Helping Educators Identify Potential Rampage School Shooters
By Pat Sullivan
With school in session, there is always the concern that “it might happen here”; some kid may snap and go on a rampage shooting spree in our school. Educators ask themselves, “How can we know? How can we prevent it from happening here?” Clinical Director of PA Residential Programs at KidsPeace Dr. Peter Langman was kind enough to offer some great advice aimed at educators and school administrators contained in his new book, Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan in January 2009.
Dr. Langman defined a rampage school shooting as “a large-scale event where several people are shot or killed. Some victims may be targeted, but this type of event goes beyond that and includes random victims, too. These attacks are committed by students at the school or, in some cases, former students who may have been expelled or have left the school for some other reason.” Langman was quick to point out that rampage school shootings differ from targeted shootings where two kids have a fight and one brings a gun to school to shoot the other. Rampage school shootings are also different from the tragedy at the Amish school a few years ago where a total stranger picked a school, held hostages and committed mass murder. He was an adult and had no connection to the school.
Langman stressed, “School shootings are rare events, and kids are much more likely to be killed at home, in their vehicles or in the neighborhood than they are at school. School continues to be the safest place there is for children in terms of where homicides and accidental deaths occur. Having said that, however, every school needs to be aware that it could happen there or anywhere, so they need to be on the lookout and know what to look for and have procedures in place.”
Having a Plan
According to Langman, what all schools need to have in place is a Threat Assessment System. To develop such a system, Langman recommends the 2006 Guidelines for Responding to Student Threats of Violence by Dewey Cornell and Peter Sheras. He says it is an excellent manual for setting up threat assessment procedure at school, not just for school shootings but also for any kind of threat of violence. There are also guidelines on the Web sites of the FBI and Secret Service, which have both done research and produced documents on school shootings and preventing such attacks on schools.
Three teens and a recent high school graduate in Green Bay, Wisconsin, amassed an arsenal of guns and bombs and planned for two years to go on a rampage in East High School. A friend heard about their plans and told the principal, and the attack was thwarted.
Signs of a Threat
Attack-related behavior is the most important thing to look for when assessing a potential threat by a student, and, Langman said, it can take different forms. Attack-related behavior is anything a boy has done that indicates he is actually preparing a violent attack. It should be noted that Langman uses the words boy and he in this article because school rampage shooters are almost always male. Attack-related behavior can show up in different ways. One is called leakage, where potential shooters leak their plans or intentions to others, and it can take several forms:
• A boy may warn friends to stay away, telling them not to come to school on a certain day because something is going to happen
• Another type of leakage may be bragging to others, saying, “wait till you see what happens in the cafeteria tomorrow,” encouraging people to come take a look
• Recruiting peers to assist in the assault is another form of leakage where the potential shooter says, “I’m doing this tomorrow, are you in?”
Additionally, if teachers or guidance counselors hear talk that a boy bought some guns over the weekend and is planning on using them at school, this is attack-related behavior. If a youth is known to be diagramming the school, thinking about where a bomb could be placed to bring down the whole building or talking about setting up a sniper position on the hill outside the main entrance, this planning is attack-related behavior, and a pretty imminent risk exists. “I want to emphasize that we are talking about behavior,” Langman stressed, “things kids do rather than what clothes they wear, what music they listen to or what video games they play – these are not predictive. It is the behavior of the kid, not what he looks like that people should be assessing.”
Another type of attack-related behavior identified in several cases is that the shooters take many pictures of themselves holding weapons and posing with firearms, or videotape themselves with guns prior to the attack. Sometimes they feel the need to record themselves with their weapons. In fact, one school shooting was stopped in California by a clerk at a photo shop who alerted police when developing a roll of photos of a young man with a whole arsenal of weapons. Police searched his room and found many guns and bombs and prevented an attack that was planned for the next day.
Other warning signs that are not as clearly predictive but might warrant attention include an obsession with violence and violent media, meaning a boy’s talk, writings, assignments, class projects, oral reports and everything he does are about shooting people; such a fixation could be a red flag. “This does not mean that when a student writes a story where someone gets shot, there should be concern,” Langman warned, “but, when there’s a fixation on weapons and violence, it could be something to look into.”
When asked if violence in general is an indicator that a youth is at risk, Langman said, “A prior history of violence suggests there is going to be a future history of violence; however, that is not always predictive. Shooters may never have been violent and then, one day, they erupt. It would be a mistake to think that because a boy has never done anything violent before, he’s not going to now.”
Metal detectors and security cameras do not work if a young man is intent on perpetrating a rampage shooting. He and his colleagues will have the entire act well planned and either elude or break through security. Langman believes that it is far better to invest money that is allocated to metal detectors and cameras into mental health counselors, school resource officers and psychologists to help meet the needs of kids who are depressed, abused and struggling to get by. “Schools will obtain better prevention through increased staff resources than physical security measures.”
Two boys, aged 11 and 12, bragged of planning an attack on the school resource staff and then random students in South Carolina, but the sister of one notified the grandmother of the other, and the boys were stopped before hurting anyone.
Communication is Key
Determining the risk of a student requires the entire staff to work on identifying the pieces of the puzzle. As an example, a guidance counselor may hear that a boy was arrested over the weekend for possession of fire arms, the English teacher may get a story that the student wrote about wanting to come to school and shoot people. If the counselor and teacher are not sharing this information with each other, the pieces are never put together.
When asked how schools can make sure that there is communication about any potential risks or attack-related behavior, Langman said, “It differs among schools, but the disciplinary component, guidance counselors, psychology staff, teachers, coaches, maintenance workers, security officers and all adults working in a school need to be trained.” “If they see something that raises a red flag, they need to know who to communicate with to share this information.” This can be through formal meetings, e-mail, phone calls – whatever works in that school to ensure that red flags are noticed and reported to those who are responsible for the security of the school.
A 17-year-old in Belvidere, New Jersey, made a hit list of the students he was going to shoot in March of 2008 and showed it to classmates; they notified the police, and the shooting
Getting Students Involved
“The number one thing that prevents school shooting is kids reporting what they hear,” Langman stressed. “So, beyond training staff, the student body needs to be trained on what to look for and how to report a threat.” Of course, students need to feel safe when they report something that they think may be a safety risk. “The important thing is making kids see the distinction between a tattle tale and a reporter,” according to Langman. “When you tattle or snitch, you are doing something to get someone in trouble; when you report a safety concern, you are doing that to keep people safe. There is a fundamental difference between snitching and reporting. Students need to understand this difference and discuss what would happen if they report a friend, and what might happen if they do not.” If a classmate reports a friend, he might be angry, but, if that information is not reported, he might come to school and kill the student or others and himself or get killed by police or end up in jail. “It is a stark reality that school shooters end up dead or in jail,” Langman emphasized.
The best way to get students to take this subject seriously is to present details of actual events: “So and so was a 9th grader who was heard making comments about wanting to kill people at school. No one took it seriously, and, on the 20th of April, he came to school with these weapons and killed 10 people.” Repeating the history of some of these shooters can make students realize that rampage attacks really do happen.
Emphasize that, if a student cares about a friend, he needs to do what he can to keep everyone else and the friend safe. “It is true that your friend might be angry, but, in the long run, he will be grateful,” Langman said. “If you don’t report it, and it happens, how are you going to live with yourself the rest of your life? It is better to have an angry friend in the short run than to have that kind of guilt in the long run.”
To help students who fear for their own safety if they report a potential threat to authorities, there should be several ways to report their concerns, including voicemail, e-mail, a mailbox or a designated person to whom they can report safety concerns. A school safety officer should be available for students to express their concerns. Students should be trained about leakage and attack-related behavior and understand that nothing will happen to the boy they report if there is no threat. If a student is not sure that a safety risk exists, it is best to report what he knows and let trained adults assess the risk.
There should also be training available to parents, since they spend the greatest amount of time with their children and should know them better than anyone else. They should be alarmed if their child starts collecting weapons, hides weapons or bomb-making materials in his room, visits Web sites that teach bomb making or idolizes mass murderers.
In Grand Rapids, Minnesota, a parent saw plans posted on the Internet by her son and a friend to go on a shooting rampage in their school. She reported this to police, and the two 12-year-olds were apprehended.
What to Do if a Risk is Identified
What steps should a school take if a threat is reported? First, Langman said, staff should perform a threat assessment. They should find the youth who poses the alleged threat and keep him under close surveillance, particularly if the threat is deemed to be imminent. Bring the parents in and compile information from every possible source on whether this student is at risk of committing a violent act. If he is alleged to have already brought weapons to school, law enforcement should be contacted because that would be a legal violation. In the absence of a weapon on campus, the police will be helpful in intensifying the level of risk assessment and intervention. The aforementioned book by Cornell and Sheras discusses how to differentiate between substantive and transient threats.
If a boy is identified as being a potential threat, try to get him help before he escalates to an imminent threat. Langman is adamant about the need to reach out to kids in crisis, rather than simply punishing or suspending them, which does not resolve the situation and may drive them into greater crisis. “Typically, school shooters are very desperate and highly distressed kids; if the school can reduce the stress level, it can reduce the
A 16-year-old in Indiana plotted a Columbine-like attack with the ambition of breaking the record for number shot in a single rampage. He posted his plan on MySpace and had a notebook with his plans in his locker. His plans were foiled when his MySpace post was reported to police.
Summing it Up
The key issue is what the student has done, not who he is, what he looks like, what music he listens to or who his friends are. The risk assessment should be based on behavior – if a youth thinks the Columbine shooters are cool, that might raise a red flag, but it’s not a definite indicator that he will be a shooter. However, if this admiration escalates – if he talks about wanting to imitate Harris and Klebold and is acquiring firearms, then there is clear attack-related behavior. Beyond identifying potential risk, communication is the key to prevention: All staff members should communicate with each other if red flags are raised, as the combination of behaviors in different environments could suggest a true risk. Parents and the entire student body should be trained in the warning signs and know that their reporting what might appear to be the risk of an attack could save many lives, including their own.
In Wichita, five students at Riverton High School were arrested after posting on MySpace the details of how they were planning on killing 12 popular kids during a rampage shooting.
Cornell, D., and Sheras, P. Guidelines for Responding to Student Threats of Violence. Sopris West Educational Services, New York, 2006.
Langman, P. Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters. Palgrave Macmillan. New York. 2009.
Website of the FBI with links to their reports that are available to the public.
Dr. Peter Langman is Director of Pennsylvania Residential Programs at KidsPeace, the national center for kids overcoming crisis. He has more than 20 years experience working with children and adolescents. Dr. Langman has developed an expertise in evaluating youths who are at risk of committing school shootings and has served on task forces to address suicide risk and self-injurious behavior. He has written and presented on a number of topics related to psychology, multiculturalism and mental health issues among children. Dr. Langman has been interviewed about school shootings numerous times on television, radio and print media in the US, Canada, and England. He has made presentations on school shooters to the FBI, Secret Service and Department of Education at the 2007 Educational Security Congress in New Orleans. Dr. Langman was the winner of the Pennsylvania Psychological Association’s 2008 Psychology in the Media Award. Dr. Langman earned his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Lehigh University, his Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Lesley College, and his Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Clark University. His new book, Why Kids Kill:Inside the Minds of School Shooters, provides psychological insights into the lives, personalities and psychiatric symptoms of rampage school shooters and is available at bookstores and online. The publisher is Palgrave Macmillan.