Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Themes Thicken: The Murder of Ed Thomas, Part 2

Yesterday, the Quarterback shared an overview of how the CISM response to Iowa football coach Ed Thomas's murder might be handled. I also promised to update, and an update is warranted. A 24 year-old former player has been charged with first degree murder in this case. The suspect has a very lengthy criminal record dating back to a drug charge when he was on the team. He was a known methamphetamine user. Most recently, he was arrested on Saturday night following a high speed police chase, and committed to a local psychiatric ward. Reports differ, but it seems that the hospital was to notify the police before he was released. They didn't, he was released Tuesday evening, and on Wednesday morning he allegedly killed Coach Thomas.

If you read the comments on any story about this posted around Internet, you can see certain themes start to emerge:
  • It's the hospital's fault for not keeping him and/or alerting police to his discharge.
  • The police shouldn't have taken him to the hospital.
  • Back in my day, kids got punished for doing wrong. If that had happened to this guy, he wouldn't be like this.
  • This is what happens when parents don't hold kids accountable.
In short, people are going quickly to blame. Blame is perhaps the most common reaction to a tragedy, whether or not there is anyone to blame at all. In this instance, while there are a few comments blaming the suspect, there are many more blaming various authorities and the family for not preventing the suspect from doing what he did.

Why do people move towards blame so quickly? It's a defense mechanism. Critical incidents are terrifying. They violate your worldview, and make you feel unsafe. The mind immediately starts looking for reassurances that the world is, indeed, safe. To do that, something must have gone wrong in this case, and it must be preventable. The world would have been safe but for the failing of some person or group, and therefore the world is safe as long as everyone does their job.

We most commonly see this reaction to suicides. It is too much to bear that someone would kill themselves of their own free will, or even from a state of mental illness. It must have been preventable. It must be someone's fault, and to blame the person who is dead interferes with the grief one naturally feels after such a loss. So family and friends begin to blame each other, to blame mental health professionals, and to blame themselves. Which brings us to another sticky issue in this case.

The other theme that the CISM team now has to be aware of is that it is entirely possible that one or more of the team members who witnessed the shooting knew the suspect or were friendly with his family. Certainly school staff knew him. And that will bring up issues of blaming oneself (e.g. I should have seen it coming, I should have stopped him) but also issues of split loyalties (e.g. my friend did something horrible to my coach, but he's still a good guy).

For school personnel there is the added issue that all of us like to believe that we can make our students successful human beings, intervene in bad situations and make them better, and spot kids in trouble and step in to turn them around. Situations like this one violate that belief and shake us to the core. If a student we taught could turn out like this, what good do we do anyway? What's the point?

The Quarterback isn't in a position to judge whether anyone other than the shooter is to blame in this case. People have free will, and it can be used for good or for evil. We as educators do the best we can, and we do make a difference to some kids. No one can make a difference to all kids. We go through life most days oblivious to the amount we rely on others not to act crazy -- we cross in front of a stopped car at an intersection trusting that the driver won't hit the gas, and we don't think about it. Today the people of Iowa are thinking about it. And their crisis responders are adding blame to their list of themes.


Meet the Quarterback

My Photo
Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
View my complete profile

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Quarterback for Kindle