I’ve noticed quite a few visitors here searching for information on school shootings, in the wake of the dreadful events in Pennsylvania this week. There are so many psychologists offering their opinions on the shootings (some rather better qualified than others I might add) that I’m not even going to try to summarise the recent coverage. (Search Google News with “Amish + Psychologist” if you want to see them yourself.) Instead, I’ll flag up a few resources for any of you interested in exploring the psychology of school shootings further.
Behavioural analysts and psychologists in the FBI and US Secret Service have put a lot of effort into understanding and preventing school shootings. The Secret Service Safe School Initiative page contains links to pdfs of their various studies and recommendations, based on research completed in 2002.
In 2002, the U.S. Secret Service completed the Safe School Initiative, a study of school shootings and other school-based attacks that was conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education. The study examined school shootings in the United States as far back as 1974, through the end of the school year in 2000, analyzing a total of 37 incidents involving 41 student attackers. The study involved extensive review of police records, school records, court documents, and other source materials, and included interviews with 10 school shooters. The focus of the study was on developing information about the school shooters’s pre-attack behaviors and communications. The goal was to identify information about a school shooting that may be identifiable or noticeable before the shooting occurs, to help inform efforts to prevent school-based attacks.
On 6 Oct, the FBI posted an interview with one of their behavioural analysts, Supervisory Special Agent Mary Ellen O’Toole. Here are her three tips:
First, be vigilant, especially now, when the events are still generating headlines, says O’Toole [...]. “We do believe a copycat effect takes place after these events.” There can be plenty of signs. Most school shootings are not spur-of-the moment events, she says. [...] “People who act out violently don’t wake up one morning and snap. There are clues,” O’Toole says.
Second, take all threats seriously, especially those leveled by teens, and have a strategy in place to deal with them. [...] Unfortunately, there is no single profile for a potential mass killer, young or old. [...]
Third, please know that no matter how watchful we may be, some tragedies may simply not be preventable. [...] “But remember,” she says, “despite the images splashed across televisions, the web, and newspapers, these attacks are relatively rare.”
The page links to a substantial FBI report written by O’Toole on school shootings, entitled The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective (pdf file).
Some other scholarly references:
- Marisa Reddy, Randy Borum, John Berglund, Bryan Vossekuil, Robert Fein, William Modzeleski (2001). Evaluating risk for targeted violence in schools: Comparing risk assessment, threat assessment, and other approaches. Psychology in the Schools 38(2): 157-172 (Draft full text pdf here.)
- Mark R. Leary, Robin M. Kowalski, Laura Smith, Stephen Phillips (2003). Teasing, rejection, and violence: Case studies of the school shootings. Aggressive Behavior 29(3):202 – 214
- Stephanie Verlinden, Michel Hersen, and Jay Thomas (2000). Risk Factors in School Shootings (pdf). Clinical Psychology Review 20(1):3–56
- Edward P.Mulvey, Elizabeth Cauffman (2001). The inherent limits of predicting school violence. American Psychologist 56(10):797-802
- InfoPlease has a timeline of worldwide school shootings, in case you’d like to test O’Toole’s theory about copycat events.
- Previous Psychology and Crime News posts on school shootings