Which Kids Might Become Killers?

New evidence-based guidelines from the United States Secret Service.

Posted Jul 25, 2018

Being anxious is part of a parent’s job description. When I drop my daughter off at school, I sometimes wonder: Will this be the day? Will something terrible happen? I can’t help thinking about the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida this past February, or at Santa Fe High School in Texas on May 18. Could it happen at my daughter’s school? Of course it could. It could happen anywhere.

On July 12, the United States Secret Service released updated guidelines for threat assessment in K-12 schools. The guidelines are intended primarily for use by school administrators. But the guidelines are solid and evidence-based. We, as parents, can learn from them.

The first point the authors make is that we need to put our stereotypes aside. A school shooter could be a girl or a boy; a high achiever or a dropout; a popular kid or a loner. You can’t tell who is likely to be a school shooter just by knowing whether the kid is a boy or a girl, or whether they are "successful" or not, academically or socially.

But that doesn’t mean that there is no role for parents. On the contrary, we are on the front lines. And the new publication provides guidance for distinguishing a real threat from a false alarm. So let me give you three scenarios which illustrate some of the points made in the new guidelines. Then I will ask you to decide: Should you be concerned? And if so, what action should you take?

Scenario #1: Your daughter is friends with a girl we'll call Kayla. Kayla was best friends with another girl, Vanessa, for years. Then Vanessa abruptly broke off the friendship and has been ignoring Kayla ever since. Kayla is despondent. She told your daughter, “My life is over.” Kayla confided to your daughter that she is thinking of bringing a pistol to school and killing Vanessa, then committing suicide.

Should you be concerned?

My answer is: Yes, you should be concerned. I have adapted this story from a true-life situation described in the Secret Service report. Dorothy Dutiel was 15 years old when she killed her girlfriend May Kieu several days after May told Dorothy that she didn’t want to be her girlfriend anymore. Immediately after killing May, Dorothy committed suicide. Dorothy left behind a detailed suicide note explaining her actions and asking for forgiveness.

This story breaks the stereotypes we have about school shooters. Although the majority are boys, some are girls. Some are seemingly well-adjusted kids who are doing well in school. But when a major life event occurs – in this case, the end of an intimate friendship – some kids don’t know how to respond. If a gun is available, the gun may be used.

According to the Secret Service guidelines, comments expressing suicidal ideation, or desperation, or hopelessness, should prompt immediate intervention. In my example, Kayla said, “My life is over.” That’s the sort of comment that needs assessment, right away. As a practicing physician, I am well aware that nine times out of ten, the teenager who says “my life is over” is not seriously contemplating suicide or other violent action. But sometimes, they are.

In my scenario about “Kayla," how should you respond?

The Secret Service guidelines recommend that each school establish a threat assessment team. The team may have a less scary name, such as “Assessment and Care Team.” But parents should be informed that the team exists, and should know whom to contact in case of concern. If your child attends a school which has such a team, contact the designated team member. The guidelines recommend that a mechanism be in place for anonymous reporting as well. A school counselor, or school resource officer (that’s the title for a police officer posted to a school), should investigate quickly and see whether there are grounds for concern. According to the guidelines, one of the first questions the team member should answer is whether the person in question has access to a firearm. Most lethal school violence in the United States has involved firearms.

But suppose your school doesn’t have a designated team in place. What do you do?

In most cases, your first step should still be a phone call to the school. Start with the school counselor, or the dean of students, or the school resource officer, or another professional at the school who is responsible for students’ health and welfare. In my visits to more than 400 schools, I have found that even at smaller schools, administrators are increasingly aware of the importance of these issues and the value of the information parents can provide. Not always, but often.

If there is no one to talk to at the school, or if the school doesn’t take your information seriously, then you may have to call the Kayla’s parents. But that should be a last resort, not the first step. A good school resource officer can investigate the issue more thoroughly, and with more resources, than you can.

Scenario #2: Your son tells you about another boy at school; let’s call him Jason. Jason appears to have no friends, or at least none at school. His grades are reportedly mediocre. Your son tells you that Jason’s favorite free-time activity at school is playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on his iPhone. Your son reports seeing Jason pump his fists in celebration, in study hall, when he kills an enemy in the game. His avatar on Instagram is a drug lord wearing an ammunition belt and brandishing two pistols. “I’m worried he’s going to come to school one day and shoot everybody,” your son says.

Should you be worried?

This brief sketch doesn’t give a complete picture, but my first reaction is: No, you don’t need to worry about your own son’s safety. It certainly sounds as though Jason has problems. He seems to be disengaged from school. Your son has told you that Jason spends study hall playing video games rather than doing homework, and that his grades are supposedly not good. If so, that’s a significant problem – for Jason and for his parents. But those problems do not mean that Jason is likely to be an agent of lethal violence. The Secret Service guidelines stress that the student who is most likely actually to try to kill somebody at school is the student who has made a specific and personal threat. Jason hasn’t threatened anyone. Your son may be allowing the stereotype of the school shooter – the loner boy who plays violent video games – to cloud his own judgment. Encourage your son to reach out to Jason, if your son is comfortable doing so. Maybe Jason would welcome having a real-world friend. 

Scenario #3: Your son is obsessed with hunting. He reads books about hunting. He loves playing hunting video games. He has asked you to buy him a rifle, but you have refused. He has asked to join the local skeet-shooting club, but you have refused. His favorite uncle, who is an experienced hunter, invited him to go deer-hunting, which you reluctantly allowed. Your son’s favorite outerwear is a green camouflage jacket. Recently, he pointed his thumb and forefinger at another boy at school and said “bang” after the other boy pretended to shoot him with an imaginary bow and arrow. The teacher referred both boys to the vice principal, who has contacted you to express his concern. 

Should you be worried?

Yes, you should be worried – about the vice principal. A boy doing things that some boys have always done – such as pointing his fingers at another boy and saying “bang” – can now get them in trouble at school. The guidelines specifically note that a student's interest in hunting animals, for example, does not necessarily signify an increased risk that the student will be an agent of lethal violence against other students. There is nothing wrong with your son. Teach him to be courteous. Teach him to be patient: Remind him that good hunters are always patient. Advise him to play “bang you’re dead” only with other kids who are similarly inclined. Give the vice principal a copy of the new guidelines, so the vice principal can learn how to distinguish a real threat from harmless play. (This example is drawn from my clinical experience, and also from a news account of two 10-year-old boys who got in trouble at school for just this behavior.)

These new guidelines from the Secret Service will, I hope, be a step forward in recognizing which kids are more likely to become agents of actual violence, and which kids are not. Two boys pretending to shoot each other with imaginary weapons meet none of the criteria set forth in the guidelines. Leave those kids alone (to channel Pink Floyd).

And hopefully we can all become a little less anxious, while keeping our eyes open and our guard up.