Student with Asperger Syndrome Charged in Murder

In an affluent suburb of Boston, a community is asking tough questions following the murder of one high school student by another. The student charged in the fatal stabbing, John Odgren, suffers from Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

The murder in Sudbury, Massachusetts, was especially shocking. Both the victim and the accused killer were still in high school.

CHADWICK: And the accused teen suffers from Asperger syndrome. That's a neurological condition that is just now becoming better understood. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited the Boston suburb where the suspected Asperger's murder took place. Here's her report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: The quiet, affluent Boston suburb of Sudbury was shocked in January when a fatal stabbing occurred at its showcase high school.

Early in the morning of January 19th, residents began hearing news bulletins like this one from WBZ-TV, which reported 16-year-old John Odgren had been arrested for the murder of 15-year-old James Alenson.

(Soundbite of WBZ-TV broadcast)

Unidentified Woman: Odgren, who is from Princeton, is in a special education program at Lincoln-Sudbury. Odgren's attorney says he has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, and is on a number of medications.

BATES: Asperger syndrome is often referred to as a high-functioning kind of autism. One of its hallmarks isn't violence, but the inability to easily establish normal social relationships.

No one knows why the fight between Jack and James started. They just know the conclusion. A local prosecutor explains that when the police arrived, they found James in the hallway with no pulse and Jack in the principal's office.

Unidentified Man: And he made the statement, I did it, I did it. That was without police questioning, spontaneously not only to the police, but to the school officials in the area.

BATES: As news coverage of the tragedy continued, the fact that Jack has Asperger syndrome was highlighted. That infuriates Dania Jekel. She's the executive director of the Asperger's Association of New England, an advocacy organization with more than 9,000 members.

Ms. DANIA JEKEL (Executive Director, Asperger's Association of New England): I think we want to be very clear that Asperger syndrome does not equal violence. You know, this is really an isolated case and, you know, it's a shame that perhaps in some people's minds they do equate the two.

BATES: In fact, Jekel says, Asperger's kids are often on the receiving end of bullying and physical aggression. That's because while they're often highly intelligent, even brilliant, they lack the ability to properly read important parts of normal conversation, such as tone and body language.

Ms. JEKEL: So they hear the words but they miss sort of the other things that come along with the words, and that's actually about 76 percent of conversation are something other than the words.

BATES: That causes problem, especially in the hyper-social environments of many schools. The quirky, socially awkward kids are the ones who are marginalized and bullied, often in subtle ways that escape adult attention.

Ms. JANET O'BRIEN: Mine is Barney. "I love you, you love me..."

(Soundbite of laughter)

BATES: About a mile from the high school, Janet O'Brien(ph) and two friends are gathered in O'Brien's sunny kitchen around cookies and coffee. These women share a bond. They all have children with special needs and they all sit on councils that advise their school districts on how to best serve these children, who make up about 15 percent of the district's population.

Jill Aben(ph) says that with most parents still support mainstreaming there has been some anxiety after James Alenson's murder.

Ms. JILL ABEN: There were definitely some responses that were, you know, the special needs kids should not be in the school, and we don't need inclusion, and are we safe if these kids are in the building?

BATES: Some Asperger students worry that people might be afraid of them. Rebecca Gorawich(ph) says she's been getting concerned e-mails from parents and students from around the state.

Ms. REBECCA GORAWICH: The children are worried that they're going to be socially isolated even more, that people are going to be afraid because they're different, that oh, you're going to hurt me. So they're worried about just how they're going to be treated. They're worried about how they're going to be looked at. Parents are worried that their kids aren't going to be - inclusion, that inclusion itself is going to be on trial.

BATES: Others use the tragedy for their own purposes. On the day of James Alenson's funeral, a small group of Scientologists stood silently in the town center holding banners that proclaim prescription drugs were responsible for his death. Janet O'Brien was outraged by that. But she was even more upset that Jack Odgren's attorney has inferred that Asperger's, among other things, might be used as a defense for the 16-year-old.

Ms. JANET O'BRIEN: To have the attorney say that his client was suffering from Asperger's is just offensive to me, under these circumstances of what had transpired at the school.

BATES: Upsetting perhaps, but the so-called Asperger's defense has been used successfully in the recent past. The continued linkage of James Alenson's murder and Asperger's is, if nothing else, a media shortcut, says Jill Aben, and it's wrong.

Ms. ABEN: It was more than just the Asperger's. There was a lot more going on which I don't think we will ever know the full story. But Asperger's by itself did not lead to this.

BATES: Attorneys from both families, as well as students and parents at Lincoln-Sudbury, continue to puzzle over exactly what did occur that ultimately led to James Alenson's death.

A status hearing is scheduled for March 5th.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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