview. "They'd call you gay or call you stupid or fat or whatever. Kids would sometimes throw rocks at me and push and kick me and hit me and stuff like that."
The treatment often makes school shooters suicidal. And according to Fein there is often a fine line between suicide and homicide.
Said Fein: "At the point of suicide, some people think 'I'm in great pain, wait a minute, that person caused the pain, before I kill myself I'm going to kill them.'"
"It really reinforces the needs for adults to understand the intensity of teasing," said one high school principal. "I don't think that the adults in the school system really view teasing as very serious."
Pynchon, Fein and Vossekuil recently visited a maximum security prison to talk to a young man who murdered four people. He didn't want to talk and didn't want his name used, but once he sat down with the Secret Service he talked for three hours.
He suggested to Fein that he could have been stopped if someone had listened to him. He told the agents that in the years leading up to the crime, he had acted out repeatedly, trying to get attention.
"I think [he was] trying to get someone to intervene," Pynchon said.
The young man's account tallied with what other school shooters have told the Secret Service: There was no adult in his life that he could talk to.
Woodham still agonizes over his isolation. He said that he had no one to turn to. "I just didn't have anybody to talk to about all the things I was going through," he said.
Afterward, many regret what they've done, Fein sad. This is similar to how many of those who try to assassinate the president feel afterward.
Stafford believes that the study could help prevent school shootings. He is buoyed by the success of the earlier study.
August 2000 Update:
The Secret Service has wrapped up its interviews, and it plans to publish its research in academic journals next month. The service is working with the Department of Education to develop training materials for educators and a video presentation. All of that will be available to every school in the nation a little later this year.
Read Mind of the Assassin, about the Secret Service's efforts to track potential killers.