Most school shooters are current or former students. Most are suicidal. And most share their plans in advance.
These are among the key findings of The Violence Project, a research effort examining 50 years of mass shootings in the U.S.
The project’s insights have been cited widely in news stories in the wake of recent mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso. While informing the American public is certainly of interest to project leaders Jillian Peterson and James Densley, the professors have a more specific audience in mind. They want to translate their work into practical training for teachers and school administrators hoping to prevent violence from breaking out in their classrooms and campuses.
“People have a lot of misinformation around school shootings,” says Peterson, a psychologist and professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University. “Being able to bring data to people is really powerful.”
People have a lot of misinformation around school shootings. Being able to bring data to people is really powerful.”
The researchers are currently developing a day-long course to share their findings with educators. Their chief recommendations include training every member of a school community to recognize when a student is in crisis and responding with help rather than punishment or alienation.
“You want to bring a student into the school rather than push them out,” Peterson says.
The Violence Project analysis offers insights that run counter to some of the assumptions students, parents and the public frequently make about school safety.
For example, the lockdown, shelter-in-place and armed assailant drills common in U.S. schools would make a lot of sense if most school shootings were carried out by random strangers. And indeed, there is evidence that a locked classroom door does help protect students from harm in dangerous situations, says Stephen Brock, a professor and school psychology program coordinator at California State University at Sacramento, who is a former president of the National Association of School Psychologists.
But because current and former students account for nearly all school shootings, running frequent drills may actually teach students how to circumvent security systems, Peterson points out.
“We tend to think of [shooters] as scary outsiders, but they tend to be people in crisis in the school,” she says.
Yet education mental health experts interviewed by EdSurge were not surprised by the findings.
“It sounds consistent with what the science has told us,” says Sharon Hoover, associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health.
Before carrying out shootings, students in crisis usually tell someone about their plans, The Violence Project research shows. That phenomenon is known as “leakage,” Brock explains.
“People don’t suddenly wake up one day and commit acts of violence,” he says. “It’s the rare exception rather than the rule that a person doesn’t leak.”
But students can leak their intentions in all kinds of ways that are difficult to track, such as dropping hints to other students or posting online. That makes it important for schools to create cultures where students feel comfortable reporting threats to adults, Peterson says. School IT specialists also have a role to play monitoring social media platforms and internet use for signs of a student in crisis.
When threats are made, Peterson advises schools not to jump straight to punitive action like suspension or expulsion. Instead, mental health experts should be called in to screen for self-harm tendencies.
“You want students to threaten, actually. You want to know they’re feeling like this,” Peterson says. “These are really suicides. They don’t have an exit plan. They’re really saying, ‘I don’t care what happens to me after tomorrow.’ See that as a cry for help rather than something that will be criminally charged.”
You want students to threaten, actually. You want to know they’re feeling like this. These are really suicides."
Another fact from the research: Most mass shooters are men, and most school shooters are boys. For Peterson, the challenge is finding effective ways to teach concepts such as resilience and social emotional learning to young boys—particularly those who have experienced trauma.
While most anti-bullying interventions are not gender specific, there are researchers studying how to help boys in particular manage aggression, Hoover says.
In the future, The Violence Project research could yield policy implications. While zero-tolerance approaches to threats of school violence have faded in recent years, thanks in part from guidance issued by the Obama administration, the Trump administration recently rescinded that guidance.
“The evidence is pretty clear that zero-tolerance policies where we just kick kids out don’t work. They result in more disruptive behaviors,” Hoover says.
What the research hasn’t produced, however, is a foolproof method for predicting the next school shooter.
“It’s important that we acknowledge that there is no profile we can apply proactively to individuals that would predict dangerous behaviors,” Brock says. “While there are some things people who have committed these acts have in common, there is no single profile. They’re all pretty unique. They all have their own idiosyncrasies.”
In July, Peterson and Densley tested their training program with a half-day pilot session for educators at the offices of Education Minnesota, a union of teachers and other school staff members based in St. Paul. Attendees gave it mixed reviews.
Brian Rappe, a middle school special education teacher, appreciated the significance of the data presented but doubted the practicality of watching every student closely for signs of personal crisis, considering typical staff-to-student ratios.
“It was frustrating knowing the lack of resources we have for situations like that,” he says.
However, he appreciated the researchers’ suggestions for treating students in crisis thoughtfully.
“The visual she gave that really impacted me was when she was talking about a student as an overfilled balloon, ready to pop. If you let a little air out, that could relax the situation,” Rappe says. “Your job at the moment is not to solve the situation, it’s to de-escalate the situation so that you can start to solve the situation.”
The training made Kelly Wilson, president of a local unit of Education Minnesota, question whether improving trauma care might not be a better use of funds than some of the expensive security systems schools use to try to promote safety.
“We spend all of our time fortifying and bullet-proofing,” he says. “I’m fine with getting controls in, but when are we going to actually focus on the kids’ needs?”
Rappe left with a new appreciation of the role every adult in a school can play in looking out for students who may be considering violent acts.
“It wasn’t just teachers. It was everyone in the building: Custodians, cooks, bus drivers,” he says. “We’re the front line. If more teachers have a better understanding of this, the easier it can be.”