Written by Pamela K. Orgeron, M.A., Ed.S., BCCC, ACLC
Do you now what country has the largest number of school shootings? If you guessed America, then you are right on target, according to Foxman (2012) and Wolfe-Wylie (2012). Before moving forward with this article, let’s clarify what is a school shooting. Gun Violence Archive (2018) defines a school shooting as
An incident that occurs on school property when students, faculty and/or staff are on the premises. Intent during those times are not restricted to specific types of shootings. Incidents that take place on or near school property when no students or faculty/staff are present are not considered “school shootings”. (Some Basic Definitions box, 4th definition)
Gun Violence Archive (2018) also reports that when four or more victims are shot and/or die in the shooting, the incident is classified as a mass shooting.
Because of frequent and sensational media coverage, it may appear that the era of mass shootings began in 1966, atop the tower at the University of Texas in Austin, and became a part of American life in subsequent decades (Associated Press 2007). However, cases of mass murder, of which mass shootings are a subset, have been recorded over time long before mass shootings captured public attention. For example, in the Bath school disaster of 1927, to this day the deadliest mass murder in a school in United States history, one man killed 38 Michigan elementary school children and 6 adults and injured at least 58 other people. (Knoll & Annas, 2016, pp. 82-83)
Remember Sandy Hook? “When a gunman killed 20 first graders and six adults with an assault rifle at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, it rattled Newtown, Conn., and reverberated across the world.” (Patel, 2018, ¶1) Since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook, a minimum of 239 school shootings have occurred nationwide. Collectively, 438 individuals were shot. Of those persons shot, 138 died.
Just this past Wednesday, February 14, residents of Broward County, Florida were rattled when a 19-year-old lone gunman, a former student, killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the small town of Parkland. According to a number of resources, the mass shooting this past Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida was the eighteenth school shooting this year in the United States. The New York Times reports it was “the third mass shooting in the past four months in the United States.” (¶ 1)
What’s wrong with the above picture? Where are the parents of the teenage perpetrators? Why are they not more responsible with keeping their guns secured and knowing what their children are doing? I remember growing up my father was a deer hunter. He had guns in the house. However, one difference I believe in my father and today’s parents are my father always kept his guns locked in his gun cabinet, and the gun cabinet was kept in my parent’s bedroom where us kids were not allowed to enter unless requested to for a specific reason. Additionally, my father always knew where us kids were and what we were doing as long as we lived under his roof. That’s a father who loves and protects his children.
In this article I will be looking at various etiological theories of crime [excerpted from Owens, 2003] followed by factors specific to school shootings and that have been proposed and that I believe are contributing factors to the increase in school shootings. No doubt the list is not exhaustive for the number of reasons why school shootings happen. Neither does any one factor fit all school shootings. The catalysts behind school shootings varies with each perpetrator and situation. Lastly, I will look at the different types of prevention and interventions that have been proposed to minimize the number and negative effects of school shootings.
Etiological Theories of Crime
A variety of theories regarding the etiology of crime exists, according to Bennett-Johnson (1997). Among the theories summarized by Bennett-Johnson are the “Classical School” of thought, Positive School of thought, anomic theory, radical theory, strain theory, and chromosome theory.
“Classical School” of Thought
Classical theorists believe that criminal behavior is a result of personal choice, or free will. Some theorists agree with this premise but stipulate that certain groups, including children, the mentally ill, the “inept”, and those with similar conditions, are not responsible for their behavior.
Positive School of Thought
A combination of biological, social, and psychological elements outside an individual’s control cause criminal behavior, according to the Positive School of thought. This school attempts to look at criminal behavior in terms of cause and effect.
Society or one’s immediate environment is the root of criminal behavior, according to anomic theory. Advocates of this theory believe individuals commit crime as a result of frustration and alienation caused from disadvantages in society.
Proponents of radical theory, also known as Marxist theory, believe criminal behavior results from a struggle among the various socioeconomic groups in society. This theory stipulates that the wealthy attempt to control the lower class through the economy.
Individuals who support the strain theory believe crimes result from socially generated stressors. An example of such a stressor would be the emphasis that society places on acquiring large amounts of wealth.
Since the perpetrators of all the campus shootings researched in this paper were male, the author felt it appropriate to include one of the more current theories, the chromosome theory. This theory proposes the possibility of criminal behavior in males to result from an extra “Y” chromosome.
The Roots to Gun Violence in Schools
Alcohol and drug abuse are linked to increased violent behaviors, such as shootings. Flannery and Quinn-Leering (2000) reported “that, at least some of the time, substance abuse increases social isolation and leads to contact with those who have easy access to guns.” (p. 847)
Ellis (2014), Kamrowski (2017), and Lurie (2014) cite bullying as a precipitator to school shootings. Kamrowski reported, “The teenager accused of opening fire at his Washington state high school, killing a student, told police he took the firearms from his father’s gun safe and wanted to teach his classmates a lesson about ‘bullying,’ court papers showed on Thursday.” (¶ 1)
Ross Ellis, founder of the nonprofit children’s advocacy group Stomp Out Bullying, said that while bullying may exacerbate problems for youth, she doesn’t think it’s the main cause of gun violence in schools. She points to “angry kids who feel betrayed” pushed to the brink by parental abuse, ultraviolent video games like Grand Theft Auto, lack of comprehensive mental health treatment, media glorification of previous school shootings and—above all—access to guns. (De La O, 2013, ¶ 8)
Barnard (1998) reported that a lack of communication between security and other departments challenges colleges and universities. For example, when Whitman remarked to Dr. Maurice Dean Heatly, the staff psychiatrist at the UT-Austin student health clinic, that “he often thought ‘about going up on the Tower with a deer rifle and shooting people’” (Lavergne, p. 71), security was not informed of the threat. Similarly, Gibson (1999) reported that better communication among campus officials could have prevented the shooting at Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, Massachusetts December 14, 1992. According to Gibson, Wayne Lo, an eighteen year old at risk student on campus, killed two and wounded 4 other individuals in this shooting.
Flannery and Quinn-Leering (2000) linked several factors associated with individual development to increased violent behavior. These factors include persons who experienced birth complications; child temperament and impulsivity; children diagnosed with ADD, Conduct Disorder, or Oppositional Defiant Disorder; and, youth experiencing early physical development. Three developmental factors I believe are important factors linked to increased violent behavior are intelligence, mental illness, and notoriety seeking that stems from an undeveloped self-esteem and trust in others.
Intelligence. Flannery and Quinn-Leering (2000) associated intelligence with violent behavior. They reported that “students who exhibit violent behavior have a lower verbal IQ than the general population.” (p. 842)
Mental illness. “American Psychological Association President Jessica Henderson Daniel has a message for those blaming Wednesday’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., on mental illness: Think twice.” (Ducharme, 2018, ¶ 1) Daniel pointed out “only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness.” (¶ 2) However, a common occurrence following such shootings is to blame mental illness. “Aside from the ethical concerns associated with diagnosing any medical condition from afar, doing so may both oversimplify the issue of mass violence and stigmatize those struggling with mental health issues, Daniel said in her statement.” (¶ 4)
Personally, based on previous education and life experience, I agree with Daniel. I believe the focus needs to be taken off of mental illness and put on preventing child abuse and other triggering factors that are both linked to mental illness and school shootings. I believe if society can reduce child abuse that often triggers mental illness, then perhaps the rates of mental illness and school shootings would decline.
Notoriety seeking . Nutt (2013) proposed the need to seek notoriety as a possible cause to school shootings. Nutt suggested that we
Take one moment and ask yourself this….
Who was the officer who caught Lee Harvey Oswald?
Can you name a single victim from a school shooting?
How many people were injured in the Boston Marathon Bombing?
Most people would be forced to admit they can not answer any of these questions. Those same people, however, most likely would be able to tell you the name of the shooter at Sandy Hook or perhaps the face of the Boston Bomber. Why is that? Because over and over the faces are shown and the name is said, making those people infamous and remembered. I understand in an age of internet news and 24 hour news cycle, to avoid doing so would be seen as poor news reporting, but it also means those who feel nameless and as though no one will care or remember them when they are gone may feel doing something such as a school shooting will make sure they are remembered and listed in the history books. (¶s 6-7)
I agree with Nutt in his above proposed theory. Personally, I had thought too that some of the school shootings may have been “copy cat” killings in an effort to get attention.
Students are not the only perpetrators of gun violence, according to McClain (1998). Former employees who feel wrongfully discharged, and current employees who possess ill feelings towards employers or who have significant outside personal problems are at risk of committing school shootings.
Mismatched Teaching/Learning Styles
In some classrooms, the teaching styles of the professor differs from a student’s learning style. Bennett-Johnson (1997) reported that such situations might be a precipitator of violent behavior. For example, when a teacher who uses straight lecture (auditory) to teach, a child who learns from hands-on experiences may get bored with the lesson and act out. Thus, I believe in making sure each student is a good fit for any one class. When it is obvious early on in a class that a student is not a good fit for that class, I believe if at all possible, the student should not be forced to remain in the class. Other options should be explored.
The optimistic bias is thinking that a shooting will never happen on one’s campus. This is much like the parents who say, “My child would never do that.” Mass shooters are no respecter of schools. Thus, the importance of all schools at every level and locale being prepared in the event that one does occur on one’s school campus.
“The reason mass shootings have increased so dramatically is because the moral fiber of American families is ripping apart.” (Miiller, 2018, ¶ 7)
“Can we say (parents) are directly responsible?” said Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “Obviously that becomes more of an ethical, philosophical question, but it is true that not enough parents are looking for flags that require intervention and treatment, and could really make a difference in terms of who is going to go on to commit violence later.” (Wallace, 2015, ¶5)
Flannery and Quinn-Leering (2000) reported several factors linked to increased violence that relate to how a person was reared by his or her parents. These factors include ineffective parenting; child abuse, neglect, harsh or inconsistent discipline; chronic exposure to violence at home; and students who had experienced lower levels of parental monitoring. I would like to elaborate more on two of these factors: absentee parents and abusive parents:
Absentee parents. What do I mean by absentee parents? These are parents who no longer contribute to the healthy development and well-being of a child either through death, divorce, imprisonment, or by personal choice. Miiller (2018) blames absent fathers in particular for the higher number of school shootings and other violent behavior. According to Miiller, about 27 percent, equivalent to more than 20 million children live in a home without their father. The National Center for Fathering, as cited by Miiller, reported, “If it were classified as a disease, fatherlessness would be an epidemic worthy of attention as a national emergency.” (Absentee Fathers are destroying the United States video clip) Fatherless children, according to Miiller, have a four times greater chance of being poor, a nine times greater chance of quitting school, and an 11 times greater chance of committing a violent act.
Abusive Parents. We all have heard “violence begets violence”. Another point I would like to make is that dysfunctional parenting creates dysfunctional children, unless the child recognizes the dysfunction and chooses to live differently. Many of today’s parents grew up in dysfunctional homes themselves with parents who were violent, alcoholic, mentally ill, or whatever that left the parents of today carrying a lot of anger. In their anger, typically these parents abuse their children in some form or fashion. The abuse can be physical, emotional, verbal, psychological, sexual, spiritual, or any combination of the aforementioned types of abuse. What is learned in the home typically spills out in to the community, resulting in such acts as school shootings.
School Cultural Changes
Absence of God. When I was growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s we had devotionals and/or a prayer every morning over the intercom at the start of school. Students and teachers were allowed to bring Bibles to school. In elementary school, I remember representatives from The Gideons International even came and had an assembly giving a free New Testament to each student. In high school, we had a prayer group. A prayer also was voiced at each sporting event. Since then God and prayer have been removed from the schools. I believe this is one of the most critical factors contributing to school shootings.
Less Discipline. Not only has God and prayer been taken out of schools, the paddle has been taken out of the classroom as a tool for disciplining students. With that change, teachers no longer have anything to hold over students’ heads to motivate them to behave well. I remember back then about the worst thing students would get in trouble for was throwing spit balls across the room, chewing gum in class, or talking in class without permission. Times certainly have changed when today’s teachers and students need to be concerned whether a classmate or someone else is going to pull out a gun and start shooting.
School stressors, especially for new students in classrooms, can lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as alcohol consumption, mentioned previously as being linked to violent behavior. Other school stressors more common in today’s world than years ago are role conflict (e.g.: competing demands between academics, friends, and family), greater academic pressures, and less support from traditionally expected family support and other students.
Prior exposure to violence. Flannery and Quinn-Leering (2000) reviewed studies conducted on young children, elementary children, high school students, and young adults that reported increased violent behavior in the majority of those persons who had prior exposure to violent incidents. Worth noting, Flannery and Quinn-Leering reported “exposure to violence or victimization in the home was a stronger predictor of emotional distress than violence in the community.” (p. 843)
Violent Video Games & Movies. As mentioned previously, “violence begets violence”. According to Orland (2018), Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin (R) blames violent video games as part of the blame for school shootings. Though many of these videos are coded for mature adults only, children are watching them with no one stopping them. I say to that, “Shame on the parents!”
Bevin said in an interview on WHAS’ Leland Conway show Thursday morning. “They celebrate the slaughtering of people. There are games that literally replicate and give people the ability to score points for doing the very same thing that these students are doing inside of schools, where you get extra points for finishing someone off who’s lying there begging for their life.”
“These are quote-unquote video games, and they’re forced down our throats under the guise of protected speech,” Bevin continued, seemingly referring to a 2011 Supreme Court decision that prevents content-based restrictions on games. “It’s garbage. It’s the same as pornography. They have desensitized people to the value of human life, to the dignity of women, to the dignity of human decency. We’re reaping what we’ve sown here.” (Orland, 2018, ¶s 2-3)
Parents alone cannot take full responsibility for children gaining access to violent video games. Media producers also need to take responsibility for creating the videos in the first place. Like Bevin, I too believe
“…we need to start by having an honest question about what value any of these things add,” he said. “Why do we need a video game, for example, that encourages people to kill people? Whether it’s lyrics, whether it’s TV shows, whether it’s movies, I’m asking the producers of these products, these video games and these movies, ask yourselves what redemptive value, other than shock value, other than the hope you’ll make a couple of bucks off it. At what price? At what price?” (Orland, 2018, ¶ 4)
Whether by suicide or homicide, the effect of a student or instructor’s death on survivors can be shock and horror. In some students, the experience may be their first time to face death. Thus, school officials need to implement and encourage interventions that promote healing for survivors. Such interventions occur during and after the crisis. Of course, the best intervention is prevention before a shooting occurs.
Prevention—3 Levels of Intervention
Primary Prevention—refers to offering education and training that will reduce the risk that students or others on or around schools will become perpetrators or victims of gun violence. I propose nine factors important in this type of prevention:
- The earlier the better. This education and training needs to begin as young of an age as possible on a level each individual child can understand. When parents, teachers, and other caretakers can identify unhealthy and dysfunctional behaviors early enough, there can be a decrease in crimes at the higher levels of education. Of course, there will be students in junior and senior high schools who will face personal crises, such as a death of a close loved one or parents divorcing. These individual cases will require extra attention from school personnel and perhaps counseling.
- Minimize optimistic bias/promote awareness. Having an attitude that “It won’t happen here” is not realistic and is dangerous. Students need to be taught to be aware and to take other’s threats seriously by reporting the threats to the proper authorities.
- School policing/more effective security. Education officials need to make it difficult for students or anyone else to perpetrate a crime. Suggested strategies include having additional security, installing alarm systems and video cameras, adding extra lighting in dark areas of the facility, utilizing escorts after dark, and adding restrictions to accessing educational facilities. In schools with dorms, administrators should use card key entry systems, extra video cameras, and panic bars on doors.
- Prevention programs. Though many school administrators cling to the idea that “it won’t happen here”, every school needs to be willing to invest in a security plan. This means calling in professional community officials, such as the police and local therapists, to assess threats and recognize potential problems.
- Crime Prevention through environmental design. This would include making sure the entire campus is well lighted. Emergency phones located throughout the campus and requiring outside doors be locked during the day also might discourage would-be perpetrators. At the discretion of the individual teachers, they might want to keep their classroom doors locked while classes are in session.
- Advocate student coping strategies. These measures might include offering stress management courses, emphasizing personal responsibility, maximizing academic and social learning environments, promoting multicultural appreciation, and encouraging students in positive activities with each other.
- Conflict resolution/anger management education. With so many students in today’s society living in unstable homes with one or more parent often having anger, emotional, psychological, and other problem issues, I believe students cannot be taught conflict resolution and anger management too young. This would emphasize the importance of sharing and also incorporate the role-playing of conflict resolution simulations.
- Discourage alcohol and drug usage. Students in grade school need to be taught about the dangers and negative consequences of drinking alcoholic beverages and of using illegal drugs. Alcoholic beverages also should be forbidden on all campuses.
- Faculty and staff training. “The key point for faculty and administrators, though, is what they can do before the fact to avoid problems.” (Franke, 2003, p. 27) To prevent and lessen the impact of gun violence, Franke recommends that faculty and administrators:
- Adopt an active interest in risk.
- Assess what could go wrong.
- Act to protect your important records, notes, data, and artifacts.
- Develop relationships with school security officers
- Know available resources for assessing threats.
- Work to reduce transportation risks.
- Know and enforce school policies and procedures on risk and safety.
- Devote attention to risk in off-campus programs.
- Understand a few basics about institutional insurance.
- Consider safety concerns as you exercise free speech. (pp. 27-29, as cited by Owens, 2003)
Secondary Prevention—Identifying and correcting existing problems to minimize their impact is the goal of secondary prevention. Secondary preventive measures include:
- Punish and treat offenders. Pezza and Bellotti (1995) report that another reinforcing factor to the problem of campus violence is that current regulations are not enforced and those guilty of campus violence often go unpunished.To the extent that violence on campus is “underreported, underprosecuted, and underpunished” (Hanson et al., 1986, p. 14), ignorance is fostered, vulnerability is increased, and the incentive of victims to seek assistance and justice is weakened. Where campus attitudes support the failure to report, prosecute, and punish, the adaptive behaviors of those at risk and those already victimized are not encouraged and the maladaptive behaviors of perpetrators are not discouraged. (Pezza & Bellotti, p. 108)Fogg (2002) reported that when an individual’s behavior interferes with students’ education or campus safety, the school needs to take action, even if it means banning a person from campus or referring a student to counseling.
- Promote healthy coping strategies against stress. Such strategies could include listening to music, exercising, talking to friends, volunteering, being with friends, reading, going to church, and sleeping.
- Recognize warning signs of violence and suicide. The increasing numbers of school shootings serve as reminders of the importance in recognizing potential perpetrators of gun violence. Major warning signs include prior violent behavior, an obsessive interest in guns and other weapons, alcohol and drug use, prejudice, gang connections, unhealthy attachments, creating violent drawings or writing, and displaying impulsive behavior.
- Take all threats seriously. The law requires all doctors, counselors, and educators to report all threats of public safety to authorities. Honestly, I believe anyone who witnesses a threatening statement from someone should report the threat. Most police jurisdictions have hotlines where one can remain anonymous in reporting such threats. As I have been taught in counseling, it is much better to err on the side of safety rather than being sorry later after an incident occurs.
Tertiary Prevention—the name for these types of interventions is actually a misnomer, as these interventions occur during or after a crisis has occurred. The goal of these interventions is to minimize the impact of the trauma on the perpetrators, victims, witnesses, and first responders. Tertiary prevention or post shooting management includes the following:
- During the crisis. First, and foremost, the physical safety of the victims and rescue workers takes priority over any psychological counseling. Additionally, there needs to be qualified supervision to allow both recovery and investigative efforts to operate as smoothly and effectively as possible.
- Debriefings. Witness debriefings should not take place until after the physical safety and security of victims, witnesses, and relief workers are ensured. Debriefings are where small groups of individuals involved in the disaster meet to discuss what happened. The purpose of debriefings is for counselors and specialized crisis workers to offer support and provide resources where witnesses may receive help in processing what happened. It is not for police investigators to interview witnesses.
- Funeral services and tributes to victims. Key steps in recovery after a school shooting are funerals and memorials. Some survivors also want to keep the memories of shooting victims alive. Examples might be writing a book or song about the tragedy.
- Therapy/Support groups for healing. Therapy to surviving victims and witnesses may be a part of post-trauma intervention. This needs to begin as soon as possible after the shooting to promote optimum recovery. Benefits to offering post-trauma therapy as soon as possible include minimizing the amount of emotional and psychological injury in victims and witnesses and also curtailing the risk of legal actions by increasing positive feelings in the survivors about the school.
- Preventing PTSD in survivors. Wilson et al. (2000) highlight the key issues in preventing PTSD in trauma survivors. The key issues discussed by Wilson et al. include considering the social context of the traumatic experience: “acute assessment, triage, and psychological first aid” (p. 183); “types of acute preventive interventions and their rationales” (p. 184); “studies and evaluations of preventive interventions” (p. 187); “coordinated international programs for PTSD and victimization” (p. 190); “the need for PTSD training programs for professionals” (p. 191); and, “the need for systematic international standardized training and education” (p. 192)Raphael (1986), as cited by Wilson et al. (2000) noted the components of psychological first aid: “comfort and consolation, immediate physical care, goal orientation and reality support, reunion with loved ones, ventilation of feelings and the ‘trauma story,’ provision of long-term support, and identification of necessity for further counseling.” (p. 184) Wilson et al. reported that trauma victims most likely to develop PTSD are those who have experienced the following: major job change; other recent traumatic events; transitional factors, such as a change in citizenship status; threats to significant others; breakdown of normal support systems, and traumatic childhood events, such as chronic abuse. Wilson et al. expounded on the value of funerals and debriefings in preventing PTSD.
The tasks of acute preventive intervention are far from simple; they require a sensitive, skilled approach and a knowledge of complex personal and social dynamics. As in major disasters, there may be a need to protect victims from those who would offer help. There is a firm need for quality control, training, and accreditation for those who offer such services, as well as for systematic evaluation of outcomes. The mental health professionals who do this work need to have extensive skills and training and a specific understanding of the complexity of psychological trauma, while maintaining a human and compassionate approach. (Wilson et al., 2000, p. 192)
The causes, consequences, and interventions for gun violence on school campuses are as diverse as the perpetrators and victims associated with each incident. Responding to school shootings is no easy task. Unfortunately, with the increase in gun violence in schools, school administrators are left in the onerous position of having to balance the confidentiality rights of students and school employees with legitimate campus security concerns.
In concluding, the most important things that I believe can be done to reverse the increasing numbers of school shootings are putting prayer and the paddle back in the classroom. I also believe there needs to be more educational and accountability programs for parents about how to reparent themselves and to know how to parent their children.
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