Stop The Cycle

Predicting and preventing youth and family violence

Darion Marcus Aguilar – Dormant Youth Erupts in Violence

How do we predict and prevent violence?

The trend continues. This weekend, innocent victims Brianna Benlolo and Tyler Johnson lost their lives at a mall in my home state of Maryland. This tragedy was perpetrated by youth shooter, Darion Marcus Aguilar, who had no criminal background or history of violence. Peers described him as “quiet” and “chill.” His mother is dumbfounded that he could do such a thing. And right now, police continue to pour through a notebook in search of a motive.

What they will uncover over the next few days is that the pressure has been building in Darion for a long time. His recent outburst was simply the flashpoint. It’s the events that happened over the course of his lifetime, starting in childhood, which primed him for that moment of explosion. While we are not able to attribute this shooting to a history of delinquent behavior or a need for revenge, there were red flags that signaled that trouble was ahead.

There are two categories of violent perpetrators that we typically see. Type A is what we call the chronic offenders. They have a history of violence. They were raised in a neglectful, abusive or deprived environment. They exhibit chronic aggressive behavior and display anti-social attitudes. Intelligence is average or below.

The second category is known as “erupters,” which is where Darion most likely fits. These people have no history of violence. Their family environment was satisfactory or better. Intelligence is normal to outstanding. They are not seen as anti-social, but often as socially awkward. They fail to attach to others due to psychosis, autism, head injury, or other mental health disorders.

When they encounter what they consider significant life stress, they are unable to function in society. This stressor may be an injury to their ego or identity. What may seem a minor issue to most people, serves as the flashpoint for a violent eruption by the perpetrator.  

The Darion case is similar to the other ones we’ve seen recently. Adam Lanza had no criminal background before Sandy Hook. Karl H Pierson had no criminal background before he killed a 17-year-old female student at Arapahoe High School, fueled by his anger for being kicked off the debate team. James E Holmes killed 12 people in a movie theater in Colorado. He was described as “quiet and easygoing” and as “exceptionally bright.” In all three cases, there was no prior history of violence.

These erupters flew under the radar until it was too late and the crime was already committed. In order to prevent the cycle of violence from continuing, we have to make a change! Mental health services must become more widely available, accessible and affordable. Seeing a mental health professional should be as every day as gong to your primary care physician.

Youth violence prediction and prevention assessments should be used continuously, starting from an early age, in order to detect and uncover red flags. Clinical judgment on risk for violence has been proven to be no better than 50/50 chance. Objective assessments could be administered each year at school and funded by the government. After the assessment, risk reduction becomes an essential part of the young person’s treatment plan. Families are critical to any intervention as well, and must be involved in the process. This is an evidence-based practice for reducing risk for violence.   

Inter-agency communication between schools, mental health facilities, juvenile justice departments and social services need to be dramatically improved. Staff training must get better. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer recently dismantled her Social Services program in an attempt to start anew. My hope is that other states will learn from acts of violence like the one that occurred at the Maryland mall this weekend, realize they can be part of the solution, and take action to improve their systems.

There will be many people who say that the Darion Marcus Aguilar shooting could not have been prevented and that there weren’t enough signs. I disagree. We have the tools and expertise to predict and prevent youth violence from occurring. We can create a better world for our children and grandchildren. While it will require an initial investment upfront, the economic savings over the long-term and the potential to save innocent lives like Brianna and Tyler should be more than enough reason to take action today.  

Written by: Dr. Kathy Seifert 

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- Dr. Kathy Seifert

Kathy Seifert, Ph.D., D.A.B.P., is the author of the Child & Adolescent Risk Evaluation screening tool.

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