After the shooting this month of twelve people at a school in Germany, there is a renewed drive to find some way to prevent similar acts of violence. But if simple solutions existed, they would have been identified and implemented long ago. In the United States, where more than 30,000 people a year are killed by firearms through suicide and homicide, we have those who call for gun control and those who call for teachers to arm themselves. We have those who blame a society that glorifies violence, and those who decry our failure to help those with mental illnesses. There are elements of truth to each of these different perspectives – but none are sufficient to explain and prevent future shootings.
In my experience, studying violence over the past 25 years and interviewing many homicide offenders, I have found that school shootings are a complex outcome of social, familial and psychological influences. There is no single profile or set of warning signs that works in all cases. Some of the shooters have been bullied, but most victims of bullying are not potential killers. Some have been mentally ill, but most people with mental illnesses are not violent. This does not mean that these factors cannot play a role in edging some vulnerable individuals closer to violence; but they are not useful predictors.
The "threat assessment approach" pioneered by the FBI recognises that many students will make empty threats of violence, but only a few will engage in the planning and preparation that almost always precedes such events. A threat assessment approach is most useful to avoid over-reactions to students who make transient threats for attention-seeking purposes. A big problem in the United States has been that nervous school administrators have adopted “zero tolerance” disciplinary practices that can result in automatic school expulsion for even minor offenses, such as making an angry threat or bringing a miniature toy gun to school.
One virtue of the new approach is that it leads school authorities to identify many problem situations, ranging from persistent bullying to serious depression, that can be addressed before they grow more serious. The history of many US school shootings shows students whose complaints of mistreatment and other signs of distress were overlooked months and years before they resorted to violence. Although school shootings are statistically rare and unlikely to occur in any individual school, problems such as bullying are quite common and deserving of attention in themselves.
In response to the 2006 shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 33 students and faculty, our state government mandated its public colleges and universities to establish threat assessment teams. We hope to encourage a threat assessment approach at all levels, because it recognizes that these shootings are not sudden and unpredictable events, but the culmination of problems and concerns that have not received adequate attention. Shootings are most likely to be prevented when schools function as caring communities in which student anger, alienation and other signs of distress are cause for concern and intervention.
Dewey Cornell is the director of the Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia