Clues to the Mind of the Florida School Shooter

New school shootings psychology study uncovers patterns that suggest solutions.

Posted Feb 15, 2018

Eric Madfis, an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Washington, Tacoma, argues that there’s a tendency for the mass media to portray school shootings as pointless, random, and motiveless tragedies when they are not.

Instead, Eric Madfis argues in his investigation entitled "In Search of Meaning: Are School Rampage Shootings Random and Senseless Violence?" that clear patterns emerge.

For example, his review of the evidence uncovers that most school rampage shooters formulate plans at least two days before launching their attack.  

 The White House
Source: United States President Barack Obama pauses during a meeting to observe a moment of silence in the Oval Office at 9:30 am on 21 December 2012, to remember the 20 children and six adults killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut on 14 December. Left to right: Director of Communications Dan Pfeiffer; Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett; President Barack Obama; Chief of Staff Jack Lew; and Pete Rouse, Counselor to the President. Source: The White House

Eric Madfis’s analysis, recently published in the Journal of Psychology, finds that many school shooters develop and fantasize about their schemes for weeks or even months before executing them. For example, the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, invested more than a year in elaborately organizing their attack.

Madfis’s examination of thwarted school rampage attacks also found extensive planning, including "hit lists" and even "do not kill" records, suicide notes, maps of schools with attack tactics drawn on them, plots on social media websites, and inquiries into previous rampage shootings.

These strategies even included details such as who was to be purposely saved and meticulous plans for what order events should evolve on the day itself.

Eric Madfis dismisses the popular depiction of mass shootings as the result of someone out of the blue “snapping” and committing violence on the spur-of-the-moment.

Extensive planning indicates that rampage attacks serve purposes. These also fall into clear repeated patterns, including vengeance, infamy seeking, and a need for a sense of macho power, often with a background of long-term internal discord and interpersonal defeats.

The alleged perpetrator of the Florida school shooting, Nikolas Cruz, may seem at first glance to violate the idea of the patterning of school shootings: He was 19 years old and had in fact, it is so far reported, left school; it appears he was attending adult education classes; and he apparently had a job at a local dollar store.

But a study entitled "Economic insecurity and the rise in gun violence at US schools" examined school shootings between 1990 and 2013, finding that the rate of gun violence heightened from 2007 to 2013.  

The research, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, found that periods of increased shooting rates are significantly correlated with increases in unemployment rates. 

For some particularly insecure kids, the disturbance of replacing the relative security of school or college, with the scarily unknown world of unemployment, when the economy nose-dives, possibly becomes too much. 

It's been reported that Nikolas Cruz was adopted, but that his adoptive parents had both died, his adoptive mother passing relatively recently. In these circumstances maybe his last school represented a kind of surrogate family which was particularly unbearable to lose?

Since 2007 more shootings have been occurring at colleges, maybe because a college education is no longer a guarantee of employment. 

A breakdown in the school-to-work transition is also more likely to affect whites whose graduation rates have historically been higher.

The authors of this study, a team of academics from Northwestern University led by Adam Robert Pah and Luis Amaral, conclude that increasing uncertainty in the school-to-work transition contributes to school shootings.

Eric Madfis points out that mass murder is the only form of homicide in the U.S. that is committed by non-Hispanic whites in numbers disproportionately high relative to their share of the population.

Not all school rampages have been committed by whites. Oregon’s Umpqua Community College shooter was biracial, the Red Lake Senior High School killer was Native American, the Virginia Tech shooter was Korean American, and the shooter at the Tasso da Silveira Municipal School was Brazilian. But the majority of rampage killers have been white.

Eric Madfis also points out that school rampages also reveal a clear pattern in terms of the types of communities and schools which suffer from them most frequently.

While the majority of American school gun violence generally occurs in urban areas, rampage school shootings are much more likely to occur at suburban and rural schools in less populated, less diverse communities, located in more socially and politically conservative neighborhoods.

International school rampages also follow this pattern, occurring more often in small towns or villages with tightknit communities.

pexels pixabay free stock picture of auditorium and chairs
Source: pexels pixabay free stock picture of auditorium and chairs

The humiliating closeness and pressure to conform in small towns might therefore be implicated, particularly as attacks tend to take place where the school staff and student body are intolerant of differences, when issues of bullying and marginalization are not addressed by the school culture.

Another possible emerging pattern is an educational environment of punitive zero tolerance, which might discourage students from confiding in trusted adults when they hear crucial information about impending threats of violence.

This last point of school culture opens the door to changes which may represent the best chances of preventing these future tragedies, as those who know most about students are classmates. The most valuable intelligence sources on future perpetrators are not teachers or parents, so how to educate the student body to better screen and inform?

Just as mistakes in preventing terrorist outrages have been diagnosed as intelligence failures, are school shootings analogous predicaments?

Intelligence agencies like the CIA have encountered difficulty garnering information from foreign communities they have struggled to infiltrate, so the problem of school shootings could partly be framed as a similar issue around intelligence gathering.

Getting a better sense before someone "cracks" of who is most vulnerable might require a closer relationship between the authorities and the student body.

While we know little as yet of the alleged perpetrator, Nikolas Cruz, it does appear that he was adopted, which could in itself be a difference which might become a target for ostracism or bullying.

He has now been described by former classmates talking to the press as "weird" and a "loner." He had apparently been expelled from the high school for "disciplinary reasons," and was also apparently told he couldn’t bring a backpack on campus.

Students at the school have been talking to various media with reported comments such as: "Everyone predicted" the shooting; "Honestly, a lot of people were saying it was gonna be him."

Classmates have also been telling various news stations that kids at the school "joked around" that Nikolas Cruz would be the one to "shoot up the school."

Another student has indicated that the suspect is "troubled," while a further comment from a fellow student seems particularly apposite: "how tired he was of everyone picking on him and the staff doing nothing about it."

Sandy Hook Memorial Voice of America
Source: Sandy Hook Memorial Voice of America

That there is something about school culture which needs addressing is further hinted at by a study, entitled "Alone and adrift: The association between mass school shootings, school size, and student support," investigating 22 mass school shooting incidents between January 1995 and June 2014.

Schools where mass shootings occurred had on average significantly higher student numbers.

The research, published in The Social Science Journal, also found that students who committed mass school shootings were significantly more likely to have previously attended a school with a smaller student body and/or a lower-than-state-average student-teacher ratio.

The authors, psychologists Abigail Baird, Emma Roellke, and Debra Zeifman from Vassar College, conclude that transitioning from a smaller, more supportive school to a larger, more anonymous school may exacerbate pre-existing psychological difficulties among potential school shooters.

Eric Madfis argues that the huge media attention which school rampage attacks inevitably attract distorts public perception over the true likelihood of these events. For example, he quotes statistics that, compared to their homes and the streets, in the United States, schools remain the safest places for young people.

Eric Madfis points out that the risk of homicide for school-age youth is roughly 226 times greater outside of school than at school, while only about 1 in 2 million school-age youth will die from homicide or suicide at school each year. And furthermore, any given school can expect to experience a student homicide about once every 6,000 years.

Yet media coverage may be inadvertently delivering a psychological trap, a cycle that makes a school shooting more likely.

Because these rare but devastating events are often used to justify heightened punitive school discipline, including more zero tolerance policies, such as automatic suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.

President George W. Bush talks with former Columbine High School student Craig Scott during a panel discussion on school safety Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2006. White House photo by Kimberlee Hewitt
Source: President George W. Bush talks with former Columbine High School student Craig Scott during a panel discussion on school safety Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2006. White House photo by Kimberlee Hewitt

This may be driving a wedge between the authorities and the community of students that are being ever more "policed" and "punished," with adverse consequences in terms of building relationships, which would produce the valuable intelligence needed to stop future attacks.

The reality is, there has long been a "generation gap" with adult authorities struggling to understand youth culture and sub-cultures — with devastating mistakes as a result.


Eric Madfis (2016). In Search of Meaning: Are School Rampage Shootings Random and Senseless Violence?  The Journal of Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/00223980.2016.1196161 Volume 151, 2017 - Issue 1 Pages 21-35: Senseless Violence

Pah, A. R., Hagan, J., Jennings, A. L., Jain, A., Albrecht, K., Hockenberry, A. J., & Amaral, L. A. N. (2017). Economic insecurity and the rise in gun violence at US schools. Nature Human Behaviour, 1(2), [0040]. DOI: 10.1038/s41562-016-0040

Abigail A.BairdEmma V.RoellkeDebra M.Zeifman (2017) Alone and adrift: The association between mass school shootings, school size, and student support The Social Science Journal Volume 54, Issue 3, September 2017, Pages 261-270