Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

What School Shooters Have in Common

Data-driven pathways for preventing gun violence
By Jillian Peterson & James Densley — October 08, 2019 5 min read
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This month, Fruitport, Mich.—a village of just over 1,000 people—announced it was spending $48 million to redesign its high school campus to minimize casualties in the event of a mass shooting. The plan includes curved hallways to shorten a shooter’s line of sight, hidden wing walls to give students more places to hide, and an alarm and lockdown system to isolate a threat at the touch of a button.

In the United States, a $3 billion school safety industry trades in Kevlar backpack inserts for children, bulletproof whiteboards, impact-resistant film for classroom windows, “ballistic attack resistant” door shields, armored saferooms, surveillance cameras and facial-recognition systems, software to monitor potential threats, gunshot and “aggression detector” microphones, even smoke cannons to disrupt an active shooter in progress.

While the burgeoning school safety industry is trying to counter the threat of guns in schools, state lawmakers are considering whether to arm teachers. Teachers have signed up for trainings intended to help them overcome their natural instincts to run from a gunman. In one instance, law enforcement personnel shot teachers execution style with plastic pellets.

Schools can do more than just upgrade security or have students rehearse for their near-deaths."

There is no evidence that any of this stuff works. All we do know is that the search for school safety solutions is sending districts into more debt and hurting school climate. About 95 percent of America’s schools in 2015-16 conducted active shooter lockdown drills, which teachers and students both find traumatizing. Such drills also increase anxiety, something already rising among children and young people. A 2018 Pew Research survey discovered that, despite the low probability of such events (the likelihood of a student being killed by a gun in school is roughly 1 in 614 million), 57 percent of American teenagers worry about a shooting at their school, which presumably makes it hard for them to focus on their schoolwork.

For two years, we’ve been studying the life histories of mass shooters in the United States for a project funded by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. We’ve built a database dating back to 1966 of every shooter who killed four or more people in a public place, and analyzed every active shooter incident at a K-12 school since 1999—the year of the Columbine High School massacre, when 12 students and one teacher were killed. We’ve interviewed incarcerated perpetrators of school shootings and their families, students who planned a shooting but changed their minds, survivors and first responders, teachers and administrators. We’ve read media and social media, “manifestos,” suicide notes, trial transcripts, and medical records.

Our goal has been to find new, data-suggested pathways for preventing school shootings. Our study shows that there’s no one profile of a school shooter and no one predictor of a school shooting. However, school shooters are almost always a student at the school, and they typically have four things in common:

They suffered early-childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. They were angry or despondent over a recent event, resulting in feelings of suicidality. They studied other school shootings, notably Columbine, often online, and found inspiration. And they possessed the means to carry out an attack.

By understanding the traits that school shooters share, schools can do more than just upgrade security or have students rehearse for their near-deaths. They can instead plan to prevent the violence.

To mitigate childhood trauma, for example, school-based mental-health services such as counselors and social workers are needed. Schools can also adopt curriculum focused on teaching positive coping skills, resilience, and social-emotional learning, especially to young boys (According to our data, 98 percent of mass shooters are men.)

A crisis is a moment, an inflection point, when things will either become very bad or begin to get better. In 80 percent of cases, school shooters communicated to others that they were in crisis, whether through a marked change in behavior, an expression of suicidal thoughts or plans, or specific threats of violence. For this reason, all adults in schools, from the principal to the custodian, need high-quality training in crisis intervention and suicide prevention and the time and space to connect with a student. At the same time, schools need formal systems in place for students and staff to (anonymously) report a student in crisis.

Any threat, from bragging about violence to writing a hit list, is a sign that the person making the threat is in crisis and needs help. Mass school shooters typically expect to die in the act, our findings show. Threats are thus de facto suicide notes. By unduly punishing or criminalizing students making threats, schools pile on stress and exacerbate any grievance.

Instead of threat-assessment teams focused on risk factors, schools need care teams dynamic enough to see opportunities to connect students with needed resources and safeguard them in a wraparound process.

School shooters seek validation. Media literacy in schools could help students more critically examine the existing blueprints for school violence and counter the extremist propaganda that facilitates it. But a change in school culture also is needed. Lockdown and active shooter drills send the message that violence is normal, when it’s not.

Because most school shooters are students, the next school shooter is running through the same drill as the last school shooter. With drills in operation from pre-K to 12th grade, everyone is well-rehearsed in security theatre. All adults in the school should be trained in active-shooter response, but schools can stop spreading the script of mass violence by protecting their students from these drills. Besides, when students know the school’s exact response plan, they can use it to increase casualties.

Finally, schools can make it harder for students to act upon violent intent. Sensible security upgrades are part of this, but more important may be tackling the availability of guns. Our data show that 80 percent of school shooters get their guns from family members, most often parents and grandparents, since they are too young to purchase them themselves. Schools can provide education to caregivers around locking up guns to keep everyone safe.

During our research, we interviewed several young people who planned to do a school shooting, but changed their minds at the last minute. In every case, this was because an adult reached out and made a connection that gave them hope. School shootings are not an inevitable part of American life. We can, and must, change our approach to preventing them.

A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 2019 edition of Education Week as Why School Shootings Happen


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