School shooters are not just “ordinary kids”: Will our past determine our future?

Posted by on June 23, 2014

If we do not make changes, then our past will determine our future and we will continue to have school shootings. This statement was a part of my first testimony before Congress in March of 1999 shortly before the massacre at Columbine High School. My testimony focused on the need for increased mental health services for students in our schools.

I have now been personally involved in providing direct on-site services in the aftermath of 13 school shootings and have consulted with school personnel after many other shootings. Throughout my years of professional experience, I have stayed abreast of the latest research and literature and am very aware of the societal changes that are being called for by parents who lost their children in these tragedies. They are calling for more religion, better parenting, controlling guns, reducing media violence, and increasing mental health services for our youth.

There have been few changes and little agreement about what needs to be done. What do we know about schools shooters other than they are exclusively male? Are they ordinary kids? A school shooting took place at Chardon High School (Chardon, Ohio) and much to my dismay; the USA Today on March 2, 2012 published a headline story on this very tragic event describing the teenage school shooter with misleading words, “He was an average 17-year-old kid.” This provides the perception that any kid can potentially become a school shooter.

To properly address this issue and reduce the widely held perceptions on school shooters, let’s look at what we know.

Mental Health of School Shooters

Many school shooters who plan mass murder do not plan to survive and suicide is their primary goal. Therefore, we should view most school shootings as murder-suicides. The most common motivations of the shooters who already decided on suicide are fame and revenge. Our media certainly provides them fame through extensive national news coverage. Psychological theorists like Peter Langman have identified the following three types of school shooters that offer insight into the mental health of school shooters: psychotic, psychopathic, and traumatized.

  • Psychotic school shooters do not have a good basis of reality; this is often a consequence of schizophrenia. The school shooter at Heath H.S. in Paducah, KE was reported to be hearing voices and thought that monsters were living in his home.
  • Psychopathic school shooters often exhibit a lack of conscious (e.g. no moral barometer, lack of remorse and empathy for others); they may feel a sense of superiority and the right to hurt and/or kill people. For example, one of the Columbine perpetrators left behind writings and tapes in which he referred to himself as god-like and having the right to kill others.
  • Traumatized school shooters often have experienced significant traumatic events in their lives such as (victim of abuse, invalidating home environment, repeated bullying victim, loss of a parent to death or incarceration), which increases vulnerability to depressive symptoms and suicidal ideations.  The perpetrator at Red Lake H. S. in  MN had an extensive history that fits this category. A 2002 Secret Service report found that of the 41 school shooters studied, many had histories of suicidal ideations and attempts and suffered from depression. There are clear indications that school shooters are not ordinary kids but instead have severe mental health problems. National studies have estimated that 1 in 5 students has a diagnosable mental health problem. It is essential for schools and communities to improve their ability to detect students with mental health problems and to have the resources to provide appropriate treatment and interventions.

Warning Signs  

School shooters often leave behind a host of warning signs preceding the attack. But sadly, such warning signs are often overlooked and even discounted. This constellation of warning signs often include: fascination and preoccupation with other school shooters or violent historical figures; vocalizing to other students/peers that “it would be cool of something like that happened at their school,” stockpiling weapons and/or or asking parents and friends to buy them weapons, completing school assignments (writings, presentations, papers and videos) centered on violence and particularly school shootings, posting on social media sites their intentions for violence, and recruiting others students to join them.

What’s the reality of mental health services currently provided in our nation’s schools?

I previously  worked full time in schools for 26 years and have consulted with school personnel such as school counselors and school psychologists extensively for the past 9 years. The reality is that very few school counselors do counseling or provide any type of mental health services to students as most of their time is spent  scheduling, testing or in clerical work. The ratio of counselors to students in most schools is 500 students or more to one counselor which raises the question how they could actually have the time to help a student who has severe problems.

I was previously the President of the National Association of School Psychologists and know very well that most of their time is spend on special education assessments and efforts to improve learning outcomes for students. These are important goals but leaves the highest trained mental health professional in the school with little time to actually provide mental health services. The ratio of school psychologists to students in most schools is 2000 students or more to one school psychologist.

Because few students receive mental health services in our schools we have to look to our community services. Many school counselors and school psychologists have said that they have been told never to make a referral for community services as the school could be made to pay the cost of the services.

What Can We Do?

It is acknowledged that preventing school shootings is very complex and there is much disagreement about what to do. But, would any of us argue that the shooters were ordinary kids who did not need mental health treatment? Where would be the most efficient place to provide mental health services to mentally ill youth? The answer is clear; at school with personnel who can actually provide the needed mental health services.

Our schools are also in need of suicide prevention programs which I have advocated for since beginning work for Texas schools in 1981. I naively thought when the Secret Service Study was released in 2002 documenting that most school shooters were suicidal that all schools would dramatically increase their suicide prevention efforts. Having presented in almost every state to school personnel since 2002, it is noted that few schools have suicide prevention programs.

Let’s make the changes needed and prioritize mental health treatment for students in our schools and not let our past determine our future!

Scott Poland is a professor at Nova Southeastern University and the Co-Director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office. 

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