When the FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or local police departments want insights on school shooters, they call psychologist Peter Langman, PhD. For over a decade, Langman has conducted research seeking to understand the psychological states and life circumstances of these criminals in an effort to identify the warning signs of impending violence. His website is the world's largest online collection of information on shootings at schools, colleges and universities worldwide, offering information on prevention, threat assessments, school safety and more.
These attacks remain rare: In any given year, the number of mass school shooters is estimated to be one out of 10 million to 20 million people or more, he says. These tragedies are, however, happening more frequently in the United States. While there were three school shootings from 1966 to 1975, that number increased steadily to 19 from 2006 to 2015.
Langman's work has also identified an underappreciated truth: There are no specific symptoms, personal characteristics or conditions associated with someone committing these crimes.
"A lot of different factors come together to lead someone to commit an act of mass violence," says Langman.
What are the most common myths about school shooters?
Perhaps the most important misperception is that school shooters are victims of bullying. Not that that's never true, but its significance has been vastly overblown. Another myth is that mostly juveniles commit these crimes. People in my research are ages 11 to 62, with most of them being adults.
Also, girls can pull a trigger just like boys. Yes, it's less common, but you can't dismiss it as an impossibility. Based on a 50-year review, 95.3 percent of the perpetrators were male and 4.7 percent female.
Another misunderstanding is that school shooters are loners, outsiders who no one talks to. But many school shooters are not isolated. In 2014, for example, a 15-year-old in Washington state, Jaylen Fryberg, became a school shooter a week after he was voted homecoming prince. He was one of the most popular kids in his grade.
These stereotypes are not only inaccurate but dangerous, because they might lead people to take some threats less seriously than others.
What are the psychological factors associated with school shooters?
Based on my analysis, school shooters typically fall under one of three psychological categories. The first is the psychopathic personality. The second is the psychotic school shooter, who is not fully grounded in reality—they may have schizophrenia or a schizotypal personality disorder. The third category is the traumatized school shooter. These are the people from horrendous family backgrounds who have experienced multiple types of abuse, chronic stress and trauma.
While the psychotic and psychopathic people may have some dysfunction in the home, for the most part, they come from intact, middle-class families. The traumatized shooters are typically from the lower end of the economic spectrum and have parents who are violent, dysfunctional and have criminal histories.
Having said that, I also need to say that most people from those three categories do not commit mass murder. So that's not an explanation, it's a starting point for understanding.
What are the factors that contribute to their committing violence?
Often it's a series of failures, rejections and setbacks. Among adolescents, it could be that a kid gets dumped by his girlfriend around the same time he is suspended from school, around the same time he gets a traffic ticket or gets arrested for something, around the same time he has trouble at home or doesn't make the baseball team—one thing after another. If you take all of that happening to someone who is psychopathic, psychotic or traumatized, then you have some combination of psychological dynamics and life events that put people on a path of violence.
Among adults, their failures are more likely to be failed marriages, occupational failures and—a critical one—financial distress.
Also, with the younger shooters in their 20s and under, they often have some sort of external influence, either a peer recruiting them to join an attack or a "role model." I've found at least a dozen shooters who were drawn to Hitler and the Nazis. It could also be a fictional role model: The movie "Natural Born Killers" has been cited by multiple shooters.
What have you learned about the victims of school shootings?
The popular view is that school shooters are retaliating against tormentors. That's not always true. Out of 48 shooters in my last book ["School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators," 2015], only one targeted the kid who picked on him.
When a shooter does have a target, most of the time, they are school personnel, teachers and administrators. The next most common targets are female students.
What more can be done to prevent school shootings?
Ideally, all threat-assessment teams in schools and universities should have a psychologist as a member. The primary task for these teams is to investigate threats of violence and separate false alarms from potential or impending violence. Such an investigation can include not only interviewing the person of concern, but also family members, peers, teachers/professors, as well as in some cases obtaining a search warrant to search their homes, rooms and computers. Depending on the situation, the intervention could involve mental health services or a law enforcement intervention such as arrest or detention.
Membership in threat-assessment teams varies within settings. In general, the teams are multidisciplinary, including administration, faculty, law enforcement, mental health and sometimes legal representation. Nothing is simple here, but psychologists are in the best position to interview and evaluate someone, looking for evidence of a psychopathic personality, psychotic issues, and trauma history and to build a relationship with that person to assess them.
● To learn more about school shooters, go to Dr. Langman's website: https://schoolshooters.info.
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