One-by-one, experts speaking to a federal school safety commission addressed factors commonly blamed for school shootings: bullying, mental health issues, violent video games, and media coverage.
All of those issues require a thoughtful, research-based response, the panelists told the commission, chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, but tackling any single factor alone will not be enough to eliminate school violence.
“The fact is people never commit serious acts of violence, such as school shootings, because of one factor in their lives,” said L. Rowell Huesmann, the director of the Aggression Research Program at the University of Michigan.
While they addressed a wide array of issues, the panelists spoke on some common themes: Students need supportive relationships both in and out of school to help buffer risk factors to violence; access and exposure to weapons can be a risk factor; and a federal response should include funding for research to provide evidence-based solutions to schools.
The hearing was attended by DeVos, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and high-level officials from the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Homeland Security. The White House formed the commission in response to the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and tasked it with exploring a wide range of issues, including school discipline, the use of antipsychotic drugs, and consumption of violent media. The group has held one public hearing, heard from shooting survivors and relatives of victims, and visited a school district that practices Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a common school climate strategy.
Why do school shooters act violently?
People act violently because exposure to violence in their families and in their communities create scripts in their brains that violence or aggression is a solution to problems, Huesmann told the commission. Those experiences may also rewire their norms, convincing them that violence is more acceptable or that the world is more hostile than others believe it to be, he said.
“We know a lot about what increases the risk that a person will behave violently, but knowing what increases the risk is a long way from complete prevention,” he said.
Low self-esteem alone isn’t a risk factor, and neither is mental illness as people with mental health diagnoses do not commit violence at higher rates than the rest of the population, Huesmann said.
The best predictor of violence is past violent behavior, he said. And students are more likely to commit violence with weapons if they’ve been exposed to violence with weapons, he said, pointing to youths’ access to guns as a factor.
Is fictional violence in entertainment like video games and movies as problematic as exposure to violence in real life?
Christopher Ferguson, associate psychology professor at Stetson University, said that’s a common assumption that isn’t consistently supported by research.
“This pool of research has been generally inconsistent,” Ferguson said, adding that many studies that have purported to find a link between video games and violence can’t be replicated, which calls into question the validity of their results.
Countries like South Korea, whose residents play the most video games per capita, have some of the lowest rates of violence, he said. And the assumption that mass shooters play video games often comes from a confirmation bias: When mass shooters are young, people make that assumption, Ferguson said. But video games are never an assumed factor when gunmen are older.
Sessions asked if playing violent video games could present a heightened risk for people who are predisposed to violence. Huesmann said it could, but Ferguson disagreed.
“The question is, do they perceive it as representative of the real world or not?” Huesmann said.
Does media coverage motivate school shooters?
Coverage of school shootings may have a contagion effect, sparking increased threats and acts of violence if it is not handled carefully, said Jennifer B. Johnston, assistant professor of psychology at Western New Mexico University.
Studies have shown that media coverage following mass shootings typically portrays the shooter much more prominently and frequently than the victims, she said. And that coverage, combined with the spread of speculation and discussion on social media, can motivate would-be mass shooters, who may be narcissistic, suicidal, and socially isolated, further studies have found.
“For some reason, I think they see fame as a remedy to the suffering and their suicidal state of mind,” Johnston said, noting that the gunman at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando checked his social media feeds in the middle of the shooting to see if his name was circulating.
Ben Fernandez, chair of the National Association of School Psychologists School Safety and Crisis Response Committee, said media coverage “can make these events feel closer to home and much more personal” and “perpetuate the belief that schools are dangerous places.” But federal data show that, in many ways, students are actually safer in school than they are outside of it.
Public officials, including DeVos and Sessions, also play a role in responsibly framing the public conversations, Fernandez said. And he favors guidelines for media coverage over restrictive mandates.
“While irresponsible reporting [on school shootings] can cause harm, responsible reporting can help communities heal,” Fernandez said.
While there’s been a growing push to change the way the media identifies and covers mass shooters—particularly since the 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.—those standards have not been as thoroughly established or widely enacted as guidelines for the responsible reporting of suicide. Prevention organizations have asked media outlets not to specifically mention the manner of a suicide, not to lionize the victims, and to provide resources alongside their coverage to address the contagion effects.
Johnston said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention needs to deploy a panel of experts to create a similar set of guidelines for covering mass shootings. She also pointed out that school threat assessment programs, designed to address the needs of students who may pose harm to themselves or others, are a strong prevention strategy.
Can positive school climates help prevent violence?
Threat assessment relies on the notion that when students “see something” they will “say something” to a responsible adult. That’s because federal analyses of mass shootings show that gunmen don’t act impulsively. Most of them “leak” their intentions beforehand to at least one friend or loved one.
And students are more likely to take those concerns to adults if their school has a strong, trusting environment between teachers and students, the panelists said.
“I like the term ‘askable adult,’ ” said Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at Florida Atlantic University. That means every student needs to know there’s an adult they can ask about relationship issues, bullying, academics, and other life concerns, and they need to trust that adult will respond to those concerns, he said.
The commission was specifically tasked with exploring cyberbullying, but students who are bullied online are typically bullied in person as well, Hinduja said.
Schools often rely on feel-good, one-time approaches, like school assemblies, to address bullying, he said. But those approaches can sometimes do more harm than good by conveying to students that adults don’t take the problem seriously. Researchers have found broader strategies, like social-emotional learning, can help address not only bullying but other youth risk factors as well.
Researchers need more funding to evaluate programs and disseminate proven strategies to schools, Hinduja said.
Some researchers have been concerned that a focus on school safety programs and hardware in recent months has come at the expense of research and evaluation to determine what actually works to make schools safer. In March, the leader of the American Educational Research Association, expressed concern that $75 million from the federal Comprehensive School Safety Initiative had been shifted entirely to help fund the new STOP School Violence Act.
The Comprehensive School Safety Initiative was created after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown to fund implementation and evaluation of programs that explore a variety of school safety concerns, ranging from bullying prevention to relationships between school police and students to comprehensive campus safety plans.
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741
Related reading on school shootings, school safety:
- Does Limiting Schools’ Entrances Make Them Safer?
- Thwarted School Shooting Plans Don’t Get Much Attention. Here’s How That Affects School Safety Debates
- Federal School Safety Research Eliminated to Fund New School Security Measures
- In School Shootings, ‘He Just Snapped’ Is a Myth, Psychologist Says
- School Shootings: Five Critical Questions
- What Educators Need to Know About Suicide: Contagion, Complicated Grief, and Supportive Conversations
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.