June 14, 1999
Volume 51, No. 33
School violence may be act of hurting the ones you 'love'
Recent acts of schoolyard violence owe much of their incarnation to issues of identity and ritual, theorized Dawn Perlmutter at the "Violence Reduction in Theory & Practice," symposium held at Emory June 3-5. Perlmutter, an assistant professor of art and philosophy at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, has become somewhat of an expert on the ritual uses of blood, giving seminars on cults and the occult to law enforcement officials and others around the country.
"When you hear [recent schoolyard shootings] being talked about, it's more of a 'blame game,'" Perlmutter stated at the beginning of her practicum, titled "Postmodern Iconoclasm: Violence in the School Yard." Gun control, parental indifference and media violence all have been pointed to as possible culprits for the bloodshed in Littleton, Colo., Jonesboro, Ark., and most recently at Heritage High School here in Georgia.
"You don't hear [this violence] being talked about in terms of identity issues, certainly not ritual," Perlmutter added, arguing that schools, like churches, synagogues and mosques, are sacred spaces where community members gather to engage in "highly ritualized activities and have a shared belief system."
"When students choose to kill on school grounds, their actions go beyond random acts of violence to embody qualities of sacrilege, blaspheme and desecration," she contended. Closer examination reveals the common thread that runs through these acts of violence, Perlmutter said, and that is the shooters' exclusion from the school community of which they so desperately want to become part--she termed it "shunning" and pointed to that act's religious connotations--and their inability to escape situations that, in their minds, had become untenable.
"The emotions of shame and alienation that each of these teenagers experienced led them to embrace alternative lifestyles," said Perlmutter. Unfortunately, the aesthetics they chose to identity with were "invariably comprised of violence, which served to instill a sense of strength that would gain them the respect of their peers."
Perlmutter gave as an example the youngest schoolyard shooters: Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, of Jonesboro. Golden had been immersed in hunting culture since he was a very young child and received his first shotgun at age 6. Johnson, new to Jonesboro and trying to fit in, first embraced the aesthetic of the notorious criminal gang, the Bloods, and began wearing red to signal his "affiliation." Schoolmates saw right through this ruse, Perlmutter noted, and marked him as a "wannabe." "[He was] attempting to be taken as a serious threat only to look even more ridiculous among his peers," she said. "When superficially identifying with a gang did not succeed in restoring respect, Mitchell found Andrew and quickly embraced the hunting style."
Luke Woodham, who killed his mother and then proceeded to kill two students and wound seven more at his Mississippi school, had dabbled in Satanism along with several other boys in a practice known as Kroth. "Satanism is an especially violent and highly ritualized belief system," Perlmutter said. "It is intrinsically related to Christian ideology as a reversal of its ethical tenets expressed symbolically by performing rituals that are specifically prohibited in the Bible."
Why iconoclasm? "The individuals and community of students who rejected the teens were idolized by them, which is what made the rejection so much more devastating," Perlmutter explained. "Idolatry is characterized by the worship of sacred objects. Iconoclasm is the destruction of sacred objects, hence killing what one worships can be considered an act of iconoclasm."