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Grown-ups failed accused Perry Hall shooter

His visible slide into isolation, sadness went unheeded

Susan Reimer

3:48 PM EDT, August 29, 2012

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Meet the parents.

Bonnie Gladden, the mother of the 15-year-old charged with shooting a fellow student at Perry Hall High on the first day of the new school year, has a ninth-grade education and was 19 years old and four months pregnant with a daughter when she married Robert Wayne Gladden Sr.

Four years later, in 1996, authorities filed charges of assault with intent to murder against him, listing Ms. Gladden as the victim, though he was acquitted by a judge. She stayed with him, and Bobby Gladden was born about a year later. When the couple finally separated in 2008, Ms. Gladden asked in a complaint for custody that the father follow a treatment plan for mental health problems if he wanted to have the kids visit.

Court documents examined by The Sun's Tricia Bishop also suggest that he didn't pay much, if any, child support. He had been charged with marijuana possession three times in the past decade, twice in 2010, and served time for one of the charges. There were traffic offenses, too.

The boy's stepfather, Andrew Eric Piper, was sentenced to prison for theft in 1998 and has had several assault and battery charges filed against him. He was imprisoned for driving violations, including eluding police, in 2004 and 2008, according to records found by Ms. Bishop. He's been divorced at least twice. A cache of weapons and some marijuana was removed Monday by police from the home he shared with Ms. Gladden and he was arrested.

Students who knew Bobby Gladden said that there had been a sudden and dramatic change in him in the last year or two. Dying his hair black and growing it very long, wearing black clothes, heavy black boots. He would keep his head down on his desk during class, saying little to anyone. Classmates said he looked lonely and sad.

His Facebook status update the morning of the shooting said, "First day of school, last day of my life."

Thirty years of social science have demonstrated again and again the importance of parents in the life of a child: success in school and appropriate behavior, just for starters. It seems to come as news to parents every time a new study reports that children identify their parents as the most important influence in their lives.

But only the most resilient child has a chance to rise above a chaotic home life, one featuring violence, crime and mental health problems. Not to mention drugs and guns.

True, most children of such homes manage to hold it together, somehow, without exploding into violence. But it appears Bobby Gladden was not that child. He needed two on-the-job parents, and it doesn't look like he had them.

In the aftermath of the shooting Monday, PTA presidents, school board members and principals all over Baltimore County hurried to assure parents that they had "procedures in place," and there were "drills" to make sure faculty, staff and students knew how to respond to a shooting at school.

That's what we do in this country when tragedy strikes. We create a new process, new rules and procedures, and we write them all down and pass them out to everybody. We react by preparing ourselves to react the next time it happens.

But what about the child who morphs into a sad, lonely, depressed comic book character? What procedures are in place to help him? Or to even find him on a high school campus filled to overflowing with 2,200 students?

Metal detectors might have identified the shotgun in the backpack Bobby Gladden brought to school, but they would not have identified his anger or isolation.

A dress code or uniforms would have prevented him from demonstrating his despair to everyone who saw him — and it might have prevented the teasing of other students for his costume — but a dress code would only have disguised the pain or confusion inside him.

In this country, we don't like anybody telling us that our kids are less than perfect or that we are doing a lousy job of teaching them and protecting them. Preventing the tragedy at Perry Hall High School would have required somebody to do just that. A teacher, a coach, a guidance counselor, the parent of another child. Somebody stepping up.

Instead, we are left with the question we always ask after these terrible events: Didn't somebody see the warning signs?

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Her email is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.

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