Yesterday I was drawn to read the ‘manifesto’ of Elliot Rodger. At first glance this was no different to many other disturbed young serial spree killers in America with easy access to firearms who post self- justifications for their actions.
I started to read and immediately was hooked by an extraordinary, literate, claustrophobic but ultimately horrifying account of a young man’s journey to meltdown and random murder.
In a hundred and thirty seven pages he detailed his life and delusions from 0 to 23 years old right up until his planned killings.
You may wonder why I would persevere in such a venture but remember I teach in a primary PRU and am always interested in children who are on the fringes of society. This young man , so it subsequently appears, had Aspergers and was frequently referred to psychologists and psychiatrists throughout his life. I am not a medical professional nor a criminal expert so I am not going to attempt to analyse in depth why Elliot did what he did; however as a teacher with experience of negative behaviours there is much to interest and provide food for thought.
Elliot was obviously highly intelligent and came from an ostensibly privileged background. At one point he says his mother advised him to become a writer, and indeed he displays a talent for this, but not in the way she would have wished.
So what does his account tell us? We find he had an extreme hatred of some of his peers and blonde girls in particular; he was racist and towards the end of his story appeared to have a God complex which enabled him to contemplate the destruction of others in a peculiarly lucid way. He was goal oriented (towards killing) and was able to plan and act accordingly (buying and practising with guns). However it is in his descriptions of his earlier life that we can see the seeds of this hatred being sown.
At this point I wish to underline the fact that we only know Elliot’s side of his story but this is what I want to focus on. It gives us an insight into his mental processes, however flawed, and why he felt he had no choice but to kill. He appears to have had a happy childhood up until his mother and father separated. There is a lot of talk about the arrangements for shared childcare, a new step mum who he didn’t get on with and a father who was always away working. His mother and father seem to move house often and he is very concerned with status – the right area, size of house, bedrooms etc. At first he doesn’t present as a self-obsessed loner addicted to computer games; he has friends albeit he frets about being with ‘cool’ kids. His problems seem to really start with puberty and his inability to attract a girlfriend; I would imagine his mental issues drive girls away despite him being a good looking boy.
He feels if he could only win the lottery and be really rich his problems with girls would dissipate. He interacts with other disaffected young men on the Internet and drives his remaining friends away by articulating his hatred and paranoia. By the end of his account he is fantasising about killing his step mum and young half brother who he feels will grow up to be more successful than him; he can’t however quite contemplate murdering his dad. His elaborations on this become more detailed and lurid. He knows he is twisted and plans to commit suicide after the murders on what he calls ‘The Day of Retribution’
So what can we learn from this (if anything)? Again this is only my view but here goes. Not all children who live unsubstantial lives have the potential to kill and it appears that socioeconomic background is not always a factor in predicting homicidal tendencies. Elliot came from a wealthy background but he was unsettled and insecure. His relationships were poorly formed unless he felt in control as he appears to have been with his mother. He loved his brother but this was eroded by jealousy. His father was largely absent and there was a growing resentment towards him. Money and status were key to Elliot and it was money that allowed him to carry out his preparations for murder largely unchecked. He could live alone, buy guns and act out violent fantasies on the Internet despite his mother having some concerns. He was able to conceal his true nature from the police and present as a nice young man. He was able to reject the medication he needed without ringing alarm bells.
Fortunately the Elliots of this world are still uncommon but the damage they do is phenomenal because it is on a grand scale. Elliot’s life epitomises the dangers of the modern world: family breakups, rootlessness, computer games, status, Internet porn and money without responsibility. This leads to a state of unconnectedness and a break from reality where the self is paramount. The tragedy here is that an immensely bright young man was tormented by mental issues to such an extent that he was driven to kill almost against his will and in the process destroyed many innocent lives.
There’s no inspiration for this other than its title. I am thinking about why I work in a primary PRU. My background : I was teaching in a village primary on a little cobbled square but had returned after being seconded to a difficult urban environment. Whilst there , I taught and managed a range of SEN / BESD children and this married together my preferred two loves. I found it difficult to pick up my previous life and vowed to look for a new challenge.
It was my school adviser who presented to me the opportunity to work in my current environment; she informed me that there was an opportunity to be seconded to a primary PRU as deputy head so off I went. At first I felt a bit out of my depth as the children were very challenging; it wasn’t about locked doors and padded time- out rooms as first feared but the reasons behind their exclusions quickly became apparent. Nevertheless I soon got to grips with the job and despite some initial setbacks started to enjoy myself.
So what is it like to work in a PRU? Well as you might imagine, particularly if you are familiar with Mr Drew, it is not easy. Children come to us for a variety of reasons, ranging from behavioural problems resulting in dual placements with mainstream schools to more severe issues that end with permanent exclusions. The common denominator is a sense of frustration and failure which manifests itself in swearing, destruction of property, fighting with peers and assaults on staff. There are no quick fixes and the key to success with our kids lies in the quality of the relationships we build coupled with firm rules and boundaries.
When the children come to us they often experience relief that they are given a fresh start in small classes of no more than eight pupils. They are better able to cope in our setting supported by experienced staff who can provide for their individual needs. We have secure systems of rewards and consequences but outside of these we don’t carry over issues and problems; each day is a new day, we are in it for the long haul.
Parents and carers experience the relief of not being summoned to school on a daily basis but learn to work with us in managing their children’s behaviour. The children move on from us either to their own schools, new schools or to specialist provision.
My job, aside from my in- house deputy role supporting the head, is to act as SENCO and liaise with mainstream schools and other agencies. We have a strong early intervention team which works hard to prevent exclusion and the success rate is high. I am passionate about promoting children’s educational opportunities which often inform their life chances in the future.
It is easy to brand our kids as wasters, little thugs and trainee criminals but at the end of the day they are children and the labels are plain wrong. They don’t necessarily come from difficult backgrounds and often have medical issues such as ASD and ADHD to contend with; despite controversy, medication can have a transformational effect on behaviour and so can being placed in the right provision.
I am ashamed that in our society outside constraints mean that mainstream schools are desperate to offload children with medical and mental health needs; sadly provision for these is limited and underfunded. I am extremely concerned that some children are labelled as problems without recourse to societal duty of care. I am appalled that very young children are being written off because they cannot access early years’ provision. And so it goes on …We do try to put as much help and support in place as we can for our pupils and schools but the sad fact is behavioural problems are becoming more widespread and demand for our services is on the rise.
All our children deserve our input and our love; individually they are fantastic and special and are responsive to the time and effort we put in. No child should be written off. Our children are on the fringes of society and we are their last chance saloon. I love my job and rejoice in our successes . I wouldn’t be anywhere else.