On Monday a 17-year old male student armed with two handguns and a shotgun entered Red Lake High School, located on a Minnesota Chippewa Indian reservation, and shot and killed a security guard, five students and a teacher, and injured as many as 15 others before taking his own life after being confronted by law enforcement officers. Prior to the school shootings the young gunman had shot and killed his grandparents. The shooter's deceased grandfather was a tribal police officer who was possibly murdered with his own police gun. The first person to be shot in the school was the security guard, followed by others. This was the deadliest incident of classroom violence in the United States since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, one that accounted for the deaths of a teacher and 14 students, to include the two student shooters.
Since 1996 at least 110 students, teachers, relatives of school shooters and the shooters themselves have been shot to death in worldwide school shooting incidents, with dozens of other victims wounded and many hundreds still carrying the significant emotional scars left by their experiences. After every shooting the authorities and the affected communities must consider what caused an otherwise functional student, in one case only six years old, to bring a firearm into a school and begin shooting. One aftermath of such an act of inexplicable violence is the desire of school officials, law enforcement authorities, and community leaders to create a profile of a "typical" school shooter and then to juxtapose that profile over every student in every school in an attempt to identify and dissuade the next potential shooter. Similar to incidents of violence in the workplace, there is no "one profile fits all" in the area of adolescents who are likely to commit an act of violence such as a shooting in a school. Due to the sheer number of school shootings we have learned many things, to conclude that all shooters are not alike; many but not all shootings are revenge motivated; the shooter is not always a loner; and, access to weapons is not the most obvious risk factor present with such individuals.
Threats will many times precede a school shooting, and if a threat is made known to officials it may provide them with information concerning the motivation, the intent, and the ability of the person making the threat to carry out his threat. There are many different types of threats with certain risks attached to each type of threat. Independent studies of school shootings were conducted by both the FBI and the US Secret Service (USSS) after the Columbine tragedy. The FBI study considered a four-pronged approach to assessing the threat that a student may pose, to include the personality of the student, the family dynamics surrounding the potential shooter, the known school dynamics as related to the student's position in the school, and the ongoing social dynamics that the student may find himself involved in. The behavior of the affected student is of obvious importance, but behavior can change from day to day. What needs to be done is to consider the student's behavior as a whole, i.e., what is typical for the student, not how he necessarily reacts on a bad day.
Students who could possibly present a threat to themselves and others may intentionally or unintentionally reveal clues to their thoughts and intentions that may suggest a propensity to commit an act of violence. This clue letting or as a profiler or a psychologist would say "leakage," may be a lonely cry for help or the solicitous actions of an individual looking for assistance in his plan to act out violently against others. Many shooters exhibit narcissistic and psychopathic personalities, traits that should be obvious to school officials, but characteristics that may be disguised or simply viewed as normal adolescent challenges. Should a threat emanate from a student it should be immediately followed up on by the school administration and/or law enforcement. Study has shown that threats many times preceded school shootings, but they were dismissed as the frustrations of youth instead of looking at such threats as a marker along the path of an escalation process, one that, in the extreme, may lead to violence in the school setting. Although most students will not follow up on their threats, such continue to be one of the best pre-indicators of potential violence and should not simply be dismissed as the hollow words of a troubled youth.
The FBI has identified a number of other potential pre-incident indicators that, in and of themselves, are not a guarantee of future violent behavior, but the more such indicators are present, the greater the potential risk and threat that the affected student may present to himself and to others. Such indicators may include, but are not limited to the following:
An attitude of superiority; an exaggerated sense of entitlement; signs of depression; a failed relationship with another student; poor coping skills; a low tolerance for frustration; a self-centered attitude; alienation from the school and feelings of sadness and not belonging; an exaggerated need for attention; poor anger management skills; low self-esteem; the refusal to accept responsibility for his own actions; a lack of trust concerning others; rigidity in thought and opinion; poor family interaction; limited monitoring of the student by his parents, to include the constant playing of violent video games and research on violence related issues; access to weapons within the home; poor attachment to one's school; lack of respect for one's teachers and peers; use and abuse of drugs and alcohol; and, involvement with a limited peer group that has a fascination with violence or violence related groups. Revenge, problem solving and attention seeking were significant motives, but few shooters were thought to have had only a single motive for their actions.
The USSS study found that prior to a school shooting almost 75% of the shooters threatened to kill themselves, made suicidal gestures, or tried to kill themselves. More than half of the attackers had a history of feeling extremely depressed or desperate. The study also found that school shootings are rarely impulsive acts. Rather, almost 95% of the shootings were thought to have been planned anywhere from a few days up to a year in advance. In addition, prior to many of the shootings other students were aware or had some inkling that the shooting was going to occur, but they never told a school official, a law enforcement officer, or their parents, something indicative of the code of silence that many teenagers practice. Few of the shooters ever made direct threats against their schools, teachers, or fellow students prior to the shooting. Of interest, however, was that most shooters had engaged in pre-incident behavior that had seriously concerned one or more adults, and 75% had felt bullied, threatened or persecuted by other students. The findings from the two studies suggest that many school attacks may be preventable, and since over three-quarters of the attacks were known about in advance by other students, to include almost 50% of the shooters that were dared or challenged by other students to mount their attack, it is obvious that students can play an important role in prevention efforts.
In this most recent case early investigation suggests that the 17-year old shooter's father had committed suicide within the past few years, his mother was confined to a nursing home due to a serious accident, the shooter, who was being raised by his grandparents, was known to frequent neo-nazi web sites, and he had previously considered violence in the school setting.
Red Lake High School; another school terrorized and traumatized, more children who will never have the opportunity to reach their true potential, and the shooter is dead with society left to consider what had happened, where did we, and where did the shooter go so terribly wrong, and how could we one more time not have seen this coming? Suicide has always been the harshest criticism of life, and when a teenager takes others with him we will try oh so hard to prevent another reoccurrence, such as the 40 or so national and international acts of violence that have taken place in schools in the last seven years, but the numbers of such incidents continue to grow. A threshold has been crossed and the unthinkable is no longer beyond reason for some, and unless we can learn to do better in adolescent threat assessment and intervention, more students will become the victim of future copy cat attacks by other troubled and challenged youth.
One potential solution is not necessarily more cops in schools, noting that the school security officer was this shooter's first victim, but early intervention and detection on the part of the home, the school, and the community. As far as the schools are concerned, we need more counselors in lower grades who can be there when the student is first developing his conflict resolution and anger management skills. We need men and women who are approachable role models who can offer the emerging adolescent alternatives other than violence to resolve conflict and peaceful means to vent his anger and frustration. A national grade school counselor corps, something like we provided to college graduates who entered law enforcement, could be formed to provide undergraduates with an education, psychology or sociology degree the opportunity to attend graduate school with assistance from the state or national government. The successful graduate would incur an obligation to perform a limited number of years of counseling duties in our nation's schools, to include inner city and rural communities. If we can reach the troubled child in his youth and offer him alternatives to violence turned inward and outward, we may save an untold number of members of each successive generation, and stop the pain that we now feel with each new school shooting.
The bottom line concerning issues of violence is still personal choice. No matter how tragic our individual lives are, each of us can still choose to work out our problems and challenges in violent or non violent ways. Too many today seem to make the wrong choice, and by their choice provide a terrible model for future violent behavior on the part of other challenged, frustrated, angry and confused individuals.
(Downloadable facts on personal security issues can be found at www.LiveSecure.org.)
Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Van Zandt Associates Inc. Dr. Van Zandt and his associates also developed , a website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Mr. Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and in his current position, was the leader of the analytical team recognized with identifying the "Unabomber."