"Profiling" School Shooters

Can we tell who will be the next to kill?

Posted Mar 29, 2018

In our efforts to prevent disasters, we try to predict the conditions that precede them. If we can predict those conditions, we will then be better able to prevent them.

SCHOOL SHOOTINGS AS DISASTERS

A disaster may be defined as any critical incident that exceeds the response capacity of local emergency resources. We typically think of disasters as arising from floods, storms, tornadoes, earthquakes, fires, mudslides, mass transportation accidents, and even wars. We don’t typically think of disasters arising from school shootings. Nevertheless, if the consequences of school shootings are of such magnitude that they exceed local police, fire, and or medical capacities, then by definition they may be referred to as disasters.

unsplash
Source: unsplash

Our efforts to prevent school shooting have focused largely upon gun control and predicting who is at greatest risk for committing such acts of violence. While the debate rages on gun control and is not likely to be resolved in the near future, renewed interest in “profiling” those who are at highest risk for committing violence has emerged. However, we must proceed cautiously as no predictive paradigm in behavioral science is perfect, especially “profiling.”

ORIGINS OF PROFILING

Informal profiling can be traced back to 1888 as attempts to ascertain the identity of the serial killer known as “Jack the Ripper” emerged. Other noteworthy efforts included Dudley Schoenfeld’s efforts to identify the kidnapper of Charles Lindbergh’s  baby. There were even attempts to predict the future behavior of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein based upon personality.

The formal origins of criminal profiling arose from the FBI’s training center at Quantico, Virginia. In 1972 the Criminal Investigative Analysis Division was created to study serial rapes and homicides. It was later renamed the Behavioral Sciences Unit.  Among its core personnel were Richard Ault and James Reese. Ault and Reese (1980) published the seminal paper entitled “A Psychological Assessment of Crime: Profiling.”

David Preston
Source: David Preston

There are many methods for and descriptions of school shooters. There is no real agreement with some authorities saying there is no real “profile.” Eastwood, Cullen, Kavanagh, & Snook (2006) in a review of the effectiveness of crime scene inferential criminal profiling found little evidence of its utility. Popular author Malcom Gladwell (2007) vigorously challenged the validity of criminal profiling. 

 The mistake that is made by many observers when trying to construct a predictive “profile”  based upon previous experiences is over inclusion of cases which leads to the regression dilution effect. With the rationale of more is better, cases are aggregated on sometimes superficial and highly variable inclusion criteria. Most lethal violence in schools in recent decades has been committed by current and former students (“Violence from within”). So, to not re-create the error of regression dilution (aggregated analysis based upon superficial facts), we examine the “violence from within” cases and search for certain common denominators. However, we must proceed cautiously as no predictive paradigm in behavioral science is perfect, especially “profiling.”

SEVEN FACTORS FOR CONSIDERATION IN SCHOOL SHOOTINGS

So now let us address the questions at hand. What type of person perpetrates school shootings? The answer is there is simply not “one” profile. But if we look at the subset of “violence from within” school shooting cases, which are the most lethal, there may be a “profile” that resembles the revenge-motivated pseudo-commando mass murderer (see Holmes & Holmes, 1992).

Piotr Wilk
Source: Piotr Wilk

We have aggregated data from the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as they have reviewed school shootings over the course of decades so as to derive a seven factor model of those who commit, or attempt to commit, mass murder in schools. This model is unique in that it is not only descriptive, but can directly lead to prescriptive actionable interventions. By actionable, we mean each factor can be used to facilitate direct supportive outreach and intervention with those who may be at high risk for committing school violence or their families, or both.

Consider the following seven factors, not diagnostically, not as a “profile,” and certainly never as the basis for punitive action, but as points for consideration in a quest to reduce school violence:

1. So far, all school shooters have been male and the vast majority (over 90 percent) were active or recent students at the school.

2. If there is one predominant theme in school shootings, it is anger and revenge.

  a. 75% of school shooters felt bullied or harassed by other students
  b. Sometimes shooters felt unfairly treated by teachers
  c. They seldom have specific targets, but kill randomly in order to inflict the most harm

3.  School shooters tended to be socially awkward and avoidant, and often isolate themselves with few if any friends.

  a. They were sometimes described as “strange”
  b. They seemed to have a penchant for” retreat into fantasy,” especially when under stress
  c. Shooters exhibited an obsessive quality that often led to detailed planning, but ironically they seemed to lack an understanding of the consequences of their behavior and thus may have a history of adverse encounters with law enforcement
  d. The same obsessive quality drives the shooter to focus upon interpersonal rejection, unfair treatment, and elaborate plans for revenge
  e. They expressed fascination with violence, morbid media, death
  f. If the shooter does associate with others, it is likely to be with those who share preoccupations with the macabre
  g Shooters may have a history of cruelty to animals (this is a low probability factor, but a significant one when present)
  h. There is often a sense of hopelessness that predicts their own death by the end of the incident

4. The media contagion effect (copycat killings) may serve as an especially powerful motivator for those who already feel anger, frustration or loss.
5. Shooters tend to have experienced dysfunctional family situations or experience a lack of effective adult supervision, mentoring, or oversight.
6. 68% of shooters obtained weapons from their home or the home of a relative. (Yes, ease of availability to firearms does matter.)
7. Shooters tend to express their frustrations and anger using art and/or social media posts, thus monitoring of such media becomes an important tool in early identification of individuals at risk for committing violence.    

Chuttersnap
Source: Chuttersnap

This model is not a “profile.” It is simply the accumulation and integration of recurring themes that warrant consideration, not only by law enforcement, but educators and mental health clinicians dedicated to primary prevention and school safety.

So can we tell who will be next to kill? Probably not. But we can facilitate direct supportive outreach and intervention with those who may be at high risk for committing school violence or to their families, or both.

This blog was co-authored by George S. Everly, Jr., PhD and O. Joseph Bienvenu, MD, PhD, both of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

References

Ault, Jr., R. L. & Reese, J. T. (1980). A psychological assessment of crime: Profiling. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 49, March, pp. 22-25.

Eastwood, J. Cullen, R.M.,  Kavanagh, J.,  & Snook, B. (2006). A review of the validity of criminal profiling.  Canadian Journal of Police and Security Services. 4, pp. 118–124. 

Gladwell, Malcolm (November 12, 2007). Dangerous Minds. The New Yorker. Retrieved March 25, 2018.

Holmes, R.M. & Holmes, T.S. (1992). Understanding Mass Murder: A Starting Point. Federal Probation, 56 (1) pp. 53-61