Some of the 300-plus participants at the 11th annual Alabama Child Safety Conference gasped when horrific homicide scenes flashed on the screen.
It made the scenes even more disturbing that all the victims were killed by teens.
During his presentation Tuesday at Decatur Baptist Church, keynote speaker Phil Chalmers paused and said, “What I am about to show you may offend someone, but teens who kill are offensive.”
During the past 25 years, he has interviewed more than 200 mass murderers and teen shooters, bringing what he has learned to seminars across the country.
Chalmers told educators, police officers, mental health officials and others about reasons kids kill, some warning signs and triggers that propel them to do the unthinkable.
“Today, for all of us, is the day to stop bullying,” he said, as he noted that teens from an unstable family situation and bullying at school are the top causes of teen murders. “You need to hit kids as hard as you can with your messages against bullying.”
Chalmers, who said he grew up in east Cleveland with family members who abused him, rates a student’s obsession with violent media and violent pornography second on his list.
He clicked off the others in order: anger and depression-suicide; drugs and alcohol; cults, gangs and hate groups; fascination with deadly weapons and easy access to guns; peer pressure; fascination with the criminal lifestyle and poverty; lack of spiritual guidance and proper discipline; and mental illness and personality disorder.
Chalmers said teachers and other associates who have identified a potentially violent teen through causes and warning signs should look for triggers that could propel the teen to act.
They might include a suspension or expulsion from school, an arrest or ticket, even a dispute with parents.
“Other triggers include a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, a bullying incident at school or any other wrong that they feel is enough to kill someone over,” Chalmers said. “Be ready for drastic measures and police involvement if you see a potential trigger in a violent teen’s life.”
Government statistics do not paint as bleak a picture. According to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice data, the Violent Crime Index has declined 55 percent from its peak in 1994 to a 30-year low of 225 arrests per 100,000 youths ages 10 to 17.
The index tracks arrest rates for juveniles ages 10 to 17 for crimes including murder, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
Chalmers lauded the work of law enforcement. He noted that police arrived on the scene at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., within three minutes of the call and were inside the school in four minutes, but too late to prevent a shooter from killing 26 people, including 20 children, then himself.
“Guns stop crime,” he said. “There should be an armed officer in every school, and they should be in churches, malls and movie theaters. ... Officers run toward gunfire. They don’t get paid enough, but their passion is helping people.”
Chalmers will speak Thursday at Hartselle Junior High School and Hartselle High School.
“I know I’ve been helping because each time I’ve spoken at other schools, I get about 50 emails from kids,” he said. “I used to just speak in churches and church camps, but I started doing school activities. I would like to speak to every juvenile in the city.”
Derrick Knight, a therapist at Sequel Youth and Family Services in Courtland, said he was impressed.
“I think the information is relevant and so important,” he said. “Some of it is shocking to hear, but it is vital.”
West Morgan Elementary School Principal Bruce Sparkman said Chalmers “gave good input into the things we need to be watching for. Teen killers seem to plan their deeds, and Chalmers gave us more signs to be aware of.”
Priceville High School Principal Mark Mason said, “It is alarming that every school has the potential of having a student who could be a teen killer. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but it’s our job to be proactive and spot individuals we feel may be led to act before it becomes reality.”
Capt. Nadis Carlisle, who heads the Criminal Investigation Division of the Decatur Police Department, said Chalmers is “in your face with reality.
“To some people, reality is shocking. But speaking as a police officer, we see the type stuff and behavior he’s referring to daily.”
Carlisle concedes that “children today are under a lot of pressure, and they’re exposed to violence from every angle — videos, music and books — that desensitizes many of them.
“But they have to understand that death is final. They can’t just hit the reset button on a video game. Our society has made death and violence and sexual assault cool.”
Other featured speakers Tuesday’s program included Gregory Gilbert, a 1985 Austin High School graduate and former football player for the University of Alabama and Los Angeles Raiders, and John Croyle of Gadsden, who played on Alabama’s 1973 national championship team and is founder and executive director of children’s home Big Oak Ranch.
Ronnie Thomas can be reached at 256-340-2438 or email@example.com.
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