There have been altogether too many school shootings since the beginning of the year. The latest, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is a bit different from prior incidents in that it has galvanized its community and student survivors into a movement that demands both political and social changes be made in order to reduce the possibility of similar incidents occurring in the future. Determined that theirs will be the last school shooting, these passionate young people are leading the charge to a day when these horrible incidents will hopefully become a thing of the past.
We are in an era where some of the innocence we’ve had the luxury of allowing our children must now be traded for preparedness. Nowadays, we need to teach our children from a very young age that they must be vigilant about their own safety. The old saying, “see something, say something,” is still extremely relevant when it comes to preventing violence at school – a place that until very recently was considered relatively safe.
One of the ways we can do this is by making sure that they are able to recognize the behavioral patterns of a potential offender. In the last decade virtually all school shooters had alarmed one adult, and three quarters of them had alarmed three or four adults. Warning signs are almost always present in what is termed, “leakage.” These are red flags – verbalizations of intent or desire to carry out a violent act – and they must be reported to an adult. Disturbing digital profiles are another indicator of a person’s mindset and should not be dismissed or ignored. Oftentimes, the Internet is used to share manifestos or plans prior to acting out. Even if violent comment is said (or taken) as a joke, it needs to be reported to a teacher or school administrator.
Contrary to popular belief, mass shootings are not the result of someone “snapping.” They are generally well planned before they are executed and tend to be perpetrated by young white men who are experiencing failure and loss or rejection in several areas of their lives (work, home, school, social, romantic). Oftentimes these individuals have mental health issues. That being said, it is important to note that most mentally ill people are not violent; in fact, statistics show that people with mental health issues are actually more likely to be victims of crimes than commit them.
The pathway to violence may start with a grievance or a perceived injustice that cannot be overcome. It is typically accompanied by social isolation, depression, erratic behavior and a history of aggression. Oftentimes, the perpetrator perceives that certain rights are being denied him. Motivated by anger and revenge, these individuals are also fueled by a pathological narcissism, which imbues in them a sense of specialness that diminishes empathy for others.
“A man who was known by no one is now known by everyone.”
– Oregon shooter
Another personality component of the school shooter is the desire for or expectation of fame. The Internet dramatically increases the potential for infamy, which is why dontsaytheirname.org urges the media not to sensationalize the names of shooters. The idea is that a shooting may be prevented if this incentive is removed. The typical school shooter has a fascination with (and access to) weapons. After an event occurs, there is a “period of contagion” that lasts an average of thirteen days. Twenty to thirty percent of crimes appear to arise from this contagion effect.
What concrete steps can we take to protect our children and ourselves?
1. First and foremost, everyone must be empowered to report questionable or unsettling behavior. For children, it can be something as simple as telling a teacher, “I’m worried about John.”
2. Pay special attention if unsettling behavior or mental stress coincides with a loss or failure.
3. Systems that support anonymous reporting should be established. These may include hotlines, websites and letterboxes.
4. Contact the local mental health agency to request an evaluation. Social and mental health interventions can be used to help get the person back on course.
5. The field of threat assessment is another avenue that can be explored. These companies combine psychology, social work and law enforcement to identify potentially dangerous individuals and intervene before they carry out their plans.
These tragic events, which happen all to often these days, normalize and embolden new people to carry out their own massacres. We must take every action to protect our children and ourselves from becoming victims.