School Violence Myths

Sep 11, 2013

Last spring local law enforcement agencies and school officials attended a Governor’s Crime Commission training designed to help us do a more effective job assessing school safety and security.   The training included ten myths about school shootings.  I’m sharing these myths with a little local commentary.

Myth 1, there is a reliable profile for school shooters.  In fact, there is not a reliable profile that can be used to identify potential school shooters.  Most folks view school shooters as young white males.  In reality, there have been female shooters, shooters of various races and shooters of various ages.

Myth 2, they just snapped.  Most school shooters progress from forming an idea, to planning an attack, to gathering materials.  School shooters rarely snap.  They develop a plan.

Myth 3, no one knew.  Before most school attacks, someone knew about the idea or plan.  Unfortunately, sometimes knowledge of plans comes to light after the fact.

Myth 4, there was never a direct threat.  Most school shooters did not issue a direct threat and most people who issue direct threats do not attack the people they threatened.  We can’t rely on direct threats to determine if someone is likely to harm others at school.

Myth 5, they are loners.  In most cases school shooters turned out to be students with friends who functioned in the mainstream school population.  They were active in school activities.  Only one-fourth of school attackers were loners or hung out with “fringe” groups.

Myth 6, they have a mental illness.  Only one-third of school attackers had ever been seen by a mental health professional and only 20% had been diagnosed with a mental health condition.  While some school shooters had diagnosed mental health conditions, most did not.

Myth 7, metal detectors, locked doors and other barriers can prevent school shootings.  There is no evidence that physical barriers can prevent school shootings.  Barriers have not stopped people who were committed to killing themselves and others.  Locked doors and other barriers can help provide time for the implementation of crisis plans and time for law enforcement to response.

Myth 8, there was no access to guns.  Most school attackers had easy access to guns and used them prior to the attack.  Guns were almost always acquired through the home, a family member or a friend.

Myth 9, no one tried to help them.  Many attackers had people who tried to intervene.  Interventions took the form of conversations, discipline, threat assessments or other referrals.  People who attack other people aren’t victims and should not be viewed as victims.

Myth 10, school violence is rampant.  School assaults and violence have dropped by nearly half in the last decade.  About two-tenths of one-percent of the nation’s 100,000 schools experienced a homicide last year.  Despite sensational mass-media coverage, most schools are very safe places.

The best defense against school shootings and other safety concerns is active listening and immediate reporting.  Encourage people, especially students, to immediately report anyone who is talking bring weapons to school or harming someone at school.  There will always be more concerns and false alarms than actual threatening situations.  However, “real” treats cannot be investigated and prevented unless concerns are immediately shared.  Again, the best defense may be open and immediate communication with law enforcement and school administrators.