After freshman Jaylen Fryberg walked into the cafeteria at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Washington state late last week and shot five students before turning the gun on himself, people were quick to note that he defied popular stereotypes of school shooters.
As part of a Native American family active in the tight-knit Tulalip Tribes community, and a football player who was recently selected for the homecoming court, Mr. Fryberg didn’t fit the widely held belief that school shooters typically are socially isolated white males who spend a lot of time playing violent video games. And that divergence, said experts on school violence, underscores a too-often-overlooked fact when educators and communities rush to find answers to such tragic acts: There is no “typical” school shooter.
“There is actually no stereotype,” said Dewey Cornell, the director of the Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. “There is a human tendency to look for predictive factors, but if we apply those to the general population, we will find many false positives.”
On the day of the Oct. 24 shootings, Mr. Fryberg had sent the victims, his friends and cousins, text messages, asking them to meet him for lunch in the 2,500-student high school’s cafeteria. They were sitting together when he shot them with a .40-caliber Beretta handgun that belonged to a family member, Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary said in an Oct. 27 press conference.
Zoe Galasso, 14, died on the scene, and Gia Soriano, 14, died at the hospital two days later.
Shaylee Chuckulnaskit, 14, remains hospitalized along with Andrew Fryberg, 15, and Nate Hatch, 14, who are the shooters’ cousins.
Secret Service Analysis
A 2002 report by the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, prepared after the agency analyzed 37 school attacks that occurred between 1974 and 2000, concluded that “there is no accurate or useful ‘profile’ of students who engaged in targeted school violence.”
Acts of school violence have been carried out by attackers of all races, ages, disciplinary histories, and family backgrounds. And, though perpetrators are typically male, women have also played roles in mass attacks, experts on such incidents say.
In the events analyzed, attackers fell all along the social spectrum, from popular students to “loners,” the Secret Service report said.
While the agency didn’t find common demographic threads, it did note some psychological trends among attackers: Many “felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack,” many had a history of suicide attempts or feelings of depression or desperation, and most had no history of criminal behavior.
And, in 31 of the 37 events studied by the Secret Service,, the report said. Threat-assessment experts say that such “leakage” is common, and that attackers often leave more subtle clues that they are distressed, even if they don’t explicitly detail their plans in conversations.
Advice for Educators
That’s why school personnel should seek to build engagement and trusting relationships with all students, even those who don’t seem on the surface to be at risk of harming themselves or others, Mr. Cornell said.
He promotes a risk-assessment method through which teams of educators, law-enforcement officials, and community representatives respond when students express plans to harm themselves or others.
Such work—along with efforts to help students feel connected to their peers and supported by adults—help all students, not only the rare ones with a genuine intent to attack others, said Stephen Brock, a professor of school psychology at California State University, Sacramento.
In school safety efforts, “we shouldn’t rely completely on physical safety measures,” he said.
Following many high-profile school attacks, including, districts ramped up such measures, installing features like shatter-proof glass coating and sophisticated alert systems in their buildings.
“This is a complicated problem without easy solutions,” Mr. Brock said. “I think our tendency to look for a profile and our tendency to almost reflexively look to physical safety measures is an attempt to solve the problem quickly and almost to reassure ourselves.”
Police officials have released little information that points to a possible motive for Mr. Fryberg’s attack.
Fellow students told media outlets that Mr. Fryberg and his girlfriend had recently broken up and that he had been disciplined for a fight with another student, but police officials have not confirmed that the incidents are related to the shootings.
Mr. Trenary, the sheriff, told reporters the investigation into a possible motive could take months as officials scour text messages and social media for clues.
The school plans to resume classes Monday but it plans to keep the cafeteria closed. The district has also assembled grief counselors to talk to students.
While officials initially refused to name the shooter, saying they didn’t want to draw any more attention to him, Mr. Fryberg’s identity and background have remained a focus for the media and students as they process the events.
Some have expressed grief for Mr. Fryberg himself by placing memorials to him alongside those for his victims on a fence outside Marysville-Pilchuck High.
“As I have stated, conducting an investigation of this scope takes time,” Mr. Trenary said. “We may never have many of the answers that most of you are seeking.”
The Associated Press contributed information for this article.
A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as In Wash. School Tragedy, Gunman Defies ‘Typical’ Profile