Over the past week the usual suspects surfaced in the quest to understand the Newtown tragedy. Mental illness, semi-automatic guns, violent video-games, the loosening moral fabric of modern society, evil and instant fame in the 24-hour news media. All these culprits emerged in an attempt to answer one very complicated and crucial question.
What kind of person goes to an elementary school and guns down 26 innocent people?
As is often the case I turned to the empirical evidence for solace and answers. Research on "rampage killings" as they are called, however, reveals little hope for identifying or predicting the teens or young adults who will go on killing sprees. A useful profile remains elusive.
Not many people become rampage killers so there's a small pool of subjects complicated by the fact many commit suicide or die in the attack thus preventing a first-person account of motives and other relevant background information. In today's media culture and with one very horrific attack on our minds it's easy to forget that school shootings are very rare. For reasons that are still unclear, these events peaked during the nineties with notable high-profile incidents like Columbine. Since 1992, the National Center for Educational Statistics has published a regular report - Indicators of School Crime and Violence 2011 – listing among other facts the number of school homicides each year. For example, from July 2009 through June 2010, the NCES reports 17 students were killed at school. Not all these deaths involve what we've come to call rampage or school shootings. Some might involve “legal interventions” – such as police shootings. School violence in general, including homicides, has declined after a peak in the early 1990s.Youth violence is at its lowest point since the 1960s.
Crime statistics offer little help in preventing or predicting who will commit school massacres nor does the academic literature offer up much either despite a rather large and diverse body of research on youth violence. The CDC has compiled an extensive list of potential risk factors of youth violence including hyperactivity, low grades and learning disabilities. In other words, it's a virtual kitchen sink of parental stressors. The American Psychological Association also has published a similarly lengthy yet vague list of the warning signs of potential aggression, some well-supported by empirical evidence, others less so. It's worth noting that even if young adults or teens who go on to kill exhibit some of these traits and behaviors it doesn't mean these factors caused the aggression but theoretically they could help identify those kids most likely to commit violent crimes.
As for studies devoted to rampage killings, there are not many out there and fewer still involving school shootings (see Ferguson, Coulson and Barnett, 2011 for an overview). You may be surprised to learn the most detailed one comes from the United States government. The Department of Education teamed up with none other than the US Secret Service to profile the shooters including their backgrounds, motivations and plans – The Secret Service Safe School Initiative. The 2002 report examined 37 school shootings (41 shooters) that occurred in the United States between 1974 and June 2000.
The men in black concluded there is no accurate or useful profile of who will carry out school attacks. Many of their findings jibe with the limited academic studies on school shootings and some of those on youth violence. Now the report is descriptive so there is no control group to compare the shooters with in order to pinpoint features that differ between the shooters and the controls. Still, the report offers some potentially valuable insights:
Attackers ranged in age and ethnicity though all were male but a female committed one during the report preparation.
Most came from two-parent (63%) or one-parent households (20%). Only 2% lived with a foster parent or legal guardian.
Most did well in school with 41% getting As and Bs. Some had taken AP courses and were on the honor roll. Only 5% were failing. None showed any pre-attack slip in grades.
Almost half were considered to be part of the mainstream crowd at school. Only 27% belonged to a fringe group or hung with students considered fringe by the mainstream. Only 34% were loners.
Almost two-thirds never or rarely got into trouble at school. Few had either been suspended (27%) or expelled (10%).
Most (71%) felt they’d been bullied, persecuted, or harmed by other people right before the attack. Some had been bullied from early childhood, some not at all.
Most had expressed or felt suicidal (78%) and depression (61%) though only a third had ever received a mental health evaluation and a fifth diagnosed with a disorder. Almost a quarter had a known history of drug or alcohol abuse.
Most had trouble coping with significant loss or failures in their young lives before the attack (98%). These included failed romantic relationships, failing grades, family deaths and family illnesses.
Most were into violent media - movies, video games, books, etc. (59%). More than a third wrote violent poems, essays or stories. Only 15% played violent video games (this last figure adjusted to account for historic prominence of gaming).
Most had no history of violence or criminal behavior. Only a third had acted violent towards another student in the past and a quarter had been arrested.
Most (93%) didn’t “snap” or carry out attacks on an impulse or whim but planned the attacks, some for years in advance. Typically other people knew about the plan, sometimes even helped plan or prepare. In almost all the cases (93%) the young man did something that deeply concerned someone prior to the attack (93%). In almost three-quarters at least 3 people were very worried.
Now you might have noticed a few common features that popped up. Most attackers struggled with suicidal thoughts, depression, deep loss and failure. Despite these signs of psychological problems, very few had ever undergone a mental health evaluation and even fewer still received a psychiatric diagnosis. Most felt persecuted or victimized if not bullied. Note the relative insignificance of violent media or video games. Most revealed their violent fantasies and in some cases their specific plans to someone including parents.
This is not the portrait of a loner doing poorly in school who is bullied, rejected and addicted to picking off prostitutes on Grand Theft Auto until he snaps one day and suddenly kills a lot of people.
This all too familiar phenomenon of school shootings cannot readily be pinned on psychotic breaks, bullying, video games or other popular boogeymen. The next school killer may not even particularly like video games. He might have quite a few friends and not exhibit much depression. As unsettling as it may be to those searching for clarity, the typical mass murderer, if there is one, might not be who you suspect.