School Shooters: How Can Parents Not Know?

School shootings are a problem that horrifies everyone who hears about them.

And over the past few years, everyone has heard about them.

The news media makes sure of that: depending on which outlet and methodology you prefer, the number of school shootings in the United States in 2018 is between 17-23. CNN reports the high number, while the Washington Post reports the lower number.

Either figure should be unacceptable to any person who cares about the health and safety of our nation’s children.

Here’s another statistic that’s just insane. As of May 18th, 2018, more students have been killed in school shootings than U.S. soldiers have been killed in combat operations. Here’s the original article that makes this claim, and here’s the fact check that confirms it, with a small caveat.

The Mind of The Shooter

The idea that a person makes a conscious decision to arm themselves, walk into a school filled with children and teachers, and open fire – well that’s almost impossible to wrap your head around. Schools are supposed to be safe places where children learn the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. They go to recess and play on jungle gyms and organize pickup games of soccer, touch football, and basketball.

They go to lunch and to the library.

Like all kids, they think about class assignments, homework projects, friends, and getting home so they can do what they love: playing in the yard, playing video games, or simply hanging out with family.

They may have serious worries: some kids have tough homes and tough circumstances. They may worry about violence in their neighborhood, in their home, or even fights at school. Those are problems that in some cases dovetail with the school shooting problem, but that’s a different discussion for a different article.

It’s safe to say, however, that as a matter of informal, common-sense consensus, what none of them should have to worry about is getting shot at school. No should they have to participate in school lockdowns, active shooter drills, or ponder a possible future where every school in the nation resembles a prison, complete with metal detectors, steel reinforced doors, and barbed-wire fences – with the barbed wire facing outward, keeping the world at bay.

Yet here we are, as a nation, looking that possibility squarely in the face.

But let’s back up to the question posed in the title of this article.

How Can A Parent Not Know?

The most definitive study to date on what makes a school shooter – most of whom are peers of the people they shoot – indicates that in most cases parents do know. To clarify that, most parents know their child has serious problems. They know their child has violent tendencies, extreme ideas, and significant emotional issues. In a very few cases they do not know, but in most, they’re well aware of the problems. What they do not know is that their child is going to act out those tendencies, ideas, and struggles by becoming a school shooter.

They never imagine their child would cross that line.

And the research says that almost none of them do cross that line.

We understand that sentence runs counter the popular narrative, which basically implies we’re completely failing to:

  • Protect our children
  • Keep guns out of the hands of children (a contentious, hot-button issue)
  • Offer adequate mental health care for young people
  • Recognize warning signs, and when we do see them, we fail to report them, and when we do report them to the authorities, they completely drop the ball and fail to protect their communities

The Stakes are High

Despite the horrifying statistics, the statements above are not entirely true. The problem is that even one mistake, one oversight, one dismissed report, or one parent in total denial, can lead to a school shooting. And when we look at our population – over 300 million people – that one becomes half a dozen, a dozen, or, in 2018, somewhere between 18-23.

Don’t misunderstand us: we can do better at all of the above. Much better. While we may not be able to prevent every shooting or every fatality, we can take steps to dramatically reduce them. But fervent belief and passionate rhetoric suffuse all debate on all these topics. Gun control, mental health, the role of law enforcement, teachers, and parents – the intensity of emotion surrounding conversations on these topics makes productive dialog nearly impossible. And it’s that dialog that leads to policy change, which leads to changes on the ground in real time.

So, in light of all that, what can we do?

First, let’s look at the research cited above, and find out what makes a school shooter.

School Shooters: Who are They?

In his 2010 study, “Rampage School Shooters: A Typology,” psychologist Peter Langham combed years of data on school shooters and chose ten upon which to form his analysis. To select his subjects, he considered both the amount and reliability of the information available on their personal histories, their documented psychological profiles, and other evidentiary sources, such as personal diaries or public statements made to friends, family, or on social media.

Langham identifies three categories of school shooters:

  1. Traumatized. These shooters came from broken homes, experienced physical or sexual abuse, and had at least one parent struggling with substance abuse and at least one parent with a criminal history.
  2. These shooters showed symptoms of schizophrenia or schizotypal personality disorder, delusions, and hallucinations. In contrast to traumatized shooters, these shooters came from families with no history of abuse, addiction, or incarceration.
  3. These shooters displayed characteristics of narcissism, lack of empathy, lack of conscience, and sadism. Like psychotic shooters, these shooters came from families with no overt history of abuse or significant dysfunction.

Langham is quick to point out – right away, in the first paragraph of his article – something all of us need to understand:

“Most people who are traumatized, psychotic, and psychopathic do not commit murder.”

Understanding this does nothing to heal the pain resulting from school shootings, but it does help us understand a fact that gets lost in our media coverage of school shootings – a fact which Langham also makes sure to get out quickly:

“School shootings are statistically rare.”

Nevertheless, one is too many by far.

Now, in answer to the question “What can we do?” let’s look at what we are doing. Let’s understand where we are in order to understand where we need to go.

How We’re Already Protecting Our Children

An article in The Atlantic with the fatalistic title “The Futility of Trying to Prevent More School Shootings in America” outlines the three lines of defense currently in place in our society that protect our children from school shootings:

  1. The Family. Families can and do identify emotionally disturbed and dangerous children. Parents of young people with extreme psychological disorders accompanied by violence almost always seek help, make family safety plans, and get their children on medication. These families work through challenging circumstances and their children go on – with the help of professional therapy and medication – to live productive, nonviolent lives.
  2. The School and Peers. Schools can and do identify students who pose a threat to the school population. After the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, schools across the country created assessment programs to identify, counsel, and prevent red-flag behavior from escalating. Tips often come from other students who witness troubling behavior or overhear disturbing conversations. According to one psychologist interviewed for The Atlantic article, “…more shootings have been thwarted than accomplished, often because a classmate spoke up.”
  3. The State, i.e. Law Enforcement. Law enforcement – like families and schools – can and does identify and act on children who are clearly dangerous. They’re empowered to arrest individuals for making terroristic threats, and some states have enacted red-flag laws which allow them to confiscate guns from potentially dangerous individuals. However, their job is complicated by legal factors, such as the fact that many of the potential shooters are minors, under the control of their parents, the fact that in the U.S., our due process laws are robust, and the threshold for acting on verbal threats is relatively high: and individual must make “specific, credible, and imminent threats” before local or federal authorities can take action.

School shootings happen when these lines of defense break down. Which they have – over 200 times since 1999, according to this report in the Washington Post. The reasons these three lines of defense fail – and let’s reiterate that in most instances, they do not fail – vary with each case.

Where We Can Do Better: Home

Family defenses fail, most often, for one primary reason: denial. Parents in denial refuse to acknowledge the severity of their child’s emotional issues. This denial can exacerbate the problem. A parent in denial may take their child out of school and allow them to isolate. They may take a protective, placating approach. Unfortunately, this can have a negative effect, since it may allow a disturbed individual to become more disturbed. It can allow them to become more obsessed with violence, and more comfortable in their delusions. And when there’s no one there to see these developments – aside from a parent in denial – the results can be catastrophic.

Where We Can Do Better: School

School defenses fail because the systems in place are new, and often inadequate. A teacher or another student can report dangerous warning signs to the administration. They can counsel the child, monitor the child, and bring the family into the loop. In some cases, they can involve law enforcement. Interviewed in The Atlantic article, an expert from the National School Safety Center, Ronald Stevens, proposes that schools can be “…more proactive in sharing their concerns with outside authorities.” He advocates an approach similar to the wraparound concept, which is designed to support struggling students:

“Let’s broaden the net. Let’s bring in the juvenile and family court judge, let’s bring in probation, let’s bring in Social Services – a whole network of people that have got to start working together more carefully.”

Where We Can Do Better: The Law

This brings us to how the third line of defense – the state – tends to fail. As mentioned above, there’s a fairly high threshold that prevents law enforcement from intervening in the lives of citizens. A threat has to be specific, imminent, and credible. This is the main problem law enforcement faces. Viewed after the fact, it’s easy to blame police or the FBI for failing to follow up on reports about frightening behavior. A teen posts threats online. Maybe a teen does horrible things to their own or a neighbor’s pet. Perhaps a teen actually tells a peer I’m going to shoot up the school. Police can follow up on individual circumstances. But they rarely see the entire picture. Which makes definitive, preventive action difficult to justify on legal grounds. Especially when dealing with parents who may be in denial.

What We Can Do Now

Although the situation is extremely complex, there are some straightforward things that we can do. We can do them quickly and without excessive difficulty, because we already have three lines of defense in place. We have the family, the school, and the state. It’s possible shore up each of these lines of defense and support the individuals within this existing framework to the best of our abilities and with all available resources.

We can help families by increasing resources for mental health treatment and reducing the stigma associated with mental illness. This will expand treatment options and encourage families afraid to come out of the shadows. They need to know it’s okay to take that first hard step and ask for help. In schools, we can increase support staff. That might mean more SROs (School Resource Officers from local police departments), counselors, or other mental health professionals. And we can adopt a robust wraparound approach that includes the entire community. We can also consider an idea currently floating around the public discourse. That is, making schools harder targets by increasing external security, and limiting access to schools. Finally, government can open serious and meaningful dialogue on increasing regulation of the sale, access, and use of firearms and ammunition.

The Gun Debate

This last area of change is the most challenging, by far. It foregrounds a tension between two of our foundational principles: the right to keep and bear arms and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those against increased regulation argue that increased regulation of guns is a slippery slope. The think It might end in the complete loss of our right to keep and bear arms. Those for increased regulation argue that without it, we’ll remain stuck. They think we’ll stay in a place where our schoolchildren are killed at increasing rates, year after year.

Despite this tension and the extreme emotions displayed by proponents on both sides, most rational people agree one one thing. The gun control debate is one we need. Desperately. We need to initiate it, and soon. No matter how difficult it may be to transcend our entrenched positions. We need to have the debate so we can move forward in a way that protects our most valuable resource, our children.