School Shooters: Roots of Violence? (Retrieved from https://www.shopswell.com/)
Since I last wrote an article in this series – almost five weeks ago now – the world has drastically changed. As far as bringing out the best and the worst in people, I can’t yet say that it has changed for the better, but it’s leaning that way, and only time will tell. History alone will record the degree of international kinship during this time of global crisis. My personal and professional responsibilities have shifted dramatically as I have become counselor and confidant to friends, family, and others alike, most wanting answers, and I, with none to give. All I can offer right now is simple reassurance. Reassurance that we will get through this, and somehow, someway, it will pass. There’s been no time – or energy – to write until today. I humbly offer this missive, the fifth and final article in this series on mass school shootings.
It is impossible to turn to any source of news right now and not be overwhelmed by the devastation that this pandemic continues to reap. Yet among the horrors this respiratory illness continues to inflict, there are buried other atrocities too. Terrors that often go unreported in the ‘best of times’ but still prevalent, nonetheless, and as is the norm, not making the evening news.
The National Domestic Violence (DV) Hotline  – the keepers of DV statistics throughout the nation – report that in the ‘best of times,’ 24 people per minute (12 million people per year) are the victims of rape, stalking, or physical violence inflicted by a loved one. Although there are no formally published statistics yet, in the first few weeks of this crisis, police departments here on the West Coast are reporting increases in DV calls of between 21% to 27%. This uptick, although not unexpected, is simply horrific!
Yet other things are happening too, and again they are things that go unreported. Just a couple of nights ago, a 13-year old boy in South San Francisco intentionally injected himself with an opioid cocktail in a failed attempt to take his own life. He told a friend what he was about to do, and although at first, the friend didn’t believe him, after going to check on him and finding it was true, called for help. Just last week, in eastern Pennsylvania, a man under lockdown became ‘extremely upset,’ making verbal threats of intention, then went and retrieved a handgun and shot his girlfriend in the back before taking his own life.
Domestic violence, suicide, and even panic buying are all rooted in power and control. All of us are feeling a loss of power and control in our lives right now.
Some people resort to inflicting harm – on themselves or others – simply to cope. In cases where these signs are visible with little ambiguity, it is pertinent to investigate if there are additional signposts on the road that perhaps point the way to ‘other things.’ More things. Worse things. Violent things. Things that an individual might not even contemplate if current circumstances were different.
How Does This Apply?
In times of elevated stress, the signs we see that are indicators of how a person might be coping become more apparent. For example, does an individual appear to lack empathy, react with drama or quarrels, seem to ignore or not acknowledge problems, always blame others, are they neglecting their health and hygiene? These character traits would seem to suggest an individual with a paranoid personality . These markers, these indicators are what may lead the observer to express concern. The degree of apparent concern expressed before the event is what is most often called into question after a violent incident has occurred.
Through forensic investigation of the circumstance, the questions inevitably arise, “Well, if you knew, why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you do anything to stop it?”
When it comes to mass school shootings, and as shared in the examples above, as is more often the case than not, perpetrators seem to have this one thing in common.
They all share their intent before acting.
In their first attempt to create a profile of the school shooter as a result of the public outcry in the aftermath of Columbine , the FBI concluded that essentially, “There is no one-profile-fits-all for the mass school shooter.” The report did acknowledge, though, that “there are observable signs along the way that most of us can see if we know what to look for.”
It takes two sets of skills – observation and listening.
The FBI termed this seemingly common trait of sharing intent, ‘leakage,’ and it is the single shared element that perpetrators of mass school shootings seem to have in common.
According to the FBI, “leakage occurs when a student intentionally or unintentionally reveals clues to feelings, thoughts, fantasies, attitudes, or intentions that may signal an impending violent act.” [sic] It is often a cry for help, a sign of inner conflict, an empty boast disguising a serious threat. Leakage is considered one of the most – if not the most – important clues preceding an adolescent’s violent act (p.16).
Yet this assertion was made in 2000. Was it a reasonable hypothesis? Is there a ‘degree of truth or certainty’ we might ascribe to the FBI’s original findings by looking at the mass school shootings that have occurred since then?
Is it a Good Hypothesis?
To test this, let’s consider the school shootings between February 2000 and February 2020 that fit the mass school shooting criteria.
Data on school shootings is not difficult to locate. There have been 291 school shootings in America during the time bracketed by these dates. To remain consistent, let’s compare only those cases that fit the federal criteria for what defines a mass shooting. In this case, three or more murdered during one event (with no cooling off period between killings), not including the shooter . (There is no widely agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a ‘mass’ shooting event, even within the FBI, but since I have been involved in this field of research, the aforementioned definition is one of the most frequently adopted as the baseline criteria when categorizing a shooting event.)
Table 1 (following) asks the question, “Was there discernable leakage other than simply abhorrent or unusual behavior prior to the mass shooting event?” (I am asking the question, “Did the shooter tell somebody that they were going to do it or not?”)
Appearance of ‘Leakage’ in mass school shootings, February 2000 to February 2020.
Of the 16 events analyzed that fit the criteria, only four appeared to involve shooters that offered no verbal or written communique of intent, or leakage. However, when investigating the crimes, police interviews indicate that in most cases, other serious ‘red-flag’ indicators seemed to go unnoticed or ignored by family, co-workers, or friends.
This statistic begs the question from the reader, “were at least three-quarters of these events potentially avoidable?” It is not the goal of this study to psychoanalyze each perpetrator or to comment on each shooting event independently; however, there are some critical ancillary observations with respect to opportunity and indicators.
Some Important Observations
We are a free society; we are a nation of individual rights claiming liberty and justice and the right to defend ourselves against the tyranny of government. We claim the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, and the right to privacy, medical and otherwise. Yet, at least one of these shootings was executed by a perpetrator who may have shared leakage with a medical professional in the days, weeks, or months preceding the event. Was that leakage not disclosed? At least one of these shootings was executed by a perpetrator who had just lost custody of his 2-year old son. He left the courthouse, went to a gun store and bought a gun, subsequently killing his ex-partner (and family members) less than 24 hours later. He claimed to detectives that he had apparently, “just snapped.” In which case, would a mandatorily imposed cooling-off period (a firearms background check at purchase and subsequent ten-day waiting period) have prevented this crime? This is all conjecture.
Our social order is a consequence of cooperation, not coercion, and the ability of each member of our society to conduct themselves voluntarily, in accordance with accepted standards of behavior. As Lyle Rossiter so eloquently states, “It is a matter of psychological fact, that the locus of administrative responsibility for each person’s conduct can only lie within himself…” . ‘Society’… does not cause an individual to do anything!
The relevance of written or verbal leakage as it relates to threat assessment and the prediction of future violence is significant. While programs have already been established to encourage students to come forward with information about leakage, or disturbing behavior of any kind, more needs to be done. It is especially important to acknowledge that the emphasis for encouragement need not be on the student population. Teachers must be adequately equipped and trained, and so must law enforcement officials, not only to recognize such signs but to know what to do with the information – with their suspicions – once they are informed.
In at least one of the statistics cited above, law enforcement was notified more than 24 hours before the shooting event. In at least one of the statistics cited above, surviving victims claimed to have witnessed the perpetrator being bullied by both students and at least one teacher.
These claims do not come as a shock to me. When one of my children was in 10th grade, she was horribly bullied by a TEACHER at her high school. Yet despite legal action, the school board/administration refused to become involved and ‘take sides,’ deeming it easier to coddle my child until she could be transferred to another school. As a father in this modern age, I have also experienced the impact of a school shooting when the unthinkable occurred last November at another of my children’s high schools.
These events can, could, and do happen anywhere. In this day and age, there is no such thing as, “It’ll never happen here…!” To invoke such a thought assures to some degree that the chances of it happening there just went up!
As a substance abuse, suicide, and trauma counselor, I see the same world, the same kids, the same young adults with the same problems that everybody else sees. I do not claim to be a behavioral expert, and I do not claim that what we have discussed in this series is easy to understand – or to put into practice, but it is possible.
Perhaps I see these kids differently. As a society, the area in which we potentially fail the most is our underestimation, our lack of understanding of the level of pain that someone else may be experiencing. Or perhaps we don’t want to acknowledge it, or we don’t know how to deal with it properly if we do, or we’re just plain afraid of the potential consequence, so we don’t.
What do we do when someone is heading toward a crisis, especially when it’s someone that we love?
After the COVID19 shut-in is lifted and we return to our lives in the ‘new normal,’ I can assure you of this one thing… another kid is going to pick up a gun (because they’re really easy to get), perhaps kill his parents, his siblings, his neighbor, before he then takes it to school, where he will invoke irreparable damage and harm on those who we love most – our children.
And the surviving victims will ask, “Why?”
 National Domestic Violence Hotline. [electronic] 2019 [cited 2020 April 7] from URL https://www.thehotline.org/resources/statistics/.
 Kathol, R., F. Huyse, and J. Cohen, The Integrated Case Management Manual: Assisting Complex Patients Regain Physical and Mental Health. Spring Publishing Company, New York, NY (2010).
 O’Toole, M.A., The school shooter: A threat assessment perspective., N.C.f.t.A.o.V.C. (U.S.). Editor. (2000), FBI Academy: Quantico, VA
 FBI. Active Shooter Resources. ABOUT [electronic] n.d. [cited 2020 April 7] from URL https://www.fbi.gov/about/partnerships/office-of-partner-engagement/active-shooter-resources.
 Rossiter, L., The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness. Free World Books, St. Charles, IL (2006).