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Friday, March 2, 2012

Can We Identify a School Shooter?

After Columbine, the Secret Service did  attempting to locate a useful profile of a school shooter, but time after time they found that there were many common factors among the previous school shooters, but none of them prevalent enough to distinguish them from the many students who would not turn to violence.

There really is no way to know which ones will break and which ones will fight and overcome. In fact, researchers say going through the information available is very disheartening. "It's as if these kids existed beneath the radar for sixteen years or so, and then burst forth almost out of nowhere." ("Profile of a School Shooter,"

Since the Columbine school shootings, American schools have been plagued by new attacks and threats. These incidences and the resulting unrest in our schools, both public and private, have been reported in the mass media highlighting the growing tendency of American students to engage in interpersonal violence. Violence is a problem not only in urban and suburban schools but also in rural schools, with more adolescents and children being both perpetrators and victims. (Kan V. Chandras, "Effective Counseling Strategies to Cope with Violence in Schools," GSCA Journal, 1:6, Fall 1999)

There are many interpretations and explanations about student violence.

According to research, factors such as family violence, violence in the community, and violence portrayed in the media incites students to commit violent acts.(O. Maura, "Factors Mediating the Link Between Witnessing Interparental Violence and Dating Violence, Journal of Family Violence, 13:1, 1998) Easy access to guns greatly adds to the number of violent acts committed by students. Generally, three types of violence, which adolescents commit, are physical assaults, murders, and sexual assaults.

After studying the psychological characteristics and backgrounds of these adolescents, the following profile was constructed and may represent the characteristics of school shooters:

1. Male Caucasian;

2. Lonely and feel rejected by others;

3. Angry toward someone or something;

4. Lack positive relationships and communication in school and family;

5. Obsessions with violent acts;

6. Obsessions with guns and other weapons;

7. Substance abuse;

8. Bullied and demeaned by other students;

9. Family pathology (violent home life, parental neglect, insecurity, etc.);

10. Depression;

11. May show delusion of grandeur or other mental illness;

(Kan V. Chandras, Ph.D., David A. DeLambo, Rh.D., Sunil V. Chandras, John Paul Eddy, Ph.D.,
"Why Couldn’t Schools Stop Student Violence? A Psychological Profile of a School Shooter and Prevention Strategies," VISTAS Online,, 2006)

Personal Experience Of A Teacher

I taught for nearly thirty years in a rural Southern Ohio high school. At least to my knowledge, we never encountered a gun in our school although I'm sure during hunting season some of the male population eager to head to the woods and fields after class had hunting rifles secured in their automobile trunks.

Also, our schools were constructed off a two lane road directly across from the Lucasville State Penitentiary, so we dealt with two separate prisoner escapes during my employment. And, of course, we experienced a prison riot: the schools were actually closed for an extended break in April, 1993, when the riot began Easter Sunday and lasted a total of ten days. No students were injured in these events.

While working as a Language Arts instructor, I taught many students who fit many of the characteristics of school shooters. All teachers encounter these students and, in my view, nearly all attempt to engage these young people and develop a proper student/teacher relationship with them. In fact, many times other staff and I defended these teens as they became "targets" of bullying and similar ridicule.

Wall Huggers and Loose Wires

Sometimes in talks with fellow teachers, I referred to these students as either "wall huggers" or "loose wires." Both types were troubled and possessed some of the characteristics of school shooters listed above. To me, the "wall hugger" was not outwardly intimidating -- he looked like a bruised puppy. The "loose wire," on the other hand, employed a more visible intimidation -- an unfortunate son.

I called the first group "wall huggers" because during class changes I would notice the manner in which they maneuvered to their next assignment -- alone, head down, in silence, and very often ambulating close to the hallway walls. In trouble at times, they usually quietly accepted their punishment as customary treatment for "their kind." The second group of "loose wires" were generally free-spirited teens, glad to be known as "losers" by their classmates. The "wires" manipulated their dark qualities in what they believed was relative obscurity until faced with the reality of dealing with authorities. Then, these confrontations ignited sparks that lit "loose wires" and produced spectacular fireworks.

I Noticed These Qualities In Both Groups

In class, when a discussion on literary theme would involve displacement, inequality, or unfair treatment, these students frequently entered the conversation and displayed genuine anger toward actions that threatened the minority or the unusual. I would always make note of this because most of the time I couldn't get an in-class response from them even when I was sure they had read and understood the assignment. Very little, if anything, in class hit a nerve hard enough to respond.

I taught plenty of introspective, seemingly brooding artists who drew mildly disturbing images in their notebooks. Many of these drawings were of the heavy music, hard rock variety with wizards, warriors, dragons, and maidens -- fantasy creations in my eyes.  As long as the images were not obscene, I tended to ignore them or ask the student artist about his taste in music. To me, some of these artists were very creative and merely bored with the norm. And, yes, Dungeons and Dragons, Tolkien, and the entire scope of the supernatural and violence seemed to serve as their inspiration.

I am absolutely certain that some of the "profile kids" suffered from depression and led unhappy home lives. Their interest in traditional education was very limited, to some nonexistent. Almost all longed for whatever they thought "freedom" was going to offer them upon graduation. In some personal
respects, many seemed fairly mature but almost all lacked necessary social skills. They preferred the controlled environment of their own making -- an environment they made sure remained closed to the general high school population.

Sometimes their resentment of authority stemmed from their inability to blend into popular cliques. Many lacked the money for fashionable clothes. Most lacked the "media molded image" of good looks so popular at the time. And few had the "hot" car and other accouterments necessary for high school popularity. But don't think for a minute they would admit regret. Instead they usually found a "puppy dog" or two who would befriend them, defend them, and, sometimes, model their behavior.

In our school, coming from a poor area called "The Bottoms" either added to a student's notoriety or made him feel a certain sense of inequality. A few of these less popular students actually used this to their advantage and fashioned themselves as righteous anti-heroes bent on fully developing a "Robin Hood" mentality and attitude that "stood against" the showy preps and jocks.

I know many of these young people, at the very least, experimented with drugs and ultimately developed dependencies. They seemed to relish their ability to stay in school while using because they believed they were cleverly hiding their behaviors from all school officials. To them, this "secret life" was a stab at the idiocy of authority. In fact, most personnel knew the truth. Any so-called "secret" is nearly impossible to hide in the high school environment.

As far as obsessions with weapons, I noticed very few students who fit this category. To be honest, the couple of students I remember who had this obsession were making plans to become enforcement officers. I'm not saying some school shooter profile types didn't possess this behavior. I am saying a teacher like me seldom saw this interest. I believe that is because (1) weapon fascination is more commonly displayed at home and (2) these kids, who may be volatile at times, were intelligent enough not to add further suspicion to their unusual character by openly talking about firearms.

When the school shooter profile kids did resort to violence, I thought they generally didn't do so because of the usual reasons -- boyfriend/girlfriend relationships, disagreements among friends. To me, they usually threw punches to get back at some type of authority or to avenge what they called someone "running their mouth" about their status. I am certain most valued suspensions from school because this gave them a vacation from their source of unhappiness, and it also added to their James Deanish "rep" while supplying them much-desired attention.

Every now and then I would meet a "loose wire wall hugger" -- a student who displayed qualities of both types interchangeably. These kids were fairly unpredictable as far as their behavior on a daily basis. I guess some psychiatrists would view them as bi-polar. This student was brooding one day and very reluctant to discuss any problem, but the next day he became the "don't cross me" student, so
compelled to resist school structure itself. I usually assumed either addiction or the family situation was becoming unbearable for this shape changer.

Who did I believe represented the best threat as a school shooter? I am not a psychiatrist or even a person who is marginally trained in deciphering complicated human behaviors. Sure, I had some college classes and training that dealt with such matters; however, I trusted our counseling staff to dig deep into students' problems.

Personally, I was always wary of a fairly quiet student, marginally intelligent, who sincerely believed that acting out a violent fantasy is an accepted form of reality. Somehow his mind becomes unable to distinguish the difference between irrational thoughts and irrational actions. Ultimately, this student feels justified in taking his bitter confusion into the real world.

Signs sometimes appeared that made me think, "This kid could do the unthinkable." Outbursts in class normally didn't make me think this. But purposeful murmuring and understated threats, made barely audible so that I "couldn't hear the content" made me think this student wasn't dealing with reality but instead scheming and fantasizing his "get back."  And, possibly some day he would bring it to school.

I really don't think the profile I believed had much to do with bullying others and size. Usually a bully would be satisfied to attack his target with fists and relish his defeat of an opponent who offered him no real threat. These guys seem to never fight equally sized students. Yet, those with a beef against the unfairness of an institution or against his mistreatment by the world would seem to want to resort to guns to "blow away" an enemy while making a "political" statement.

At times, all students hate and become highly emotional about things, but they rationalize and consider the consequences of acting upon their feelings. Of course, they do not cross the line by delivering their ill will in reality. Their values, morality, and intelligent reasoning aid them in working out their problems.

To me, the school shooter familiarizes himself with the means of delivery, (for whatever reason) considers his plan to be a warranted course of action , crosses the line into reality, and actualizes his deadly emotions. Some say, "I just wanted to know how it feels to kill people." I think others see the innocent dying as proper compensation for their personal abuse. In any case, the perpetrator must see himself as a soldier of the oppressed.

How horrifying, especially when the school shooter, even if identified as to his potential for violence, is most likely to be placed back into the school system. Then, if a shooting occurs, there will still be widespread denial of the severity of the risks previously discovered. You will hear: "I just didn't think he could do such a horrible thing."

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