What We Have Learned About School Shooters, 10 Years After Columbine
This chat took place Monday, April 20, 2009, 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Eastern time
Our guests discussed what we've learned since the tragic killings at Columbine High School, ten years ago, on April 20, 1999.
The massacre was the deadliest ever carried out in an American high school. It prompted an outpouring of concern over bullying in schools, violent video games, and other aspects of teenage life.
Now, experts are more focused on the mental-health problems exhibited by school shooters as a primary cause of their behavior. But, they assert, that doesn't mean shootings can't be predicted or stopped.
Peter Langman, clinical director of KidsPeace and author of Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters; and
Katherine Newman, professor of sociology, Princeton University, and author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings.
Ann Bradley, assistant managing editor at Education Week, moderated this chat.
Good afternoon. We are now open for questions and comments and will begin our chat at 2 p.m.
Ann Bradley: Hi. I am Ann Bradley, an assistant managing editor of Education Week. I will let each of our panelists introduce themselves, and then we'll get started with questions about school shootings. As a reminder, today is the 10th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. What have we learned since then that might help to prevent such incidents?
Hello everyone. This is Katherine Newman, Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University and co-author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, which was published in 2004. The book resulted from a request from Congress to the National Research Council to investigate the causes and consequences of rampage shootings in high schools.
Peter Langman, Ph.D.: Hello. I am the Clinical Director at KidsPeace, an organization dedicated to helping kids in crisis. I am also the author of Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters.
In our recent article quoting you both, we reported that potential K-12 shooters nearly always target their intentions. Sometimes, that allows people to report these threats, and sometimes, as appears to have been in the case with the Red Lake, Minn., shootings, it doesn't. What should school people do to continue to get the word out to students about informing adults of these types of threats?
[Comment From Alina Moran] For tha past two years I have been trying to get a proposal approved. Said proposal involves teaching elementary students how to reach control over their bodies and minds through the use of physiological feedback. Sadly no one seems to care enough to try this preventive measure.
Peter Langman, Ph.D.: The main focus of my book is the categorizing of school shooters into one of three types: psychopathic, psychotic, and traumatized. This is important in terms of prevention because if people have misconceptions about what a school shooter is like, they may miss warning signs from students who do not fit the stereotype.
[Comment From Cathy Sutter] Hi. I am a school psychologist and work at the elementary level. What behaviors we should be looking for at this early age?
[Comment From Susan Spoon] What is currently being done in schools to deal with violence and alienation
Peter Langman, Ph.D.: Ann, in response to your question about getting the word out to students, there are several elements. First, students should be educated on what to look for in terms of warning signs. They also need a forum in which to address any concerns they may have regarding "snitching"--they should be taught the difference between reporting a safety concern and tattle-taling in order to get someone in trouble. Students should also be presented with cases in which kids had information that they did not report, and cases where students did report their concerns.
Katherine Newman: Our research showed that kids who hear threats come forward when two conditions hold: (1) They believe their concerns will be treated confidentially and (2) Adults will take them seriously and investigate the situation. Sadly, kids could point to occasions where concerns they brought forward were telegraphed through the social networks so that everyone knew who the source was and this caused them to be reticent. Moreover, they talked at length about times when the message they heard -- whether or not it was intentional -- was "I'm busy" or "You need to learn to resolve problems on your own; it's part of growing up." In the massacres we studied, there were dozens of kids who knew something and to their ever lasting dismay, did not come forward, as well as one or two who did tell their own parents only to find the information was not taken seriously. Of course, hindsight is always easier than foresight. This is why we think school resource officers are so useful. Kids trust them to be confidential and to act appropriately.
Ann Bradley: Cathy has a question about what behaviors to look for. Peter, do you want to answer that?
Katherine Newman: Susan, Schools are more sensitive to violence and alienation, but they are suffering from a lack of guidance staff. Moreover, the schools where high levels of violence are common -- urban schools -- are NOT the places where rampage shootings like Columbine happen. Alienation is a problem for teenagers everywhere and anti-bullying curricula have been shown to make a difference. KN
Peter Langman, Ph.D.: In response to the question from Cathy Sutter, warning signs in elementary school students could include animal cruelty (torturing and/or killing animals, especially pets), an obsession with guns, violence, and murder, or looking up to people like Charles Manson, serial killers, or school shooters as heroes.
Ann Bradley: We have a question from Sam about the use of physical barriers to violence, for Peter to answer.
[Comment From Sam Masters] Question for Dr. Langman: We all know metal detectors and other physical equipment is a last line of defense against school shootings. Are there any special resources you'd recommend to help prevent them in the first place?
Peter Langman, Ph.D.: Physical security measures do not prevent school shootings. The best prevention is early detection. This goes back to previous responses about getting the word out to students so they know what to look for. Schools should also be training faculty and staff on what to look for, too. In some cases, teachers and/or guidance counselors had concerns based on student papers or oral reports about killing students or making bombs. As it turned out the teachers and guidance counselors were right to be concerned, because the students in question eventually committed school shootings. Schools should have threat assessment procedures in place so that when staff or students have safety concerns, there are teams of people trained to evaluate a possibl empty threat from an imminent threat.
Ann Bradley: We have a question from Cathy, a school psychologist in an Oregon community that suffered a school shooting. Peter, do you want to answer?
[Comment From Cathy Paine] I am a School Psychologist in Springfield, Oregon, the site of a school shooting one year before Columbine. We know that mental illness was a key factor in our school shooter. How can schools provide systems to support the identification and treatment of students who have a mental illness?
Peter Langman, Ph.D.: To follow up on my previous response, there are several resources that educators can utilize regarding preventing school shootings. These include reports by the FBI and the Secret Service in conjunction with the Dept. of Education (these reports are available on the websites of the FBI and Secret Service). These is also an excellent book by Dr. Dewey Cornell and Dr. Peter Sheras titled Guidelines for Responding to Student Threats of Violence.
Ann Bradley: Parent Donna Nelson is asking about how schools handle students who have brought weapons to schools. Katherine, do you want to answer?
[Comment From Donna Nelson] I am a parent of an 8th grader in public school. I am wondering and concerned about what our schools are doing when a student is caught with a weapon and has not yet done any harm. Recently in one of our local middle schools a boy that has a troubled past came to school with a "play" gun and threatened a group of girls and ask for their money. At first the girls thought he was playing, but as he insisted they started getting concerned and told their parents after school. It took a great deal of prodding of these girls parents to get answers from the school about what the consequences for this boy would be and if he was even still in shcool. The parents did call the police and they found the boy with the "weapon" and handled with the school. The problem it seems at least in our area according the to school superintendent is that the law forbids even the teachers or school psychologist to be made aware of this students behavior or "record". Apparently this student was suspended a for period, but was still being seen on school property. Can this policy be true? How is a teacher to help or protect the class or the school psychologist to intevene and help this student if they are still attending school?
Katherine Newman: If I may enter into the dialogue with Cathy Paine, the most difficult aspect of the Springfield case is that Kip Kinkle was on every radar screen in the school system and law enforcement. He was one day away from involuntary commitment by his parents when he went on his rampage. It is important to develop the resources Peter speaks of, but we should recognize that it will not always be possible to stop someone who is truly dedicated to pulling off a rampage. What we must focus on is increasing early detection and do what we can to frustrate the attempts of shooters to get their hands on lethal weapons.
A very good point. Maybe it's easier for people to talk about prevention than to face the fact that these problems were open and were ignored?
Peter Langman, Ph.D.: This is a challenging issue because in some cases the students know that they are struggling with serious mental health issues, but don't want anyone else to know, so they keep their symptoms hidden. In other cases, the family knows their child is struggling, but may not want the school to know. Instead of putting funding into physical security measures, schools would be better served by increasing their staff in terms of couneslors, school psychologists, or school resource officers. Also, educating teachers regarding basic mental health issues is important because signs of schizophrenia or other disorders are often detectable in students' written work.
In most school systems, there is a zero tolerance policy for weapons and it is nearly automatic that students bringing weapons to school will be suspended. the length of time will vary from one system to another and the response of particular schools to violations of suspension are probably quite varied. Donna is right that it is very difficult to break through the privacy laws to inform teachers and school authorities about the behavior of individual students.
Ann Bradley: We have a good question from a retired school counselor, which I will ask Peter to answer.
[Comment From Susan Spoon] I think all of the strategies to identify warning signs, etc., are necessary and valuable, however, this is still a reactive measure rather than a pro-active measure. I am a retired high school counselor (still active in educational reform) and I agree there is a shortage of school counselors. I do not think this is going to change any time soon, especially with today's budget concerns. I know of a program through the PassageWorks Institute in Boulder, Colorado, that helps students connect to themselves, their schools, and communities. This methodology gives students a voice, which I think is a key element in prevention of such incidents as Columbine. I am wondering why more schools and communities are not using these kinds of resources (although I do not know of any others besides the PassageWorks Institute program).
Ann Bradley: Questioner Margaret refers to the social stigma surrounding mental illness that seems to play a role in these incidents. Katherine, do you want to answer?
[Comment From Margaret Sorensen] I wonder if one of the guests might comment on some of the Columbine backlash that has been less then helpful. By this I mean over-application of "zero tolerance," expulsion of kids who write fantasies that are interpreted as being indicators of violent tendancies, but particularly an idendification of emotional illness with violence and homicidal tendancies. Kids with emotional difficulties have always had a hard way to go--it seems as if Columbine has provided a further excuse to get them out of the way.
Katherine Newman: In our book, we argue strongly that zero tolerance for weapons is absolutely necessary, but that any other form of this policy is a mistake. Our reasons were different from yours, though. When we come down hard, and without nuance, on kids who are expressing the random anti-social thought, we encourage others to clam up lest they report acquaintances for what turn out to be harmless expressions and find their friends expelled as a result. We need to keep the flow of information and self expression coming. That is our best, our only, hope for prevention and if kids get the idea that by raising a concern about a random comment they will get an innocent person thrown out of school, they will clam up and report nothing.
Peter Langman, Ph.D.: Excellent point. The focus on early detection is necessary, but it is--as you point out--a reactive process. Ideally, schools should do whatever they can to establish and maintain a nurturing school atmosphere. This means having activities that appeal to a broad range of students, doing everything possible so that students feel physically and emotionally safe at school (i.e., address bullying, harassment, etc.) , and so on. There is a book by Elliott Aronson called Nobody Left to Hate, which is about how classrooms can be utilized to build relationships among students in order to minimize conflict and maximize a sense of community.
Ann Bradley: Here is another comment from Cathy.....
[Comment From Cathy Paine] I want to be very clear, Ann, that the problems of the shooter in our case were not being ignored. As Katherine noted, many people, including the parents, were concerned and trying various strategies. It is critical that we create a system where everyone is communicating and working together. School Psychologists and counselors are important in this. Unfortunately, in times of budget cuts, the personnel Peter mentioned are often the first to be let go.
Katherine Newman: In our book, we review in detail what has happened to the school counselor labor force and discuss the fact that most of them are tasked with scheduling students' academic programs and have very little time to deal with individual problems of this magnitude. In many school districts, they are able to refer families to external counselors and this is an important resource. But as Cathy notes, these people are probably the first to be let go by school districts that have never had to deal with tragedies like Columbine. Those rare districts that have "been there" try to spare no expense.
Ann Bradley: Margaret wants to follow up with Katherine on the point about how troubled students are handled.....
[Comment From Margaret Sorensen] Katherine--I am not sure that I understand what you are saying. Certainly the school environment should encourage students to share any indicators that they see that might indicate a need for help. What I am speaking of, however, is more of a "blanket" response of fear, on the part of adults, that seems to prefer "getting rid of" kids that they believe (sometimes for reasons that amount to prejudice) may at some later point be violent.
Ann Bradley: Peter, Patty has a question about "kid-level" resources to prevent or cope with shootings.
[Comment From Patty McCann] Any tools out there to help kids themselves prevent or cope with school shootings?
Katherine Newman: Margaret, for better or worse, most schools do segregate the most troubled students into "continuation" schools (and other euphemisms). School shooters are never in this group. They rarely have disciplinary histories; the violent thoughts they express are known only by isolated teachers who do not communicate with each other and hence patterns are not detected. They fly "under the radar," which is the title of our chapter on exactly this phenomenon. We think we are looking for the extreme case, but the school shooter is rarely that person. Schools do need to care for students who are in trouble and they do within the limits of the fact that they are not therapeutic institutions. They don't have the trained personnel (like Peter) and are not equipped to handle kids that are very far off the mainstream mark, which is why every district has these 'extra' institutions.
Peter Langman, Ph.D.: One resource I can recommend is a website run by KidsPeace called teencentral.net. This is an anonymous, confidential site that allows kids to write in about anything on their mind. They get responses from professional counseling staff. Teencentral.net has been involved in preventing potential shootings because students write in about their concerns and receive guidance on what to do. In some cases of imminent danger, the police have been notified and have been able to track down the source of the posting. Teencentral is also useful to help kids deal with school violence--they may be reluctant to talk to parents or professionals, but they are comfortable using a confidential website. The site receives 1-2 million hits a month, so we know that this kind of technological resource is meeting the needs of many young people.
Alina has a good question about what to do about kids who fall short of needing intensive help, but nonetheless exhibit problem behaviors......Katherine?
[Comment From Alina Moran] The way the laws are set up makes it difficult for teachers and administrators to address certain behaviors that don't quite make the special aid checklist. Is there a way to get around this? I had a violent 5th grade female student that manipulated a number of classmates through the fear she inflicted upon them. Nothing was done to address this child's aggressive behavior in an appropriate manner because she fell short on whatever scale she was measured... it didn't matter that she bulied, frightened or pumhed around other classmates.
Ann Bradley: Peter, I have a question. It seems that kids who can express their feelings--no matter how violent or awful they are--fare better than those who bottle up until they explode. But there's nowhere in school that it's OK to let those emotions out. That seems problematic.
You make an excellent point Alina. School shooters are much more likely to be like this (occasional, but low level problem behaviors) that do not call forth the attention and response that schools do take action on. Indeed, in the cases we studied, parents were driving their kids to school rather than confront the conflict that would ensue if they talked to the parents of the boys who were making their children's lives miserable on the school bus, in the cafeteria, etc. This is the kind of case where a pro-active principal would intervene and bring in counseling help. To do otherwise is to default on responsibilities to all the kids who are at the mercy of the child you describe.
Susan has a book she wants to recommend......
[Comment From Susan Spoon] The best resource I have come across is THE SOUL OF EDUCATION, by Rachael Kessler. This was an ASCD book in 2000. Again, it focuses on building connection across social and economic lines and greatly increases social and emotional literacy. As Dan Goleman stated in EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE, these skills can be taught. However, schools today often focus on test scores and are sometimes not willing to take time away from academics (driven by "No Child Left Behind") for social and emotional literacy programs. My focus continues to be in the pro-active area and "the big picture" rather than specific incidents. How do others feel about this?
Peter Langman, Ph.D.:
It's hard to know how much schools lack appropriate outlets for their feelings, and how much schools have outlets but the students don't use them. Certainly, if students can express themselves to someone and feel understand and have a sense that somebody cares, that can go a long way toward improving the situation. As noted above, however, these outlets (in the form of counselors and psychologists) may not be available. In these cases, if teachers or other staff have concerns about students, they can try referring them to professionals in the community. This will not always work, depending on the family attitude and situation, but it is an option. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions to this issue.
Katherine Newman: Susan's point is well taken. Because schools are the only universal institution through which children pass, we are asking them to take on more and more responsibilities: raise test scores, teach morality, driver's training, sex ed, and the list goes on. The educators we studied were exhausted by these multiple demands and the feeling that society was asking them to accomplish every socialization task, rather than the tasks for which they felt especially prepared as professionals. It is not that they weren't willing to take on social and emotional literacy; it's that this is hard to do in the context of all the other demands placed on their shoulders.
Here is a very sobering post from Carolyn, whose son was a student at Columbine 10 years ago.
[Comment From Carolyn Mears, PhD] One aspect of that planning for school safety must address the preparation of students and teachers to take steps to save their own lives should the unthinkable happen.
I can distinctly remember driving past my own son's high school one beautiful spring day when I heard that there had been a school shooting in Jonesboro, Ark. I glanced over at my son's school and whispered to myself, "Thank goodness we live in a safe neighborhood and my sons go to safe schools. This is something I won't ever have to worry about."
My neighborhood: unincorporated Jefferson County, Colorado.My son's school: Columbine.
Barely one year later, my young son crouched beneath a table with his friends, listening to gunfire moving closer by the moment, and trying to remember what students had done in other school shootings to save their lives.
I offer these words of experience as a reminder that we are all at risk, yet we are not without ways to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Taking personal responsibility for our safety is one of the first steps. Waking up to the undeniable reality of vulnerability necessitates taking matters seriously. And as hard as is as it is to imagine, this includes sitting with our children to problem-solve actions they could take should they be faced with gunfire.
Peter Langman, Ph.D.: Susan, I am all in favor of developing social and emotional literacy. Many of the shooters I present in my book felt devastating loneliness and alienation, even if outwardly they had friends. Building social connections is critical, especially for the psychotic and traumatized kids at risk for school shootings. It is harder to say what kind of impact this might have on kids with psychopathic tendencies.
Katherine Newman: Carolyn, it is a terrible truism that almost everyone whose child has suffered through a rampage shooting thought they were raising their kids in the best possible place to nuture a family. These tragedies overwhelmingly happen in places with low levels of violence, and hence no violence prevention programs in place. The residents thing this sort of thing happens in New York and Chicago when, in reality, it never does. All kinds of violence goes down in big cities, but not this kind. So my general response to what you say is that yes kids need to know what we can teach them about prevention and protection. Most of all, they need to know (a) that if they ostracize and bully, they may be pushing buttons with consequences that could be tragic and (b) if they hear someone making threats, they need to tell a responsible adult. This is our only real hope.
Ann Bradley: It seems to me that an obvious problem here is the scarcity of good mental health care for children. There aren't enough qualified providers, insurance doesn't pay, and it's time consuming. I'd like to hear both of your thoughts on this. Any hope that health care reform will change this situation?
Peter Langman, Ph.D.: Carolyn--excellent point. This kind of training could be part of a general program on recognizing warning signs, what to do when you see them, and what to do in the event of an attack. I know many schools have lock-down drills--I don't know how many teach what you are referring to.
I have not heard extensive commentary on proposals to increase the availability of mental health professionals in the health care reform measures currently under consideration, but it is certainly true that health insurance is more likely to cover this kind of treatment now than in the past.
Peter Langman, Ph.D.: There has been movement toward parity for mental health treatment, but what this will mean in the near future is not clear. It's an ongoing concern for everyone in the fields of mental and behavioral health.
Ann Bradley: Here is a question from two school counselors, Cheryl and Emilia. Peter, do you want to take this?
[Comment From Cheryl and Emilia] As school counselors, we evaluate a suicidal risk using certain types of questions. What assessment procedures do you recommend to distinguish between an empty threat and an imminent threat?
Peter Langman, Ph.D.:
A proper threat assessment involves not only interviewing the potential perpetrator, but many others as well. This might include friends, family, teachers, etc. The main thing to look for is attack-related behavior--i.e., has the student made a threat and how specific is that threat? The more detailed in terms of time, place, and method of attack, the more imminent the threat. Has the student accumulated the means to carry out the threat? The resources I mentioned earlier provide additional guidelines for assessing how imminent a threat is.
In some cases, however, the threat is clear. I once had a student in a psychiatric hosptial tell me that if he went back to his school the odds were 50/50 that he would "go Columbine." In this case, he didn't want to, but was afraid that he would not be able to stop himself. In such a case, take the student at his word. In other cases, however, students have miminized and denied the seriousness of their behavior, so they cannot be trusted to provide accurate information. This is why it is important to interview a broad range of people to obtain the information necessary to determine the seriousness of a threat.
It's 3 p.m., so we will close the chat. Thank you to both of our panelists for an interesting discussion! A transcript of the chat will be available momentarily on this same page.
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