This week, I had to make a decision that I never imagined as an educator I would be confronted with: whether or not to cancel my classes because of the threat of an act of violence. A series of threats were written on our campus alluding to an impending shooting, and then, on a different campus of our college, the specific date of 3/5/2014 was scrolled in tandem with the words, “school shooting” (Tschida, 2014). What surprised me was that with the exception of a number of colleagues, there wasn’t the type of tension on our campus leading up to this date that I would have imagined. Just how likely is it, some mused on campus, that if someone were to actually shoot up the school, that they would advertise it beforehand?
Which leads me to the question of, how accurately can law enforcement predict or prevent acts of violence from occurring in public institutions like college campuses? One FBI report writes that, “Understanding violence after it has occurred is difficult enough; trying to assess a threat and keep it from being carried out is even more of a challenge” (O’Toole, n.d., p. 7). Historically, within the field of psychology, practitioners have not been particularly adept at predicting individuals who are at higher risk for behaving violently. One study found, for instance, that psychiatrists were only slightly better than chance in assessing accurately patients who would later become violent (see summary in Brown, 2013). Perhaps this is because very few mentally ill patients will actually commit acts of violence, despite pervasive stereotypes of the mentally ill as being dangerous. In fact, alcohol or other substance use is a far greater predictor of aggression or violence than a diagnosis of mental illness. For instance, Brown (2013) writes that:
The best-known attempt to measure violence in mental patients found that mental illness by itself didn't predict an above-average risk of being violent. People released from psychiatric wards were more violent than their neighbors only if they also had drug and alcohol problems, according to the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study, which tracked almost 1,000 former patients in the early 1990s. (para 11)
Brown (2013) also reports that when trying to identify the potentially violent perpetrator who is young, this becomes even more challenging given that they have not yet fully developed, have shorter histories, and that displaying antisocial behavior may be consistent with norms for younger individuals (and not necessarily indicative of likelihood to act violently per se).
Unfortunately, 2014 was off to a deadly start for schools in America: by the end of January, there was on average one school shooting occurring every other day (Peck, 2014). As a researcher on the psychology of aggression and violence, I have been trained to take threats of violence seriously, same as we are trained to consider with caution individuals who voice thoughts of suicide or threaten self-harm. Unfortunately, there is no easy profile of a potential school shooter, as the backgrounds or reasons behind these acts of violence may vary significantly from one perpetrator to the next. Moreover, the line between suicide and perpetration of mass killings may also be blurry for individuals contemplating or who go through mass shootings.
To further complicate a standard profile, some mass shooters may not fall under any of the typically “at risk” categories. Indeed, some of the most consistent traits that are found across shootings are access to and use of guns, and being male and white. Of course, this isn’t much of a profile, given how most Americans have ready access to guns, and that a majority of the population is male and/or white.
And so, with very little information to draw on, and a plethora of examples of mass shootings across educational institutions in this nation, I decided better safe than sorry, and advised my students to work off campus for the day. While I made the decision entirely with the safety of our community in mind, I couldn’t help but feel as if I had failed my students when I sent them the safety alert. And what about the other days not specified by graffiti on campus, does this mean every other day we will inherently be safe in our academic institution? I fear that violence — or the threat of it — has become the new normal for those of us who work or study in academic institutions. Which leads me to an even larger question that I am ill-prepared to answer: what does this new reality say about our culture, this nation, today?
Tschida, S. (2014, March 4). Threatening Message Investigated at Montgomery College. ABC News. Retrieved on March 5th, 2014 from: http://www.wjla.com/articles/2014/03/threatening-message-investigated-at... .
Peck, A. (2014, January 23). There Has Been an Average of One School Shooting Every Other School Day so Far This Year. Think Progress. Retrieved on March 5th, 2014 from: http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2014/01/23/3192911/normal-school-shooti... .
Brown, D. (2013, January 4). Predicting Violence Remains Difficult, Despite Years of Study by Mental Health Experts. New Haven Register, News. Retrieved on March 5th, 2014 from: http://www.nhregister.com/general-news/20130104/predicting-violence-rema... .
O’Toole, M.E. (n.d.) The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective. Critical Incidence Response Group, FBI.
Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2014