The past week has yielded two more school shootings, and both of the staff members who were killed in the attacks were teachers of mathematics. In Danvers, Massachusetts, a 14 year old boy, Philip Chism, has been arrested on a murder charge after the body of a young math teacher, Colleen Ritzer, was found in a wooded area behind the high school where she worked.
Two days earlier, math teacher Michael Landsberry was shot and killed by a student in Sparks, Nevada. Landberry was an ex-military veteran who had served two tours in Afghanistan with the Nevada National Guard – how ironic that he should survive his military service only to be ‘killed in action’ as an 8th grade school teacher.
Over the years, at least 8 teachers of arithmetic have been in the firing line during school-related shootings, though this figure could be higher as earlier records are lacking in detail, and other similar incidents have taken place in algebra classrooms. The first recorded attack on a math teacher happened in 1942, when Irwin Goodman, 36-year-old mathematics teacher at William J. Gaynor Junior High School, was shot and killed in the school corridor by a male student. At Stanford University in 1978, a maths professor was bludgeoned to death by a student, Theodore Streleski, and on March 6, 1986, algebra teacher Norma Cooper was shot and wounded in Dolton, Illinois by a pupil at Thornridge High School. Faye Williams, 17, was shot to death in her algebra classroom at Wingfield High School by her ex-boyfriend, James Hartzog, 18 who then killed himself, and on December 16, 1987: Katy, Texas, Mayde Creek High School student Ramesh D. Tumalad, 15, shot himself to death in his algebra class as his classmates looked on.
Two math teachers were shot by a 16 year old pupil in a South Carolina school in October 1995, leaving one teacher dead and the other injured, and an algebra teacher was gunned down in Moses Lake, Washington on February 2nd 1996, by a 14 year old pupil, Barry Loukaitis.
Being a teacher may soon qualify as one of the most dangerous professions, particularly if your chosen subject is related to mathematics. Is this just a coincidence? Certainly math is often cited as every child’s least favourite subject, but surely this fact alone would not drive students to kill, would it?
Loren Coleman, who is the author of 35 books, including The Unidentified (1975), Mysterious America(1983/2007), Suicide Clusters (1987),Cryptozoology A to Z (1999), Bigfoot! (2003), and The Copycat Effect (2004), believes that he can often identify coincidences in news and history. Loren, who is a regular guest on ‘Dreamland’, writes the blog ‘Twilight Language’ and examines hidden meanings and synchromystic connections behind news stories via onomatology (study of names) and toponymy (study of place names).
Coleman believes that the majority of incidents have been inspired by one source: in his blog, he outlines how the motive for the most significant incident, in Moses Lake, was derived from the Stephen King novel, ‘Rage’ (1977); Loukaitis confirmed that he got the idea for the shooting from the Stephen King novel , in which the plot revolves around a troubled high school boy who attends the fictional Placerville High School. In the story, the boy shoots his algebra teacher and another staff member, then takes the class hostage.
Certainly, after Loukaitis shot the teacher in front of her stunned students, he turned to them and said "This sure beats algebra, doesn’t it?", a quotation apparently inspired by a similar line in the book. After his arrest, police found a collection of Stephen King’s books in Loukaitis’ bedroom, including a well-worn copy of Rage.Stephen King withdrew the book from publication three years later, after the book was mentioned in connection with a further school shooting in Kentucky, and the horrific massacre at Columbine High in Colorado, and Coleman quotes him as saying "I wish I had never written it."
Coleman suggests that other shootings could definitely have been influenced by Rage: at Valley High School, Las Vegas, Nevada, on March 19, 1982, algebra teacher Clarence Piggot was shot by 17 year old Patrick Lizotte when Piggot refused to cancel a public speaking assignment. On January 18, 1993, Scott Pennington, 17, took his senior English class captive at East Carter High School, in Grayson, Kentucky, then killed his teacher and another staff member, though Pennington told investigators later that he only read Rage after the shooting. In 1997, a copy of Rage was found in the locker of Michael Carneal, a high school shooter in West Paducah, Kentucky.
While it appears implicated in some of them, King’s book cannot have motivated all school shootings, however, and it is not the only teen book out there with questionable subject matter. The teenage years are notoriously volatile, and there is often a preoccupation with the darker side of life as young adults struggle to come to terms with their developing personalities and surging hormones. The fascination with their ‘shadow-side’ is one which is currently being exploited to the max by writers of teen fiction, where popular themes range from vampires to body-snatching and dismembered corpses. Could absorbing such disturbing ideas at impressionable ages have far-reaching effects?
In the US, journalist Meghan Cox Gurdon received widespread criticism when she wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal which suggested that we are poisoning our teenager’s minds with ‘ugliness’, and that teen fiction is straying into totally unnecessary areas in a bid to satisfy the ever-increasing lust for horrific themes; in general, opinions seem to favour the need for teens to freely explore all aspects of life in order to find a balance, but has the balance been shifted too far?
In the UK, where mass school shootings have also occurred though not in such large numbers, Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust, told the Telegraph earlier this year "I think the dark side is very important. That is part of what it is like growing up. Dealing with things you aren’t comfortable with is a natural part of childhood. Literature provides a relatively safe environment for young people to explore issues as they mature."
Whatever the cause, some darker force has certainly been at work amongst our students over the past few years, and it seems to be getting stronger: in the US alone in 2010, there were 10 school shootings and in 2011, there were 7. The figures rose again in 2012 when there were another 10 school shootings leaving a total of 41 people dead and 13 wounded. Unfortunately, 2013 is a record-breaker: in its first month alone, the US had experienced an unbelievable eight school-related shootings. The figure has gradually increased over the year, and with the latest two shootings, the total figure has now risen to 16.
So what else can be causing this horrific trend? Coleman suggests that a ‘copycat’ mentality may account for others; he notes in his book, The Copycat Effect, that a new pattern of school shooting began in the USA on February 2, 1996 in Moses Lake, Washington, and heralded a "modern era" of school shootings where a male students, not outsiders, began killing their classmates and teachers. Factoring in the Copycat Effect, teen fiction -and Rage in particular -seems to be indirectly responsible for a large number of school shootings, particularly those involving maths teachers. The statistics are plain to see – you do the math.
Sadly, the figures for school shootings are increasing steadily, year after year, and it is hard to believe that just one book remains the inspiration for every perpetrator. Other causes are cited as violent video games but a recent study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence concluded that these had no negative effects on the average teenager. Other reasons suggested by psychologists include social rejection, access to guns – which seems to be rather obvious – a lack of emotional and coping strategies, and poor nutrition resulting in significant vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which can affect brain function, causing depression and other mental disorders.
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