School Shootings: No Usual Suspects?

So my family and friends back in Cleveland can’t help but lament the recent school shooting in quiet Chardon, Ohio – yes it really is all that quiet. The next day my father, a news junkie and retired high school teacher, briefed me on the details including the shooter’s motivation. The teen just wanted to kill somebody. There was no personal vendetta, no drugs, no bullying. I’d thought my father had added the last two possible triggers but no, they were straight from a local prosecutor:

This is not about bullying, this is not about drugs,” said David P. Joyce, the Geauga County prosecutor. “This was an effect of one lone gunman. He chose his victims at random.” Ohio Shooting Suspect Confesses, Prosecutor Says, New York Times, February 28.
Translation: The shooter’s a cold sadistic killer whose homicidal rampage can’t be attributed to anything but his sick, psychopathic personality. He has nothing and nobody to blame for his homicidal outburst.


Obviously the prosecutor, like the rest of us, has speculated about how a kid others have described as “normal” turns into a killer. It would be comforting to know his aggression could be predicted by media consumption, bullying or drug abuse. Those might be easier to deal with than the messier reality – a history of losses and violence in a young man’s life punctuated with red flags including foreboding poems on Facebook, a 2009 incident in which he choked and punched another student, a couple days in detention in addition to a family history of domestic violence and a father in prison. Doesn’t sound exactly normal or typical and yet, there are plenty of teens slogging through similarly dark families and households who don’t resort to violence.

Is it possible to predict the kids who’ll turn homicidal? Have we learned anything about kids like him who show up at school with weapons intent on killing? Although it’s practically impossible to predict, we do know a few things.

First and foremost, not many kids become school shooters - school shootings remain very rare.

Various government agencies collect information and report on youth violence. The National Center for Educational Statistics has put out a regular report since 1992 - Indicators of School Crime and Violence 2011 – listing among other facts the number of “school-assisted” homicides each year. From July 2009 through June 2010, the NCES reports 17 students were killed at school (some might include “legal interventions” – such as police shootings). In fact school violence in general, including homicides, have declined after peaking in the early nineties. Despite this decline the media attention has seemed to increase since the Columbine attack in 1999. Or is it just me?

These crime statistics aren’t useful in preventing or predicting these massacres nor does the academic literature offer up much either in part because the phenomenon is so rare. The CDC has a very long list of potential risk factors for youth violence. Not so helpful, look it includes hyperactivity, low grades and learning disabilities. In fact there is a large literature and many studies devoted to youth violence in general but in terms of school attacks, not so much.

Except for this interesting look at recent attacks.

In an effort to prevent future attacks, the Department of Education teamed up with none other than the US Secret Service to profile, if you will, the shooters, their backgrounds, motivations, plans, etc – The Secret Service Safe School Initiative. So some if not the most detailed and helpful information about school shootings comes from their report examining the 37 school attacks that occurred in the US between 1974 and June 2000.

Here’s some of their key findings:

There is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who will carry out school attacks.

Attackers ranged in age and ethnicity though all were male but a female committed one during the report preparation.

Most came from two- parent (63%) or one-parent households (20%). Only 2% lived with a foster parent or legal guardian.

Most did well in school with 41% getting As and Bs. Some had taken AP courses and were on the honor roll. Only 5% were failing. None showed any pre-attack slip in grades.

Almost half were considered to be part of the mainstream crowd at school. Only 27% belonged to a fringe group or hung with students considered fringe by the mainstream. Only 34% were loners.

Almost two-thirds never or rarely got into trouble at school. Few had either been suspended (27%) or expelled (10%).

Most (71%) felt they’d been bullied, persecuted, or harmed by other people right before the attack. Some had been bullied from early childhood, some not at all.

Most had expressed or felt suicidal (78%) and depression (61%) though only a third had ever received a mental health evaluation and a fifth diagnosed with a disorder. Almost a quarter had a known history of drug or alcohol abuse.  Where is the school counselor? The therapist? The pediatrician?

Most had trouble coping with significant loss or failures in their young lives before the attack (98%). These included failed romantic relationships, failing grades, family deaths and family illnesses.

Most were into violent media - movies, video games, books, etc. (59%). More than a third wrote violent poems, essays or stories. 

Most had no history of violence or criminal behavior. Only a third had acted violent towards another student in the past and a quarter had been arrested.

Most (93%) didn’t “snap” or carry out attacks on an impulse or whim but planned the attacks, some for years in advance. Typically other people knew about the plan, sometimes even helped plan or prepare. In almost all the cases (93%) the young man did something that deeply concerned someone prior to the attack (93%). In almost three-quarters at least 3 people were very worried.

Personally the most fruitful findings here, other than the diversity in backgrounds and traits, is that other people were very concerned about these kids-turned-killers. In all but a few instances people were very worried prior to the attack. People knew. These kids didn’t just snap. Their friends, siblings, teachers, someone knew. Not only were they not surprised, they suspected, worried something dreadful would happen.

The other piece that stands out – these kids had a deep loss. They likely were hurting, most struggling with suicidal thoughts and depression. 

That sure sounds like a profile to me.  Maybe not to the Secret Service but I bet school principals and guidance counselors might beg to differ. 

Could we please, please treat depression and mental health as seriously as “physical health” and medicine?

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