I Don't Like Mondays, Tell Me Why: Brenda Spencer and the Story of a School Shooting

Updated on March 1, 2019
Brenda Spencer in 1979
Brenda Spencer in 1979

The Shot Heard Around the World

It was January 29, 1979—almost thirty years to the date—when one of the first school shootings took place in a suburb of San Diego. This event would cost two adults their lives and leave several others—most of them children—injured and scarred for life.

The assailant was a troubled 16-year-old girl who lived across the street from Cleveland Elementary School.

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The Spencer house where it is said the father still lives todayPolice raid the shooter's house
The Spencer house where it is said the father still lives today
The Spencer house where it is said the father still lives today
Police raid the shooter's house
Police raid the shooter's house

Some Background

Some of the facts concerning Brenda's upbringing are hard to verify. She claimed to have been physically and sexually abused by her father when she was younger. The two were said to have slept on a mattress that was set in the living room of the family home. The parents were divorced and Brenda's relationship with both parents seems to have been strained.

I hesitate to mention some of the facts above because often childhood trauma is used to justify the criminal element. The abuse excuse as it is sometimes referred to. However, there are indicators that some of Brenda's behaviors were manifesting well before her teen years. She was said to have practiced beheading toy dolls when she was much younger. This scared many of her neighborhood friends away and she grew up sort of a loner.

This is another fact that probably should be spoken about. There are many people who enjoy a solitary existence or have limited social networks that do not resort to violence. Was the fact that she seems to have been socially isolated by her peers a contributing factor to her behavior?

While it probably didn't help it, the fact that she was a loner shouldn't be used as a warning sign. However, it seems to be mentioned by many of the reports I've read about this woman.

Brenda's mother, Ruth.  Photos of the father are hard to find
Brenda's mother, Ruth. Photos of the father are hard to find

Does childhood trauma justify criminal behavior?

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The Definition of a Psychopath

Is Spencer a psychopath or a sociopath? What is the difference?

According to the DSM V, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, there may be traits exhibited by Spencer that could classify her as suffering from a personality disorder. According to 301.7 in the manual, the diagnostic criteria include:

A. Disregard for and violation of others rights since age 15, as indicated by one of the seven sub features:

  1. Failure to obey laws and norms by engaging in behavior which results in criminal arrest, or would warrant criminal arrest.
  2. Lying, deception, and manipulation, for profit or self-amusement.
  3. Impulsive behavior.
  4. Irritability and aggression, manifested as frequently assaults others, or engages in fighting.
  5. Blatantly disregards safety of self and others.
  6. A pattern of irresponsibility.
  7. Lack of remorse for actions (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

The other diagnostic criterion are:

B. The person is at least age 18.

C. Conduct disorder was present by history before age 15.

D. The antisocial behavior does not occur in the context of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Continued

Spencer was 16 when she committed the crimes, and according to the above, one would have to be at least 18 - an adult - in order to be considered a candidate for Anti-Social Personality Disorder.

Was she a psychopath then or a sociopath?

In many ways, according to information that I can find currently, there similarities between the two are so close, they are often used interchangeably. However, Psychopaths are said to have a "more severe form of sociopathology" and are more likely to commit serious crimes that will render them incarcerated.

Sociopaths are often less severe in their criminal elements, but are said to be cunning, manipulative and just as damaging. Sociopaths have the ability to blend in with normal society and are less likely to engage in acts of physical violence.

Chances are you may know some sociopaths.

For further reading check out: The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout.

As for Spencer, I would probably say that she has at least a personality disorder of some sort. However, the influence of her age and other mitigating factors might rule out either a psychopath or sociopath diagnosis. She has expressed remorse for her crimes and recognizes that she did something bad.

After her arrest she tried to attribute her actions to the influence of drugs, however, no substances were found in her system.

Short answer: She is a psychopath.

Actual answer: a bit more complicated than a simple analysis. Perhaps a blend of both or neither.

A prison photo of Spencer
A prison photo of Spencer

A summary of her crimes

Spencer began shooting at the school with a 22 caliber rifle that was a Christmas present from her father. Keep in mind, this was January 29th when she began her massacre.

There was a six hour stand-off between her and the police. Shot and Killed were Burton Wragg, a principal who tried to protect the kids. He saw a little girl fall and thought he heard what were "firecrackers". When he ran out to help, he was shot by Spencer in the chest. Witnesses reporting him as "flailing" to the ground.

Another school employee, the chief custodian, Mike Suchar, tried to help as well and was killed by Spencer.

Eight children were shot, miraculously, none of the shots were fatal.

Also injured, was a police officer who arrived on the scene. He was hit in the neck and although seriously injured, survived.

Wragg and Suchar: victims
Wragg and Suchar: victims

A summary

The police found out where the shots were coming from and pulled a garbage truck in front of her house to block her path to the school. She lived right across the street and this is known as the first major school shooting to happen in the United States. It preceded Columbine by almost twenty years.

A journalist managed to get hold of her by telephone by calling the houses in the area. When Spencer answered, she was asked why she did it. Why did she shoot the kids and the people at the school.

Her reply: "I did it because I don't like Mondays".

This statement would go on to inspire Bob Geldoff to write a song that became a hit for the Boomtown Rats. Many stations in the United States refused to play the tune because of the reference.


Sir Bob
Sir Bob

The music video for "I Don't Like Mondays" by the Boomtown Rats

Where is Spencer Now?

Currently she is housed at the California Institute for Women in Southern California.

She was given a 25 years to life sentence and was eligible for parole back in February of 1993 and was denied - as were her recent parole boards.

She will be eligible for parole this year - 2019.


Should juveniles be eligible for the death penalty?

See results
Spencer at a hearing with her "advocate"
Spencer at a hearing with her "advocate"

One last note

It should be remembered that Spencer was 16 when she committed the crimes There are influences within the powers that be that have a lot to say about youths who commit crimes - particularly violent ones. A case that went to the United States Supreme Court, Miller vs. Alabama, dealt with the idea of brain development and maturity. The outcome was that it was decided that the brain is not completely developed until age 23 (at least) and that because of the lack of maturity, cannot be held completely culpable for their actions.

I am not making this up. Read it yourself if you want: see the link below.

In addition, some of the anti-crime laws which were considered harsh in the 1980s and 1990's are being re-examined, particularly with indeterminate sentencing (for example 20 years to life is not specific). Many of these cases are being overturned, particularly when the inmate was younger when he or she committed their crimes and have been incarcerated for several years.

Will they let her go - who knows? It is likely she will remain incarcerated because of the serious nature of her crime and that it was famous. Not only did it inspire a hit song by a pop band, but it is known as the first school massacre.

However, she does have a history of abuse in her background and she is a white female. These may be influences in her favor as well.

Spencer
Spencer

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Liam Cooper

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