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?
This summer two horrific mass shootings shocked the country.
The first, in July, took place at the midnight opening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, CO, just down the road from Littleton, a town that’s still reeling from the Columbine massacre. The shooter, James Holmes, killed 12 and wounded 58.
The second attack, by an unrelated assailant, Wade M. Page, occurred in August at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, near Milwaukee. Six died and three were injured.
This fall, two school shooters joined this nefarious company. A 15-year-old was charged with assault and attempted murder in Perry Hall, MD; and a 14-year-old shot into the ceiling of a packed classroom in Normal, IL. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
We know very little about these shooters, and we certainly don’t know what caused these attacks. But we do know some of the factors that increase the risk of violent and aggressive behavior, and we also know that risk factors are cumulative—one plus one equals more than two. They can easily become overwhelming.
In young children, these risks work to produce challenging behavior, and when that behavior continues into kindergarten and beyond it becomes harder and harder to change.
Children with behavior problems are frequently rejected by their peers, and as a result they’re deprived of opportunities to develop and practice the social and emotional skills they need for self-esteem and success.
Their behavior also creates problems in school, where teachers all too often make the situation worse by teaching them less and punishing them more.
No wonder children with challenging behavior develop into teens who drop out of school and turn to delinquency, gangs, drugs, and mental illness. As adults they’re more likely to commit violent crimes.
Even knowing nothing about his childhood, we can guess about how risk factors led one of these shooters down a dangerous path. The Milwaukee gunman was immersed in the neo-Nazi culture of racial hatred and its white-power music, “hatecore.” The songs he played on his guitar and bass were intended to incite violence and strengthen commitment to his cause.
To heighten the risk, he—and all of the other assailants, including the teens—had ready access to guns.
A Different Life?
But maybe once upon a time they were young children with challenging behavior. If they’d had strong relationships with their teachers and effective teaching, they might have turned out differently.
The police are lobbying for high quality early childhood education because research shows that it prevents crime.
What do you think? What causes violent behavior? Is it guns? Violent media? Poverty? Genes? And what can we do about it? Can high quality early childhood education prevent crime and violence?