For the past four years, my sister has attended the elite summer theatre program, Stagedoor Manor. Its impressive alumni include Natalie Portman, Robert Downey Jr., Mandy Moore, Ansel Elgort, Zach Braff, Jon Cryer, and Lea Michele. Because this was her senior year, it was her final summer, and therefore I felt bound to go. This was my first time so what did I know about kids in plays? I was always an athlete and an aspiring lawyer. Furthermore, she was in some play I had never heard of- “Columbinus.”
Clearly from the name I was able to piece together the play was about Columbine, the mass shooting that occurred in Aurora, Colorado in 1999. I was only 8 and had zero memory of the moment it happened. Needless to say, I did not know what to expect with the camp or the play. But as I sat down and the lights dimmed, I was hooked. The play highlighted typical high school issues of alienation, hostility, and social pressure. More likely than not we all have experienced at least one of these dreadful characteristics of high school. Almost every line and scene pulled from real audio tapes of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris’ home videos, journals, and survivors’ memories. Each character, besides Dylan and Eric, drew from typical high school stereotypes and the victims that never survived April 20th- Faith, Perfect, Prep, Jock, Nerd, Freak, Loner and Rebel. The entire second act reenacted every single moment of the killing spree in the library based on survivors’ accounts. I could not breathe. People in the audience were weeping and hugging each other. But I was breathless for another reason perhaps no one else was.
In a few scenes highlighting the aftermath and showing Dylan Klebold’s parents in a New York Times interview, here are a few of the actual lines Susan Klebold said that were reenacted:
“That first night, our lawyer said to us, ‘Dylan isn’t here anymore for people to hate, so people are going to hate you.’”
“Dylan did not do this because of the way he was raised. He did it in contradiction to the way he was raised.”
“Somebody came up to me and said, ‘I forgive you for what you’ve done.’ But I haven’t done anything for which I need forgiveness.”
I have not stopped thinking of Columbine ever since. In a society today where mass shootings are the norm and hearing it on the news is as natural as hearing the weather report, I could not stop thinking about particular kinds of murderers- the young ones. Dylan Klebold. Eric Harris. Justin Robinson. James Holmes. Kip Kinkel. Michael Carneal. Mitchell Johnson. Andrew Golden. Mitchell Johnson. Luke Woodham. Seung Hui Cho. And most recently, Dylann Roof…To name a few.
Shortly after Columbine occurred, polls showed that 83% of Americans blamed Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris’ parents. After I researched both parents, expecting to understand the 83% rationale, I found the complete opposite. Dylan’s dad was a geophysicist who worked from home and spent time with his son every day. Weeks prior to the incident, the two of them were looking at dorm rooms for his upcoming fall semester in college. Eric’s father had been in the military, and consequences were common for Eric’s actions. And yet after more than 30 lawsuits were filed by families of those killed and injured, the Klebold and Harris parents settled for a combined $2.53 million. So regardless of bonding with your child or disciplining your child, sometimes there are things parents will inevitably miss. Nevertheless, families continuously sue child killers’ parents for failing to supervise and control their children. Here are a few examples:
Isaiah Shoels was a victim of the Columbine shooting. His parents, Michael and Vonda Shoels, filed a $250 million wrongful death lawsuit against Eric and Dylan’s parents.
Theresa Miltonberger was injured in the Kip Kinkel Thurston High School shooting. After spending 65 days in the hospital, she will spend the rest of her life with bullet fragments lodged in her brain and memory loss. Her parents filed a $14.5 million lawsuit against Bill and Faith Kinkel, claiming they were negligent in providing their son with guns and failing to supervise his access to them. The suit was filed in hopes of recovering damages for medical bills, pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of Theresa’s future income as an adult.
Jessica James, Kayce Steger, and Nicole Hadley were victims of Michael Carneal’s student prayer meeting shooting in 1997. Carneal was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for at least 25 years after pleading guilty but mentally ill. Regardless, all three girls’ parents filed a suit in state in federal court against the Carneal family.
In March 1998, Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson pulled the fire alarm and opened fire as students exited the building. Four students and one teacher were killed. The families of the five deceased sued the parents for negligent training and supervision.
In 1998, Luke Woodham opened fire at Pearl High School. Woodham was allegedly part of a cult called the Kroth. Kaye Long, a mother of one of the victims, sued the Woodham family and six other families whose children belonged to the cult. She claimed those parents should have known of the group’s activities and taken action to prevent it.
Sometimes, however, parents take the revenge one step further. In 2012, Autumn Pasquale, 12, went over to Justin Robinson’s home to trade bike parts. Robinson strangled her, killed her, and dumped her body in a recycling bin. Autumn’s father, Anthony Pasquale, sued Justin’s parents to seek compensation for their pain and suffering as well as the funeral expenses. He filed one count of negligent supervision and a second count of wrongful death. His rationale was “Parenting comes with responsibilities, and one of those is to raise your kids right, to pay attention and know when they’re a danger to someone else. That’s a parent’s job.” He believes that failing at that job is a crime. His attorney, Kathleen Bonczyk, has added, “If you’re going to raise a murderer, you’re going to take responsibility for it.”
Besides the civil suit, Anthony started a petition to promote “Autumn’s Law,” a regulation that punishes inadequate parents with prison time. His petition on Change.org says, “Parents who ignore the warning signs of their children’s propensity toward violence are direct contributors to their minor children’s murders. If the minor who murdered my daughter was properly treated, parented, disciplined, and supervised my daughter would probably be alive today.” If parents knew they would go to jail for their parenting, Anthony Pasquale believes, parents would try doing a better job.
On the one hand, perhaps Anthony Pasquale has a point. According to people that support this school of thought, schools cannot be to blame. After all, children spend only roughly 1,000 hours at school per year in comparison to 7,760 hours with their parents. Additionally, Anthony Pasquale believes that we cannot possibly blame the children for their criminal actions when they are not neurologically capable of understanding their actions. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for decision making, inhibition, and impulsivity have not yet matured. But unlike his focus on parenting, maybe the real issue is the source of the weapon. The bottom line is that these shooters did not buy their guns at school or make them. Rather, they likely came from their own homes. Approximately one-third of children in American live in a home with at least one gun. Of those homes, 43% of those guns are kept in unlocked places.
On the other hand, perhaps Anthony Pasquale has it all wrong. According to James Garbarino, author of Parents under Siege: Why You Are the Solution, Not the Problem in Your Children’s Life, blaming parents is only placing a band aid over the real issue. Instead of taking productive steps to end the violence by tending to troubled and mentally ill teens, we place all of our eggs in one basket. What we should be doing instead is realize that a culmination of endless factors lead to the lethal effect. Perhaps we should consider that:
Some children just enter the world genetically predisposed to aggression, which is then magnified by cultural forces regardless of good parenting.
Gory video games, school overcrowding, poverty, gang violence, and television violence have a part.
Parents are responsible but not blameworthy. Saying they are responsible is equivalent to saying they went so far outside the lines of normal, acceptable parenting that they should have known the deadly consequences.
Involved, dedicated, affectionate parents strongly correlate with good kids, but sometimes there are outliers. Uninvolved, aloof, indifferent parents strongly correlate with troubled kids, but sometimes there are outliers.
After all of these considerations, what about you criminal practitioners out there? What are our thoughts? Is turning the blame on the parents a sign of weakness or a sign of truth? My defense-sided brain believes we find satisfaction in finding someone to blame. To create the division between “us” and “them” allows us to sleep more sound at night, if you will. We try to find the scapegoat within the household to rationalize the inexplicable.
Instead, we should think of the pursuit of justice. We must strip away the distractions that take away from our ultimate goal- to seek justice in memory of those lost.
If lawsuits against parents of child murderers becomes a legislative norm, the justice we seek in America will take a severe downturn. On the prosecution side, I believe it would be a big mistake to blame the parents. It shows a side of the prosecution’s weakness that maybe they are unable to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt so they must look elsewhere to conjure up anger and hostility within the community. We must remember- we are not trying to convict a family, but the perpetrator himself. If you have ever read Lord of the Flies, think of it that way. “Lord of the Flies Syndrome” is our natural human tendency to feel as though our unconscionable behavior and their negative consequences can be protected by anonymity. But that is simply anarchy. It is easy to circumvent the true issues and point the finger. At some point, people must be responsible for their own actions. Saying “If they would have been better parents, this wouldn’t have happened.” It is time we take responsibility. Don’t blame the Klebold and Harris families of the world. And if all else fails, buy a ticket to “Columbinus.”