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After Columbine – Recognizing Troubled Children

Greater Birmingham Humane Society, Birmingham, AL

After Columbine: Recognizing Troubled Children
by the Link Between Violence to People and Animals

The shootings at Columbine High School prompted a report by the Boston Globe’s April 22,1999 report that both of the perpetrators in the Columbine High School hootings had an interest in mutilating animals.

After Columbine – Recognizing Troubled Children


There has been much success since this event in raising the awareness of the fact that the cycle of family and community violence does include acts of cruelty to animals. Research shows that certain types of animal maltreatment (those which are intentional, malicious, and habitual) are strong indicators of pathology in human perpetrators, especially when combined with other symptoms of a troubled history. As FBI Supervisory Special Agent Alan Brantley says: “(Animal cruelty) is not a harmless venting of emotion in a healthy individual; this is a warning sign that this individual is not mentally healthy and needs some sort of intervention.”

History of other school shooters, serial killers and mass murders are described on the following pages. One thing we do know, each school shooter had committed acts that included malicious and intentional cruelty to animals. Experts have determined that these people exhibited common patterns:

  • Children who felt inferior and were picked on
  • Many levels of violent and aggressive behavior were evidenced over time, and in a variety of settings.
  • Repeated rejection, which contributes to youth’s increased aggressiveness over time.
  • Children who were isolated in their emotional pain.
  • Adults didn’t take threats/ warning signs seriously, and/ or didn’t understand what the signs indicated.
  • One of these warning signs was cruelty to animals.
  • These actions were not taken seriously because animals were thought of as property, and not as “victims’- crimes against animals were not examined for what they revealed about the human perpetrator’s level of pathology and antisocial behavior.

Violent crimes against animals must no longer be ignored. We must begin to pay attention to such crimes because of what they indicate about the person committing the violent act. These acts must be stopped, punished and prevented in the future.

Other juveniles may commit cruel acts of violence against animals, as part of a pattern of symptoms of psychopathology, and in partnership with a troubled family history. In addition to those indicators described above in relation to perpetrators of school violence, the “profile” of these individuals may include:

  • A diagnosis of conduct disorder or reactive attachment disorder.
  • Grossly poor care and/ or maltreatment (including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, medical neglect, and supervisional neglect).
  • Violation of social rules and the basic rights of others.
  • The commission of other criminal acts, both violent and nonviolent in nature, and including property crimes.
  • Low self-esteem and high susceptibility to peer pressure.
  • Uncontrolled physical aggression and anger (the initiation of fights, physical cruelty to themselves, other people, and animals).
  • Rejection (actual or perceived) and a feeling of being picked on and/ or persecuted.
  • Poor impulse control.
  • Feelings of powerlessness and inferiority.
  • A disturbed and developmentally inappropriate ability to relate socially, in most context.
  • Overattachment or an inability to attach.
  • Lack of parental support and guidance.

It is apparent that many of the different levels of pathology described above were present in the lives of the young perpetrators of school shootings. Many individual aspects of these difficulties were visible to selected persons and groups, yet few had a complete and chilling accurate view of the depth and breadth of the boys’ troubled psyches. It is essential, then, for all elements of our community to play a large role in assessing, investigating, and intervening with potentially violent behavior in juveniles, and most critically, in the prevention of expressions of violence.

Courtesy of
The Greater Birmingham Humane Society

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