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Crisis Response

What We Know About School Shooters

Dispelling the common assumptions associated with school shootings.
Sheriff’s deputies escort T.J. Lane to his court arraignment in Chardon, Ohio on June 8, 2012. Lane pleaded not guilty to six charges for an alleged shooting at Chardon High School in February that left three students dead and three wounded.
Sheriff’s deputies escort T.J. Lane to his court arraignment in Chardon, Ohio on June 8, 2012. Lane pleaded not guilty to six charges for an alleged shooting at Chardon High School in February that left three students dead and three wounded.

I have been involved in the aftermath of 13 school shootings. Throughout my years of professional experience, I have stayed abreast with the latest research and literature. My hope is to help dispel the common assumptions associated with school shootings. After learning of my experiences, people often say to me, “School shootings today are increasing, and they are happening everywhere.” Although this assumption has been reinforced by the media, school shootings are actually very rare, and schools remain among the safest places for children.

A school shooting took place at Chardon High School in the Chardon (Ohio) Local School District on February 27, and much to my dismay, an article in the March 2 issue of USA Today described the teenage suspect using these very misleading words: “He was an average 17-year-old kid.” This contributes to the perception that any kid is a potential school shooter. To properly address this issue, let’s look at what we know.

Mental Health of School Shooters

Peter Langman, a renowned expert on school shootings, has identified three categories that offer insight into the mental health of school shooters.

  1. Psychotic school shooters are not existing in reality. This is often a consequence of schizophrenia or what Langman refers to as “schizophrenia-spectrum disorders.” The school shooter at Heath High School in the McCracken (Ky.) County Public Schools in1997 reportedly heard voices and thought that monsters were living in his home. 
  2. Psychopathic school shooters often exhibit a lack of conscience, such as no moral barometer, a lack of remorse and no empathy for others. They may feel a sense of superiority and the right to hurt and/or kill people. For example, one of the Columbine High School perpetrators in Jefferson County (Colo.) Public Schools in 1999 left behind writings and tapes in which he referred to himself as godlike and having the right to kill others. 
  3. Traumatized school shooters have experienced significant traumatic events in their lives—such as abuse, an invalidating home environment, repeated bullying and loss of a parent to death or incarceration—which increase vulnerability to depressive symptoms and suicidal ideations. The perpetrator in the 2005 shooting at Red Lake High School in Red Lake (Minn.) Public School District had an extensive history that fits this category. 

A 2002 Secret Service report noted that of the 41 school shooters studied, many had histories of suicidal ideations and attempts, and suffered from depression. This has direct implications for school personnel as well as the school climate. It is essential for schools to improve their ability to detect at-risk students and provide appropriate treatment and/or have working relationships with community mental health services.

Warning Signs

School shooters often leave behind a host of warning signs preceding the attack. Sadly, such warning signs are often overlooked or even discounted. This constellation of warning signs often includes a fascination and preoccupation with other school shooters or violent historical figures; telling other students or peers that “it would be cool if something like that happened at my school”; stockpiling weapons and/or asking parents and friends to buy weapons; creating school assignments, such as presentations, papers and videos centered on violence and particularly school shootings; posting on social media sites intentions for violence; and recruiting other students.

Preventing School Shootings

What should school administrators do to reduce the risk of a shooting in their schools and offices?

  1. Every year, host workshops or training sessions, and make it a priority for everyone at school to keep an open dialogue on the issue of school safety. 
  2. Talk to teachers and other school personnel about being alert for the warning signs, and stress the necessity of sharing that information immediately with the administrative team. Since school shooters frequently exhibit warning signs, school personnel need to have direct knowledge about conducting threat assessments, and every threat needs to be investigated thoroughly. 
  3. Create a school climate that encourages students to share information with school personnel and other adults. This can best be established by implementing safety pledges and frequent dialogues with students about their important role in school safety, and by stressing the necessity of sharing information about threats of violence with adults immediately. 

Implications for Parents

It is important for parents to be aware of what is going on in their child’s life, and this involves knowing their child’s friends and their parents. Parents need to monitor online communications and postings and check their child’s room when they have any concerns about their child’s behavior. If a child has exhibited warning signs of violence, then parents should not deny the problem and should let their child experience logical consequences from authorities at school and in the community. In his writings, Langman says something that I agree with: “Don’t lie to protect your child and do not hesitate to get them professional help.” School personnel have multiple opportunities through parent conferences and meetings to emphasize these key points to parents.

School shooters are not simply normal kids. They are kids with identifiable mental health problems who have exhibited many warning signs of potential violence. Therefore, everyone must be alert to these warning signs and to the need to increase mental health services for young people both at school and in the community.

Scott Poland is a professor at Nova Southeastern University and the co-director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office. Doctoral student Michael Pusateri assisted him in writing this article.