by Steven M. Smith, Ph.D.
for the “Progressive Views” column, Boerne Star, June 14, 2019
In the first week of May there was another school shooting. Yes, another shooting. Have we become anesthetized to these events? Has violence become the new normal of political discourse pertaining to gun legislation and bans on assault weapons? Is the solution to arm schoolteachers or increase additional school police officers? The answer is an absolute NO! The answer is to determine the causation of the individual’s dysfunction. Yes, this writer’s heart is with those who grieve; however, thoughts and prayers from elected officials do nothing to resolve the dilemma. Violence is violence whether it is from a barrel of a rifle, pistol or shotgun. Moreover, violence is violence whether it is the Austin serial bomber or assaulting people with an automobile. Violence assumes many masks. The true question is what is the genesis of this behavior and how can it be addressed? The etiology of violent behavior is well documented and thoroughly researched; however, it has been rejected by the academic elite and ridiculed to the extent it was considered ‘junk science.’ There was such a research study performed and it is salient today.
In 1998 Nathaniel J. Pallone and James J. Hennessy published a text encompassing ten years of research pertaining to violent criminal aggression. Their work was titled Tinder-Box Criminal Aggression. The research chronicled 2200 incarcerated individuals who were convicted of crimes including murder, attempted murder, aggravated assault and rape/sexual assault. The research was limited to the most heinous of crimes. Their work centered around the ‘phenomenology of neuropsychology’ relating to violent behavior. While the terminology is a pronunciation nightmare the results were astounding. All convicted individuals granted releases for medical testing including radiology, criminal records, court transcripts, school records, interviews with teachers, counselors, parents, guardians, siblings and friends. Exhaustive to say the least. What was astonishing was that for all individuals who were subjected to MRIs, the cohort study revealed 93 percent shared a common anomaly. All 93 percent were diagnosed with damage to the frontal lobe of the brain. It is in the frontal lobe of the brain where our seat of judgment resides, where right and wrong is discerned. But that was not the only astonishing set of facts.
The research into an individual’s past revealed key markers that shaped, predicted and exhibited their criminal aggression. As odd as it may seem the research findings were grouped into three categories. The first reason for frontal lobe damage was ‘unsupervised play activities.’ The second was ‘abuse at the hands of siblings and or playmates.’ The third was ‘abuse at the hands of parents, step-parents or guardians.’ How odd it is that the most simplistic of early childhood trauma may go undiagnosed and misunderstood for years until a tragedy occurs. The early school records were the most informative as teachers and counselors remarked that the dysfunctional behavior was exhibited in primary education. Frequent trips to the principal’s office and frequent fights with other school children. The behaviors then morphed into thefts, vandalism, assaults and even cruelty to animals. Their records of juvenile offenses were an amass of depravity. Teachers, counselors and family recounted such phrases as “we knew there was something wrong with that child,” and “we thought that child was just from bad seed.” What is key is that the behavior was identified early but there was no protocol to diagnose the genesis of the disease. While Pallone and Hennessy’s work was remarkable it was rebuked as junk science by sociologists and criminologists.
In the mid-2000s an onslaught of NFL professional football players found themselves embroiled in controversy pertaining to their physical abuse toward spouses and girlfriends. Suddenly society woke up to the fact that blunt trauma to the head may cause behavioral changes. Now we are bombarded with anachronisms such as Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). These diagnoses all point to an onset of aggressive behavior patterns that can be addressed if the behavior pattern is identified early. Texas Tech University has a pilot project encompassing 12 rural school districts to identify at-risk youth based upon behavior patterns identified by the study parameters. To date the project has identified 90 at-risk youth of which 4 have been diagnosed as in need of mental health intervention due to aggressive behavioral tendencies. A great start and the professors hope the state legislature will provide additional funding. Good luck professors; thoughts and prayers are much cheaper.