Can We Stop a Shooter-in-Waiting?

Is it possible to predict who will commit a school shooting?

Are there warning signs that teachers, administrators, and threat-assessment teams can use to alert mental health professionals and law enforcement that a child may kill himself, his classmates, or his teachers?

The answer is almost certainly no. Psychology hasn’t yet developed this delicate art, and it probably never will. Multiple interacting factors push a shooter to act, and the vast majority of people who are mentally ill are not dangerous. By and large, school is a very safe place.

Not so long ago, when life became overwhelming youngsters who were marginalized and disaffected usually headed for the person responsible for their trouble—an abusive father or the kid who bullied them. But ever since Columbine, these boys (and they are always boys) follow a well-established cultural script—a template. Violent media help them along by equating masculinity with guns and power.

What Can Teachers Do?  

Sociologist Katherine S. Newman, who has studied school shootings in depth, suggests that eliminating even one of the risk factors underlying a school shooting will reduce the chances of a future shooting. Here are some of her recommendations:

1.  Identify and include kids who feel marginalized, isolated, friendless, under attack, or bullied, because they are most at risk, especially if they’re also depressed or dealing with other mental problems.

In other words, strong relationships with teachers are crucial. Although kids who don’t fit in won’t ask for help because it isn’t “manly,” they desperately need someone who cares, someone who can model an alternative set of values and give them room to be different, someone who can refer them for appropriate help. Chances are such kids are not easy to get close to, but trying to build some sort of positive relationship is crucial.

Marginalized students also need an inclusive classroom climate where they can develop ties and become part of a community. If they feel they belong, maybe they will be less likely to carry out an attack. And because they often advertise their intentions, in a community their peers may know about—and disclose—their plans, enabling experts to intervene in time to prevent violence.

2.  Make academic, counseling, and disciplinary records available from grade to grade and from school to school.Newman writes, “The commitment to second chances, and the desire to avoid labeling kids in ways that prejudice future teachers is socially worthy, but it exacts too high a cost.”

A more open system would make it possible to spot patterns of behavior and get help for students who need it. We must balance the right to confidentiality against individual and public health and safety.

 What Do You Think?

Is it a good idea for school counselors, administrators, or teachers to have access to a student’s records? Should access be confined to administrators and school counselors, or should teachers be able to see records, too? Would knowing a student’s history affect your attitude and behavior toward him? How would you balance your knowledge with the student’s right to privacy?



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