Watch Dr Sylvia Gearing on CBS 11 discuss the tragic Ohio high school shooting - click here.
With the tragic news of a school shooting at an Ohio high school this week, many Americans are shocked that shootings continue to occur in a post-Columbine world.
Since the tragic Columbine shootings in April 1999, psychologists have assembled a list of common denominators between school shooters.
Teenage Males: They are usually Caucasian males between the ages of 11 and 18 with the average age being 16 who are engaging in their first act of lethal violence. Boys between the ages of 13 and 19 commit about 1/3 of violent crimes.
Rural Settings: School shootings usually occur in the rural or suburban areas outside larger cities. The kids are from a blue collar or middle class backgrounds.
Seasonality: Time of year has a lot to with this kind of crime with most of them occurring between December and May (usually in the Spring).
Tough Home Life: Family background is usually highly dysfunctional and attachment to the parents has been compromised in some ways. The family often looks fairly normal to the community and people are often surprised that the child becomes a murder. Discipline is overly harsh and applied inconsistently.
Cold Blooded: Premeditation is a central part of the crime. Smuggling a gun or guns into a school takes forethought and cunning. There is a plan that has been carefully constructed somewhere along the way. Acquisition of firearm—almost always from the home-- is necessary as is the requisite clothing to hide the firearms as the enter the school.
What would push a teenager to engage in this type of lethal crime against his peers?
Vengeance is the primary motive for almost all of the school shootings and again, this teenager has a history of being bullied and being socially isolated. The second motivation is to achieve notoriety.
The shooters are often perceived as nerdy and physically unattractive and are the common targets of ridicule from other children. Anger and resentment build up over time.. Suddenly there is a precipitating event that forces them to lose control and to lash out in a murderous rage.
If the target is a school official, then a teacher or a principal has had to take disciplinary action against the child.
If the targets includes peers, those who are deemed responsible for the torment are targeted almost exclusively. Many of the kids who have been shot in the past are the more popular or successful kids who are perceived as having wronged the shooter at some point in time.
What are these kids like emotionally and psychologically?
Socially Withdrawn: Most of the time, school shooters are emotionally immature, isolated and socially withdrawn. The emotional centers of the brain are not fully connected to the logical analytical parts of our brain that tells us that “no injustice is worth taking someone else’s life.”
Violence Unites Them: If they do have friends, the friendships generally revolve around their dark view of the world—militaristic, violent, “dog eat dog” kinds of views that justify their social isolation and bond them to one another. They enjoy bragging about their interest in violence and killing and are fascinated by the weapons of violence—guns, bombs, knives, and online or media depictions of violence or death.
Hypersensitive to Criticism: Cognitively these kids are very rigid and simplistic in how they view others. They don’t examine their judgments of others and are quick to assume that others are criticizing them. They are distrustful and view themselves as victims of others. Hypersensitivity is common and they anticipate rejection. They do not usually trust adults.
When does the child cross the line to violence?
Prior to the crime, the child begins to:
- Feel justified to kill
- Perceive few or no alternatives
- Believe that the consequences will be worth it
Here are some warning signs if you are concerned about your child:
Learning to predict violence is the first step to preventing violence. Remember that most of the time, these crimes are well rehearsed. The school shooter fantasizes about revenge against those who are perceived to have harmed him. They often have protracted mental and behavioral rehearsals of their acts of violence in which they carefully select the victims, the time, location, means of killing and how it will play out.
Remember that their violence is calculated--it is not a crime of impulse or passion. It is a crime of intentional revenge.
Here are some warning signs of school shooters:
- Lack of Conscience
- Angry Outbursts
- Depressed, Sullen Behavior
- Tendency To Follow "Leaders" No Matter What
- History of Oppositional Behaviors
- Actual Threats—Written or Spoken
- Past Acts of Violence
- Access to Weapons
- Past Suicide Attempts
- Family History of Violence or Bullying
- Cruelty to Animals
The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
The Classroom Avenger by James P. McGee Ph.D. and Caren DeBernardo, Psy.D.