March 1st, 2013

Combating school shootings will take deeper approach

The public and media react quickly and vehemently in the wake of traumatic events like the school shootings in Newtown and Columbine. Who were these kids? What made them commit these acts and, most importantly, how can we keep it from happening again?

From stricter gun control laws to heightened security at schools to greater access to mental health services, the public, politicians, special interest groups and the media have proposed a number of ways to approach the problem. But the real solution, according to experts, will take a deeper effort.

“Schools have lockdown procedures and they focus on what to do after an armed intruder is in the building. But that’s a little late, isn’t it?” asks Peter Langman, Ph.D., author of “Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters.”

The key would be to identify potential shooters before they act. For instance, the stereotypical picture we get in the media of a school shooter as being an awkward, angry loner is not always the case.

“We think we know what school shooters look like but they don’t all fit that profile. Some were bright, energetic, well-liked,” he says.

In studying past acts, Langman found that school shooters often fit one of three profiles.

“One type,” he notes, “has been traumatized physically or through neglect. Another class is the psychopath, highly narcissistic and doesn’t take kindly to any thwarting of their desires. The third type falls somewhere on the schizophrenic spectrum, maybe hearing voices, not fitting in socially.”

In hindsight, it’s easy to see how dangerous some of these kids were. Some were fixated on violent games or had serious emotional problems. Others were abused or bullied. Still, so many adolescents would fall into these same categories and the vast majority does not commit these types of crimes so it is not easy to identify the ones who will.

“Can we predict violence?” asks Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, “Yes, we can. We have a list of well-studied risk factors for aggressive and anti-social behavior. But people need to understand science. Just because we can pinpoint the factors does not mean that everyone with those factors will [commit these crimes].”

The key, he says, is to take a systematic approach to identifying children with issues that could lead to this type of violence.

Kazdin proposes developing a three-part screening program. All children should be given a short questionnaire similar to one developed to identify suicidality. Those whose answers raise a flag would be evaluated by a trained professional and then sent for further treatment if needed.

A screening would have the added benefit of identifying and helping, children who are having trouble in their lives.

“In the big picture,” he adds, “75 percent of people [with mental illness] in the U.S. don’t get the help that they need. There is no downside to screening everyone.”

James Brien O’Callaghan, Ph.D., a family psychologist from Bethel, Conn., and creator of the “School-based Collaboration with Families” model used to reduce violence in public schools around the state, would take it a step deeper and look at the family dynamics behind the behavior.

“In my work, when there is a problem in school, the problems are generally coming from the family,” he says.

In many cases, he explains, parents were too lenient with their children in hopes of helping them deal with issues.

“I call it the phenomenon of a child terrorist and parent hostage when the kid is running the show, doing what he wants.”

O’Callaghan would like to see treatment and follow-up done in the schools, rather than have students referred to outside programs where schools cannot track progress.

“That’s where state and federal laws could help,” he says. “We could have a system where school faculty is allowed to pursue mental functioning and follow through with it.”

For Langman, a key piece would be to create a threat assessment team to identify and deal with problems and to educate staff and students about signs to look for and report. Past shooters, says Langman, have nearly always “leaked” what they were planning.

“It takes multiple forms,” he says, “from kids inviting peers to participate to admiring the school shootings and saying that ‘someone should do that here.’”

Experts note that shooters have also talked about how they would go about an attack and warned friends to avoid the area or even written a story about an attack or a report on how it could be done.

The good news is that when an attack is foiled, it is often because someone who was trained in what to look for spoke up.

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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