Mental Health

Inside the Mind of a Disgruntled, Violent Employee

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He was fifty, a principal at Louisiana Schnell Elementary School in Placerville, California, a role model for educators, married, father to three girls. A school janitor was arrested Wednesday for shooting and killing him.

John Luebbers, 44, the man accused of killing Principal LaCara, may have recently lost his job. No children were hurt in the incident, one may have been a witness in the late-morning assassination.

A dedicated leader, according to Bob Wells, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators.

The thinking is that there may have been some kind of dispute between the principal and the custodian.

The police don't know of any criminal history. Chaplain Jim Thompson believes that Luebbers knew Principal LaCara very well.

This part made me cry.

California Highway Patrol Lt. Chuck King said LaCara's wife was driving on Highway 50 to the hospital after hearing about the shooting when she was pulled over by a CHP officer for speeding. Instead of being ticketed, she was escorted to the hospital.

If you feel badly for this family, if you feel the pain, you are feeling empathy.

The thoughts that go through a therapist's mind . . .

Did LaCara's dispute with Luebbers have anything to do with something Luebber did wrong, such as coming late to school, using contraband or befriending little children with too much enthusiasm?

If so, how does one go about reprimanding an employee and not getting killed in the process? Is it possible?

Perhaps there were rules, chains of command. and Principal LaCara had to do that, reprimand Mr. Luebbers.  I'm not an educator and don't do my homework about such things, the chains of command in schools. This is a therapy blog, and we use what the media tells us about stories to build on ideas, things we can learn from them.

So if the principal is the one to hire and fire, then the principal, like any other boss, is in a potentially risky business. The likelihood for retribution is small, but it can surely happen. We do see Antisocial Personality Disorder, the disorder usually associated with people who murder, in the general population.

That's why we tell our kids, "Don't talk to strangers."

In a just world, nobody should have to fear for his life for having to fire somebody, no matter the reason.

The odds are that most people won't seek revenge. But what about those who do? Are there ways to prevent that from happening? Retribution happens, would be the tee-shirt of the day.  Violence happens.  We live in the Wild West.

Let's fictionalize the story, make it into one in which a janitor smokes pot on school grounds. We're not suggest that Mr. Luebbers did this, only using the vignette as a process example. There are no facts about the LaCara story at this time. The family is grieving, won't speak to reporters.

Let's also assume that it is the principal's job to reprimand the janitor for breaking school rules, which may or may not be the principal's job in reality.

The principal requests a meeting, has this conversation.Make the employee's name Sam.

Principal: How's it going, Sam?
Sam: Pretty good.
Principal: Family okay?
Sam: Fine.
Principal: Really?  How's your . . . (fills in the blank, maybe Mom, wife, kid).

The employee hopefully  builds on how his family is doing. The employer lets him talk, keeps this going, talks a little about himself, gets around to saying he's worried about him, there have been Sam sightings, him smoking pot in his car in the school parking lot.

Sam denies it, looks angry. The principal gently tells him he believes him, but when you work for a school there are policies, and he doesn't make them up. Parents who see or hear about this kind of thing complain. Can he refer him to the school EAP for some therapy?

The employee might say Sure, sign me up, or he may look angry, resentful, persecuted.

If he seems upset, the principal should try to get eye contact, but even if he can't, he should make voice contact, respond with great warmth, love, interest,  not detachment.

Principal, cajoling a little:  Come on, Sam. My friend. Don't be angry at me. I didn't start this. There aren't any secrets in a big place, a school. Things come out, then they expect me to do something. What am I supposed to do?

Now the decision tree gets dicey. If Sam says, "I don't give a ____ what you do, ____ off," then the principal knows he has a real problem with the employee.  He should probably ask the employee if there might be a reason for him, personally, to be afraid of retribution, to have to watch his back.  Does the janitor mean him harm?

If the answer is Yes, watch your back, then an immediate call to the police is in order. If that's not possible, if the employee has already stormed out, then get a restraining order, as soon as possible. Alert the police. Forget the meeting with the kid who went to the bathroom without a pass.

Is calling 911 extreme? It wouldn't be for me, not if someone threatens me harm, or anyone else in my office, for that matter.

If the employee says, "Are you crazy? I would never hurt you!" then the principal still has to watch out, even alert others to the possibility that this person might act out, might be violent.  But the employer is less likely to be in the line of direct fire only because he has tried to relate, he hasn't been critical. He isn't judging or attacking or threatening Sam's job, and Sam responded with warmth.  He is the good father.  We all need one of these.

Not that people with Antisocial Personality Disorder can't be extremely charming and warm with nefarious intentions.

For all we know, maybe that's what happened. Maybe Mr. Luebbers and Mr. LaCara had a friendly conversation, and it didn't matter. Mr. LaCara took the bullet anyway, because the janitor needed to show him a thing or two.

Great life. You work all your life to get to a position to help children, to run schools desperately in need of leadership, and someone takes it all away. But that's a modus operandi for some people with Antisocial Personality Disorder, anger at people, revenge, reinstating power and control. Hurt the ones who have it.