Although certain personality traits and environmental factors may predispose some teens to attack their teachers or classmates, there is no profile for a school shooter. This was one of the messages delivered at the annual meeting of the American Association of Suicidology in April by a profiler from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
"There is a great deal of pressure to compile a list of red flags or characteristics to identify kids that may be school shooters," said Supervisory Special Agent Mary Ellen O’Toole, Ph.D., who works with the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group at the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) in Quantico, Va. "It simply doesn’t exist."
O’Toole came to the Bethesda, Md., meeting to discuss the results of an FBI report, "The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective," which NCAVC released in 2000.
The report is based on a five-day NCAVC symposium that drew 160 law enforcement and school personnel, psychiatrists, and mental health professionals to Leesburg, Va., in July 1999. Together, these professionals examined 18 cases in which there was either a school shooting or a foiled attempt during the 1990s. Many of the law enforcement and school personnel involved were present during the shooting incidents and knew the school shooters, O’Toole said.
The symposium was prompted in part by the April 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., that left 14 students and one teacher dead.
"School shooters cross all kinds of lines," said O’Toole. "They are not a homogenous group."
O’Toole, along with some of her colleagues at the FBI, have had exclusive access to the 18 case files discussed at the symposium.
She said that despite what the evening news may lead people to believe, school shooters do not all wear trench coats, nor are they all loners or poor academic achievers. Some show signs of depression, while others do not.
School shooters do share one thing in common, however, and that is their unfailing tendency to inform others of their plans. "I’ll tell you that without exception these kids will tell you what they are going to do beforehand," O’Toole said.
School shooters leak their intentions in any number of ways—as direct threats or through their drawings, doodlings, diaries, or school essays.
Those leaks are the most valuable tool that law enforcement or school officials can use to prevent a school shooting, O’Toole said, but it may soon no longer be available in many schools.
Many schools now have "zero-tolerance, single-sanction" policies requiring that students who make threats—even in jest—be immediately expelled upon being reported to school authorities. These policies discourage classmates from coming forward to make such disclosures, O’Toole predicted.
"Schools can have zero-tolerance policies but also implement [a range of] sanctions for students who make threats," she said, so that students don’t have worry about getting a classmate expelled when they report a threat.
Leakage often betrays that student’s obsession with violence, a personality trait common to many of the school shooters studied.
O’Toole was once asked to gauge the plausibility of one student’s threat of violence against his classmates and found overt themes of violence in some of his schoolwork.
For instance, in one videotape he created for a communications class, the student recorded footage of students and teachers chatting casually in the hall. But then he edited the video so that viewers saw their classmates and teachers as if through the crosshairs of a shotgun. The student also superimposed the word "kill" over certain students’ faces, O’Toole said.
She then discovered that for a home economics class, the student had baked a cake in the shape of a gun. She viewed some of the student’s art projects and found bizarre and sadistic portrayals of violence. O’Toole brought up the instance as an example of how violence can become an all-encompassing aspect of the would-be school shooter’s life.
The school shooters also shared other personality traits, O’Toole said. They tended to be narcissistic and, as a result, lacked insight into others’ needs and feelings. She noted that teens with this characteristic sometimes experience narcissistic rage, where they overreact to a minor frustration. O’Toole recalled an instance of this rage that led to the death of a classmate. A teenaged couple was in the grocery store when the young girl pointed out to her boyfriend which type of birth control she used with an ex-boyfriend. Her current boyfriend collapsed on the floor of the grocery store, crying. He later found the ex-boyfriend and shot him in the head at close range.
Student shooters may also fail to see those around them as human and often objectify them. They are "injustice collectors" and harbor resentment over real or perceived slights.
They are also likely to express prejudicial or intolerant attitudes toward ethnic groups other than their own and hold rigid or judgmental views on subjects about which they know little.
Other clues that a student may follow through on a violent threat can appear in the student’s social life, family, and school environments.
Students are at high risk for violence if most of these conditions are met in all areas of the student’s life. Some of these conditions, or risk factors, are described below.
In their peer relations, school shooters are likely to be exclusively involved with a group that shares a fascination with violence and extremist beliefs.
In the family setting, O’Toole said, the student-parent relationship is often quite turbulent. In addition, the student’s parents do not react to behavior that most parents would find very disturbing. The student "rules the roost," she continued, and is granted an inordinate amount of privacy by the parents. The student may have as many as three locks on the bedroom door and is free to use the Internet or play video games on an unrestricted basis.
O’Toole said that it is important to understand, from the student’s perspective, what it is about the school that would have influenced the student’s decision to commit an act of violence there, as opposed to somewhere else. In the schools where shootings occurred, there was a "code of silence" that prevailed among students—that is, there was little trust between students and teachers. In these schools, certain groups of students are viewed with more prestige by classmates and school officials than are other students, O’Toole noted.
"Thanks to your arrogance, stupidity, and relentless torment that you have caused me for pushing me away and teasing me in elementary school. . .for making sure that every minute of school was hell for me. . . ."
These are the words from a letter found on the computer of would-be school shooter Jeremy Getman.
If the high school senior had succeeded with his plan, he might have killed an unprecedented number of students and teachers at Southside High School, which is near the border of New York and Pennsylvania. On Valentine’s Day 2001, Getman walked into school with 17 bombs, a .22-caliber pistol, and a duffel bag full of ammunition. However, two classmates diverted Getman in the hallway beforehand and quietly summoned security personnel to apprehend him.
In his letter, Getman invokes the pain he felt when others bullied him as a young child. A number of school shooters and their families have attributed the shootings in some way to bullying, O’Toole noted, but she said she believes these claims have been given too much validation by the media and others.
"These students were not disproportionately bullied as compared with their classmates," she said. "The difference is how student shooters perceive the bullying."
Stuart Twemlow, M.D., a psychiatrist who contributed to the FBI threat assessment report and participated in the NCAVC symposium, disagreed. "I think there is an underemphasis on the effect of bullying on students," Twemlow told Psychiatric News in an interview.
Twemlow, who is codirector of the Peaceful Schools Project of the Child and Family Center at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., said that in the 18 school shooting cases, "the school settings were extremely victimizing." For instance, he noted that these schools tended to encourage bullying in certain environments, such as in athletics and debate, or did not appear to tolerate racial or religious differences.
He said that many of the character traits of student shooters described in the FBI report may be reactions to bullying.
Until schools adopt a more accepting and less-restrictive stance in which bullying is discouraged, school shootings will continue to happen, Twemlow warned.
The report, "The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective," is posted on the FBI’s Web site at www.fbi.gov/sitemap.htm. ▪