Spotting the danger signs in schools

A forensic psychologist says teamwork and technology may help prevent the next school shooting.
By: and | Issue: January, 2016
December 11, 2015

Since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, there have been an estimated 262 other school and college shooting incidents.

Tragic as they are, each incident reveals another piece to the puzzle of why such events occur, says J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist from the University of California-San Diego.

A frequent Psychology Today contributor, author and conference speaker, Meloy says many attacks can be thwarted when the right people are able to intervene in time.

One obstacle is inadequate mental health services in schools.

“We absolutely need more funding for these services in schools throughout the country,” he says. “I’m talking about services that are quickly and easily available to kids when they feel anxious, when they feel depressed, when they are down. Oftentimes the origins of a shooting incident come out of a grievance, which is typically a combination of loss and humiliation and anger.”

You’ve said school shooters exhibit some universal warning behaviors: pathway, fixation, and identification. Can you explain those?

“Pathway” comes from research of school shooters that shows these individuals will plan and prepare their activity typically over weeks, if not months. The thinking used to be that these individuals somehow snapped or their acts were impulsive and completely unpredictable. But we know now that there are lots of behaviors that indicate the person is researching how to carry out the act.

“Fixation” refers to the individual constantly thinking about a particular person or group that he has a grudge against or a particular cause that he wants to advocate for. The individual will think about this continuously.

They will become more isolative. They neglect their schoolwork. They begin to engage in concerning or disruptive behaviors. It may reach administrators that this particular student is troubled because he’s talking a lot about violent events in schools that he’s heard about before.

And that leads to the third warning behavior that we see in school shootersÑ “identification.” The idea here is that the student will want to be like and imitate individuals who have done this at other places before him. They exhibit a curiosity that is sometimes tinged with a desire to be just like that person.

Many of them look to Columbine as inspiration, don’t they?

We see a number of cases that could tie into the Columbine shootings, and show how strong that contagion effect is. The students express a lot of interest in the shooters that have preceded them by looking at their histories on the internetÑstudying very carefully what they wore, what they did, the weapons they used.

And there is often a desire to surmount what other shooters have doneÑthey either want to have a higher casualty rate or they want to do something innovative and creative that hasn’t been done before. Seeing that component of identification is a relatively new formulation.

Teen angst is often expressed through dark prose, poetry and drawings. How do you distinguish a threat from artistic expression?

How do you determine whether this is the next Seung-Hui Cho [Virginia Tech gunman] or the next Stephen King? You will see kids who are creative but also quite graphic in their drawings or their narratives that do not pose any threat.

What we teach is that there should be an immediate broadening of the investigation to develop the context in which this note was written or drawing was made, as well as what else is happening in the student’s life.

When you look at school behavior and home behavior, and how other people interact with this particular student, that will quickly answer the question as to whether this might actually be a threat we need to take seriously or whether this is just a very creative kid who is well-adjusted in a variety of other areas.

The mistake is made when people get myopic and they focus just on the writing, and try to parse apart the words. Sometimes they’ll bring in a forensic linguist to study the content of the piece. I think that misses the boat. You need to explore the behavioral context in which the kid is living as well as the understanding of the environment.

The FBI and the Department of Education recommend that K12 schools form threat assessment teams. Who should be included on these teams?

First, they should be multidisciplinary. You have a variety of people from different educational and training backgrounds who bring important perspectives to their observations at the school.

One member should clearly be someone in a position of power in the schoolÑthe principal or assistant principal. You absolutely need the school resource officer. Often, that is a police officer in the community.

I would suggest including a faculty member who has a sensitivity and an empathy toward adolescent development, who has good rapport with the kids and who is, in a sense, tapped into the rumors and the innuendos that are always there within the school. If there is a mental health staff person at the school, they absolutely should be on the team.

You also want to have somebody who is well-versed in the legalities of threat assessment with an adolescent population. If that person can be at least available by phone when the team is meeting or when various interventions are discussed, that can be helpful.

That sounds like a comprehensive team.

It is, but the problem is that threat assessment often falls short on threat management. By that I mean the student needs to be monitored over an extended period of time to see how they are doing. But the school is on to the next case. Monitoring has to unfold over months in a school setting just to check back and see whether some of the problems that were initially addressed are continuing to be addressed.

Ideally, the threat team can periodically revisit these cases and ask, “How’s Joe doing? He was a freshman when we were involved in a threat assessment, but he’s now a sophomore. How is he doing?” Somebody is assigned to just check with him, find out how life is going, check with other people who know him. Collateral dataÑthat is, data from other people observing the childÑis so critical for this kind of work.

One study I read noted that even when students know something or are personally threatened, they tend to keep quiet.

That’s a huge issue. We know that in school shootings, the majority of shooters will leak their intent to a third party before they do it. And in the vast majority of cases, at least one, if not more, students at the school know this is going to happen.

Penetrating that veil of secrecy is critical, and there are ways to do it. For instance, a lot of this stuff is being posted on social media. It’s on Snapchat and Instagram. It’s being tweeted by students. So there needs to be a way to monitor the social media in and around the campus.

There’s a web service called Geofeedia where you can draw a geographical boundary around the school or around the neighborhood and it will show you everything that’s being posted on open source social media within that school and across the various platforms. It’s not a violation of privacy because the stuff is open source social media.

So how do you persuade students to tell what they know?

You need a simple and widely understood means of communicating concerns in the school. If the social, cultural mandate at the moment is text messaging, then there should be an awareness program so everyone knows how and where to text a note of concern.

Over time, kids will realize the sword of Damocles doesn’t fall if they communicate that one student appears to have a problem. They see the kid isn’t necessarily going to be kicked out of school, but will get help.

One other thing I favor is having a celebrity that the kids admire pose for a photo where he or she is texting a safety message. The bubble reads: “When I have concerns, I text. You can, too.” Imagine Taylor Swift doing that. A celebrity would probably be happy to do that for free. It stimulates a positive identification that kids are likely to follow.

You said attackers often post their intentions on social media. Are these boasts or cries for help?

Usually it’s not a cry for help. There are a variety of other motivations, ranging from anxiety or even pride about what they are about to do, to anger at something and posting a retaliatory message.

I should add that various kinds of depressions are common in adolescents. We need to be concerned about suicidal risks in adolescents, as well as homicidal risks. Most kids who are depressed and then become suicidal are not going to be a risk toward other individuals.

However, a very small portion of kids who are depressed and suicidal will also then become homicidal. And those are potentially very dangerous cases. That’s where you need an experienced clinician involved in working with the child as soon as possible.

Tim Goral is senior editor.