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April 9, 2000, New York Times, How Youngest Killers Differ: Peer Support, by Ford Fessenden

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April 9, 2000, New York Times, How Youngest Killers Differ: Peer Support, by Ford Fessenden

When 16-year-old Evan Ramsey strode into the lobby of his high school in Bethel, Alaska, in 1997 and shot a popular basketball player in the stomach, there were already spectators gathered on the mezzanine above -- students that he had told to be there to witness his ''evil day.''

Some may not have known exactly what was to transpire, but at least two students at Bethel Regional High had been intimately involved in the planning of Mr. Ramsey's crime, in which two people died. One student showed Mr. Ramsey how to load the shotgun the day before. The other carried a camera to record the event, but forgot to use it.

Such goading, sometimes even collaboration, is not uncommon among the school-age killers who were part of The New York Times's study of 100 rampage killings in the United States in the last 50 years. It is one of the principal factors that set them apart from adult killers.

For the most part, the adults were loners, who planned their crimes surreptitiously, even though they almost always broadcast their intentions. Some of the teenagers, on the other hand, sought, and often obtained, reinforcement from their peers and boasted of their plans.

In the most extreme cases, including the shootings at Columbine High School, teenagers actually killed together. All of the adults killed alone.

In two other cases involving teenagers, including Mr. Ramsey's, collaborators were prosecuted, and in at least two more, the police have said they believed schoolmates or friends played a role.

As the country approaches the anniversary of the killings at Columbine, which crystallized public horror over rampage killings, this distinction is crucial to understanding, and even preventing, school shootings, many experts say.

A continuing study by the Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center of 40 cases of school violence over the last 20 years has reached some of the same conclusions. The study, done in conjunction with the Department of Education, found that teenage killers often communicated their plans or shared their feelings with other students, in sharp contrast to the pattern of adults.

In most ways, rampage killings involving young offenders are no different from those involving adults, The Times found in compiling its database. Young killers are as likely to strike in small towns as in big cities. Both groups are mostly white, but with some blacks and Asian-Americans. Both favor semiautomatic weapons.

But in other compelling ways, the teenage killers differ. While serious mental health problems are common among them, fewer commit suicide after their crimes, The Times found. The younger killers are less emotionally detached and more susceptible to peer influence, experts said.

Overall, school violence is declining. The number of homicides and assaults at schools is down. But a series of mass killings at schools in the last four years has seemed to present the country with an ugly new face of school crime -- the sudden, explosive rampage killing.

Although these shootings seem new, the Times study shows that teenage rampage killers were around far before the recent trend. Anthony Barbaro, an honor student, killed three and wounded nine at his high school in Olean, N.Y., in 1974. Sixteen-year-old Brenda Spencer, using a rifle given to her for her birthday, killed two and wounded nine at an elementary school near her house in San Diego in 1979. ''I don't like Mondays,'' she told reporters. ''This livens up the day.''

Serious mental problems were reported in the histories of 10 of the 19 teenagers in the Times study. Two had been in psychiatric hospitals. Six showed evidence of psychotic delusions. Five had seen a mental health professional, and four had prescriptions for psychiatric drugs.

''I think it's quite possible that you're seeing incipient mental disorder,'' said J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist at the University of California at San Diego who has just completed a study on juvenile rampage killers. ''But a lot if times it will be minimized or not identified as readily as adults.''

Dr. Anthony Hempel, chief forensic psychiatrist at the Vernon campus of North Texas State Hospital and Dr. Meloy's co-author, said the fact that many of the adolescents were able to work with others was a strong argument that they were less likely to be mentally ill, or at least that their illness was in the early stages.

''When people pair up to commit one of these, the odds of a major mental illness go way down,'' Dr. Hempel said. ''Very few people who don't have a mental illness can get together and plan something with someone with a major mental illness.''

Some experts say that for many adolescents the plan to kill is a way of thinking about getting even, so the point is to discuss it. ''Kids talk to kids about this stuff because fantasy is a process,'' said Frank C. Sacco, director of a mental health clinic in Springfield, Mass., who is researching school violence.

The companionship may even make the crimes possible. ''Pairing then allows them to do these acts where acting alone doesn't,'' Dr. Meloy said. ''It gives them courage or stamina.''

But the fact that peers know in advance may make it easier to head off potential crimes. And immaturity may also point the way to hope for prevention.

''What we found is they're not as tightly wrapped emotionally when they do mass murder,'' Dr. Meloy said. ''Given their emotional ability, they should be more accessible to interventions and treatment.''

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