Lessons from a Tragedy

Over three years ago, a 16-year old tenth grader named John Odgren stabbed to death a student – his name was James Alenson – in a high school bathroom in a Boston suburb. A few months ago, I testified as an expert witness in John’s murder trial. My role was to try to explain how John came to do what he did one tragic day in January, 2007.

Like many kids in our schools, John had a long history of social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties, starting with early problems in peer interactions (leading to a diagnosis of Asperger’s disorder), along with inattention and hyperactivity (resulting in a diagnosis of ADHD). Like a lot of kids, John’s social difficulties didn’t get better, and he ended up being on the receiving end of some significant bullying, occasionally resulting in fighting and impulsive violent responses (jabbing a peer with a pencil), and causing him to become intermittently depressed (and, at times, suicidal). John received lots of counseling and medicine, and was placed in a variety of alternative settings; in some of these settings, the bullying persisted. In another setting, he became extremely concerned that he was being stalked by a female peer.

As is the case with many kids diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder, John had preoccupations. Early on he developed a fascination with natural disasters, but then his preoccupations took a more troubling turn: first weapons, then Stephen King novels. Indeed, in adolescence, John became increasingly preoccupied with Mr. King’s Dark Tower series, in which bad things happen on a day associated with the number 19. My professional opinion was that this preoccupation, in combination with his history of being bullied and the stalking situation, set the stage for John to become increasingly paranoid and hyper-vigilant about being attacked. John brought a knife to school on January 19, 2007, quite convinced – my professional opinion again – that he would be attacked.  According to the one “witness” to the stabbing (a student who was in a stall in the bathroom, but didn’t see anything) James did absolutely nothing to provoke John. The two had never met before. That they ended up in the same bathroom that morning was tragically coincidental.

Was John in his right mind when he stabbed James? That’s the question the jury was charged with deciding. It’s an issue on which a “jury” of mental health professionals would have had difficulty agreeing. I’m reasonably certain that no other student at the same high school was convinced he or she would be attacked on that day by virtue of its association with the number 19. The jury of John’s peers – none of its members, I suspect, diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder -- wasn’t asked to decide whether John stabbed James. John’s attorneys didn’t contest that issue. Rather, the jury was asked to determine John’s state of mind at the time of the stabbing, and was left with two options: guilty…or not guilty by reason of insanity (Massachusetts does not have a “guilty but insane” option). John was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

Though I was an expert witness for the defense, I found myself feeling tremendous empathy for James’ parents, who were present for the trial. I can’t begin to imagine their unspeakable pain and heartbreak. Their son is gone. From what I’ve heard and read, James was a gentle, considerate, kind kid. A website has been created to commemorate his life.

I felt empathy for John’s parents as well. Over the years, they took him to countless mental health professionals. They advocated for John to be placed in alternative settings in which they hoped that his difficulties would be well understood and well-addressed. From what I could gather, they did their very best. Their pain and heartbreak is also very real. They were recently interviewed in a Boston newspaper.

The families are left to determine the meaning of this tragedy in their lives. But what’s the meaning of this tragedy for the rest of us? If we simply write this case off as just another example of “senseless” school violence, then we won’t try to make sense out of what happened. I think we’re compelled to contemplate whether there are lessons in this situation that would prevent something similar from happening again to someone else’s child, and I’m referring here to the parents of both James and John.

Here’s my take. That tragedies like this one don’t occur more often is largely a matter of luck. There are a lot of kids with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges in our schools, and a lot of them fly under the radar because they aren’t exhibiting the types of behaviors that would cause them to access the school discipline program. We actually know very little about what these kids are thinking. And we often don’t know much about what the kids who are “frequent flyers” in the discipline program are thinking, either. In many cases, we’re too busy talking at them, teaching them lessons they already know, and administering discipline…time after time. Whether well-known or below-the-radar, a lot of these students don’t feel like school is a place where they are heard, where adults understand their concerns or what’s getting in their way. Many of these kids are alienated and hopeless and stopped talking to adults a long time ago.

A strange association, perhaps, but this scenario reminds me a bit of airport security. Most airport screening equipment detects certain things (metal, sharp objects) but not others (for example, explosive powder in someone’s underwear). Thus, airline safety is still largely based on the premise that the vast majority of airline passengers don’t want to blow up the plane. In many schools, safety still hinges largely on the premise that the vast majority of students don’t want to kill somebody. While some schools do have metal detectors, the lagging skills and unsolved problems of students with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges remain undetected and unaddressed. And sometimes our luck runs out.

Of course, there’s an important difference between airport security and school security. Airport screeners don’t have the time to get to know each passenger well. But we do have the time to get to know our students well. It all depends on whether that’s one of our priorities. Yes, I can see some of the eye-rolling that last sentence may have elicited. I appreciate the fact that educators can’t be all things to all kids and that time is short. I understand the unreasonable demands that are placed on classroom teachers, and that federal and state governments are far more concerned with academics than with the emotional health of our kids. I understand that the 25 percent of India’s population with the highest IQs is greater than the total population of the United States, that India has more honors kids than the U.S. has kids. I understand that the top ten in-demand jobs in the U.S. in 2010 did not exist in 2004, that we are currently preparing students for jobs that do not exist, using technologies that have not yet been invented, in order to solve problems that haven’t yet been identified as problems.

I also understand that we haven’t yet solved a problem that is right in front of us, right now: How to understand and help kids with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges in our schools. And it’s not because we’re not putting the time in. It took me weeks to go through all of the paper that had accumulated in John’s file (reminding me that there’s an inverse correlation between the amount of paper that accumulates in a kid’s school file and how well he or she is doing). Kids who aren’t doing well accumulate massive amounts of paper: reports, evaluations, placements, behavior plans, support plans, progress notes. Kids who aren’t doing well also accumulate diagnoses. And, as you’ve read, John had his share. All that paper…all those diagnoses…and still… And it’s not that there weren’t signs of trouble that fateful school year. In the criminal forensics class in which he was enrolled prior to the stabbing (given his history of preoccupations, probably not the ideal curriculum) John announced that he knew how to commit the perfect murder. On several occasions, he’d brought sharp objects to school that year, once chasing a kid down the hallway with one and then declaring that he wouldn’t be killing him that day. Several months into the school year, John began wearing a trench-coat, fedora hat, and sunglasses as his standard garb. Typical adolescent self-expression? Not in this case.

Our students with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges need help we’re often not giving them. We're already devoting the time and effort and dollars. We need to change what we're thinking and doing. Another school year will be starting soon. If we don’t make it a very high priority to understand what’s going on in the heads of our vulnerable, high-risk students, to solve the problems that are setting in motion challenging episodes, and teach them the skills they’re lacking, then we’re still just relying on luck for our safety.

Ross Greene
July 23, 2010

Post-script: Coincidentally, this tragedy is back in the news, with John's attorney moving to have John's sentence reduced (and having his petition denied). If you'd like to read more about this development, you can do so by clicking here.