The Path to Violence Understanding the Problem of School Shootings
The April 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado transformed how the United States of America perceives bullying, violence, gun rights and the threat of a school attack. While such school shootings are rare, according to Burtol & Burtol (2017), reporting on school shootings has increased while the actual number of such events has not really changed.
While a more long-term effect has been the emergence of The Safe School Initiative as a tool to assist schools in preventing such violence, the immediate impact of the events at Columbine were misinterpretations of who commits these types of acts, and why they commit them. Correcting the misunderstandings and myths about school attacks is only the first step in creating a safer school environment and providing the necessary mental health care that the attackers need.
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One of the biggest myths about school shootings is the perception that there is an epidemic in the United States (Kieckhaefer, 2018). While it is true that the United States has had a majority of these tragedies, there have only been 25 school shootings investigated by the FBI between 1999 and 2013 (Burtol & Burtol, 2017). Other common myths concern the type of individuals likely to commit these attacks. As will be discussed later, there is no single useful profile of a school shooter.
Attackers are not always loners, they are not always motivated by revenge, and they are not always committed by outsiders or antisocial individuals. While having access to weapons is a risk factor, it is not the most important in determining who is likely to be a school shooter. Despite the variety of perpetrators, there are some commonly shared psychological traits between those who commit these violent acts.
The most common traits between school shooters are feelings of depression, and ostracization from the social group. These individuals are victims of bullying, without a social support group or other mitigating factors (Kieckhaefer, 2018; Burtol & Burtol, 2017). Frequently, those who engage in school attacks have a history of animal cruelty, especially pet abuse, and generally have a fascination with morbidity and death. According to Burtol & Burtol (2017), they may also have an interest in acquiring and using weaponry, and in many cases, they are suicidal. Finally, many school shooters leave hints or outright inform others of their intentions to commit violent acts. Unfortunately they are often further bullied or even encouraged to escalate their plans by their peers, rather than prevented from acting.
The opening segment of the 2013 PBS documentary After Newtown: The Path to Violence (2013) focuses on a near-tragedy in Roy, UT, prevented only by a student’s decision to inform staff of the impending attack (Slobogin, Lindsay, Nutting & Rosenbaum, 2013). Megan Wehrman, a student, began receiving text messages from an unnamed friend who was plotting to do something terrible at Roy High School.
The text messages indicated that the attacker would work with an accomplice. When he revealed details about how they intended to get away with the crime, Megan decided to share the text messages directly with school principal Gina Butters. Dallan Morgan, the accomplice, and Megan’s unnamed friend were both arrested after police were called and the building was cleared.
The unnamed boy disclosed that their plan involved setting up time-delayed bombs, and to leave before the explosives detonated. The goal was to create a crime that they could realistically commit without being caught. Their plans were inspired by other school shootings, and they were highly influenced by the Columbine High School massacre. The unnamed boy went so far as to travel to Columbine and meet with the principal, without the knowledge of his family and friends. It is unfortunate to note that events like those at Roy High School, while fortunately not lethal, are not uncommon.
According to the documentary After Newtown: The Path to Violence (2013), over 120 different school shooting or bombing plots have been prevented since the 1999 events at Columbine through 2012. These events were prevented or avoided due to increased understanding about how school shootings occur. Forensic psychologist Robert Fein conducted research on 37 different school attacks, including interviewing 10 different school attackers. The results of his research, published in The Safe School Initiative, have helped to dispel the common myths of school shootings that became mainstream after the Columbine incident.
One of Fein’s most important findings was that school shootings are frequently planned, often to a strong degree of detail. Attackers may do things such as make lists of intended victims, begin stockpiling weapons, and many also spend time researching other attacks.
According to Criminal Behavior: A psychological approach, about half of all attackers inform other students of their intentions before attacking, referred to as leakage (Bartol & Bartol, 2017, p. 313). Also noted by Robert Fein in Slobogin et al. (2013), they often state that they wish they had been stopped by those peers they reached out to with their intentions. Attack preparations can take months, or even years to occur. School attackers don’t snap, they often exhibit clear warning signs and even communicate their intentions to peers.
The implications of these findings are that communication between students in the school and teachers and school staff is very important. As with the Roy High School case, successful prevention of a school attack often hinges on students coming forward with information. The effect of the findings of The Safe School Initiative is for parents, teachers and police to advise students that they will not be punished for disclosing information that they may have. This effort is necessary to overcome the cultural norm of not “”snitching”” on fellow classmates which is ingrained in many high schools.
Another of Fein’s findings is that there is no definitive profile of a school attacker. School attackers have been loners and popular students, struggling and successful students, and, as in the case of Newtown, non-students unaffiliated with the school that was targeted. Additionally, while most school shooters are teenagers, adults, such as Seung-Hui Cho, the perpetrator of the mass murder at Virginia Tech. These findings have helped schools such as Virginia Tech create and define threat assessment policies and procedures to increase the safety of students and staff from future attacks.
Threat assessment is only one aspect of school safety, and the field has been refined since the events at Columbine prompted nationwide attention to the topic. The purpose of threat assessment is not only to evaluate the likelihood that a student may act violently toward a specific target and prevent that act, but also to provide the necessary support such a student needs (Goodrum, Thompson, Ward & Woodward, 2018).
A in important question in understanding threat assessment is to know when, and to what extent to investigate an individual. Goodrum et al. (2018) describe the central question of a threat assessment as whether-or-not an individual poses a threat, not has the individual has simply made a threat. Vossekuil, Fein & Berglund (2015) note that many individuals who make verbal threats are low risk for committing them, while persons who pose a serious threat may never make one verbally. Therefore, any threat of violence should be investigated.
Some school districts utilize both a risk assessment, an initial screening to determine if further investigation is necessary, as well as a comprehensive threat assessment (Goodrum et al., 2018). As stated in Vossekuil et al. (2015), there are many key questions that a threat assessment is trying to answer. Understanding the purpose or goals of a subject, which helps identify potential victims. Another question of concern is communication; has the subject communicated their intent to attack?
Of equal importance is ascertaining if the subject has engaged in behavior that suggests a likely attack, such as purchasing or using weapons, researching explosives, prior attacks or other preliminary planning. Additional considerations include aggressive behavior towards peers and staff, any history of mental illness or depression behaviors. These questions, and others outlined in Threat Assessment: Accessing the risk of targeted violence (2015), should apply to any comprehensive threat assessment.
In a case study about a failed threat assessment, Goodrum et al. (2018) outline critical information about the subject, referred to as JD, that should have been available to the assessors, but was either missed or not communicated. Information included JD’s history of bullying/being bullied, history of discipline, academic struggles, how his peers perceived him, as well as his rumination on being removed from an afterschool activity and how JD responded to feedback or discipline he received.
Within their study, the School Resource Officer indicated wishing for an “”information vortex”” compiled between the subject’s family, therapist, school staff and law enforcement. Confusion about the what information could and could not be shared under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was in part responsible for the lack of communication between these parties regarding JD.
Events like the attack at Columbine High School, the Virginia Tech massacre or the Newtown shooting are highly unusual events, even when compared to other school attacks. They have been researched to understand what causes them, and the findings of this research, published as The Safe School Initiative have assisted schools across the country in increasing their security. Law enforcement have re-evaluated their perspective on who commits these acts, and schools have integrated threat assessment training to help identify potential attackers before they can act.
Despite these positive steps forward, there are issues with providing meaningful and accessible mental health services for students who need them, and many schools struggle with providing uninform discipline and an open communication environment that fosters students to speak up if they are concerned. While school shootings are still statistically rare, and Robert Fein has identified the path to violence and has fostered new understanding of school shootings, the United States still faces many problems in providing safe schools for its citizens.
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- Goodrum, S., Thompson, A. J., Ward, K. C., & Woodward, W. (2018). A case study on threat
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- Assessment and Management, 5(3), 121–136. https://doi.org.hmlproxy.lib.csufresno.edu/10.1037/tam0000104.supp (Supplemental)
- Kieckhaefer, J. (2018). Multiple Murder, School, & Workplace Violence [PowerPoint]. Retrieved
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- Slobogin, K. (Writer), & Lindsay, J., Nutting, M., & Rosenbaum, J. (Producers). (2013, February 20). After Newtown: The Path to Violence [Television series episode]. In After Newtown. Arlington, Vrginia: PBS. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/video/after-newtown-path-violence/
- Vossekuil, B., Fein, R. A., & Berglund, J. M. (2015). Threat assessment: Assessing the risk of
- targeted violence. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 2(3–4), 243–254.