'Columbine effect': Alarm is rising over copycats

Waseca student’s planned rampage fits a chilling pattern

Multiple bombs. An arsenal of guns. Months of detailed planning for killing his family and then unleashing explosives and bullets on his classmates at Waseca’s junior and senior high school.

It was all meant to happen on April 20, the 15th anniversary of the rampage at Columbine High School, John David LaDue told police.

By chance, LaDue was arrested last week as he was making final preparations for the attack that he was forced to postpone in April when the 20th fell on Easter Sunday. But the shocking details of the arsenal that the 17-year-old high school junior had amassed — undetected and unsuspected — masked another disturbing fact: His fascination with Columbine was hardly unique.

Instead, the portrait of LaDue spelled out in criminal charges is that of just the latest angry, disturbed teen who fell prey to the “Columbine effect,” deciding to vent his frustrations and alienation in a murderous replay of the nation’s most infamous school massacre.

Twelve students and one teacher died that day in April 1999, along with the two teenage gunmen, who killed themselves. A decade and a half later, the images still resonate: the grieving parents, the scrambling police officers, the videos of the shooters taking target practice. For adolescents who may also be battling the first signs of mental illness, Columbine strikes a chord, according to a number of experts on school violence and student psychology.

“Shooters get their inspiration from different places, depending on their own grievances and their own background,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. “But there’s no doubt that many of these shooters learn from past events.”

Steve Brock, president-elect of National Association of School Psychologists and a member of a national emergency response team who has visited the sites of school violence, including the 2005 shootings in Red Lake, Minn., said LaDue’s plans for Waseca look a lot like Columbine because he had a similar motivation: He wanted the same, shocked attention.

“Young people see these acts and the incredible amount of attention given to it and believe, somehow, they’ll derive some benefit,” said Brock, a professor and school psychology program director at California State University, Sacramento.

Dave Cullen, the author of the book “Columbine,” said disturbed kids see the Littleton, Colo., massacre as “kind of like the template” for outsider students to exact revenge on the chief society they’ve known in their young lives, their schools.

LaDue in fact, “idolized” Columbine shooter Eric Harris and made several references to Harris and fellow shooter Dylan Klebold in a 180-page journal that spelled out details of his plan, according to the criminal complaint. LaDue even “critiqued what Harris and Klebold did right and wrong” during the shooting, law officers revealed.

“You’ve got teen boys. They are lashing out about all sorts of things. They don’t know how to get themselves heard,” Cullen said. “Until we figure it out and solve it and put an end to it, it’s going to keep happening.”

Case after case

Kenneth Trump, a national expert on school safety, said the Columbine anniversary can be a “trigger” each year, coming as it does near the end of another school year that can bring fresh slights or problems for kids on the edge.

In a May 2006 newspaper article in which he talked about Columbine-style conspiracies, Trump said that authorities across the country investigated 12 cases of students plotting a school shooting or making threats against schools in March and April of that year alone.

A year later, police in Connecticut broke up a plan by a 16-year-old to shoot up his high school. According to the Los Angeles Times, the boy had stockpiled guns in his bedroom closet and had a hit list of more than 20 classmates, along with photos of Harris and Klebold.

And in April 2008, a student in South Carolina was arrested for plotting to bomb his high school. In a search of the student’s room, police found a journal in which the 18-year-old scribbled complimentary notes about the Columbine shooters.

Trump, in an interview Friday, said it’s important to remember that schools can be subject to violence at other times of the year, too.

“The common theme here is undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues,’’ he said. “When you peel the onion back in coming weeks, you are going to find there are many other issues — social, physical, mental health issues — that will come forth that were not known right after the event.”

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  • John David LaDue

  • Columbine High School shooters Eric Harris, left, and Dylan Klebold were pictured in the commons shortly before their suicides.

  • John David LaDue, in a deer hunting photo, ofy

  • John David LaDue with a trophy deer, the site of his storage unit, top, and a playground where he set off practice bombs.

  • John David LaDue posed with a trophy deer. He had set off practice bombs at this school playground in March.

  • John David LaDue posed with a trophy deer. He had set off practice bombs at this school playground in March.

  • Listeners were somber at Thursday’s news conference in Waseca. Police said they believed John LaDue would have carried out his plot.

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