“Our children are dozens of times more likely to be killed by violence than fire, and thousands of times more likely to be seriously injured by violence as compared to fire. Yet, in any school you can look around and see fire sprinklers, smoke alarms, fire exits, and fire extinguishers. If we can spend all that money and time preparing for fire (and we should, since every life is precious) shouldn’t we spend time and money preparing for the thing that is far more likely to kill or injure a child”?
Lt. Col. David Grossman
In 2006, Dawson College was touched directly by an act of extreme violence, but school shootings remain uncommon events, and we should not lose sight of this. However, the news that an armed indivudual has committed a mass shooting at a school in a distant, or even nearby, community no longer carries the same shock, and this is a very telling statement. Moreover, their consequences extend far beyond the communities where they occur, making us all more fearful, less trustworthy and less hopeful about our future — weakening the very resources we need to develop more peaceful societies. David Grossman’s quote recommends that schools take precautions and he is right, but we should not lose sight of our commitment to building peaceful and open campuses, not armed fortresses.
Perpetrators of extreme violence do not just snap; their path toward violence is an evolutionary one, with points along the continuum that escalate the risk and allow for interventions that can make a difference. School administrators and teachers need to recognize some of the factors that can suggest a strong potential for violence, while understanding that many of these are not uncommon human characteristics or social dynamics. A 2006 study by the FBI on risk assessment in the case of school shootings is a valuable tool. It points to a complexity of factors, involving characteristics of personality, as well as family, relationship and school dynamics, that coalesce in unique ways. The desire for a single cause is understandable, but violence is complex and needs to be tackled in diverse ways. The wait for the discovery of a single root cause is really a recipe for inaction.
The FBI study asks what, from the student’s perspective, might make them target their own school; the study suggests a number of factors, including a detachment towards one’s schools, a culture of bullying that is ignored by school administrators, inequitable methods of discipline, an inflexibility to the needs of students and a school “pecking order” that is legitimized by school authorities. These have lessons for all of us, and bring to mind Dr. James Gilligan’s comment that “all violence is an attempt to achieve justice, or what the violent person perceives as justice” (1997:11).
Canadian risk assessment expert, Kevin Cameron, refers to school shooters as “empty vessels”, who lack a strong sense of identity or purpose, are not connected to healthy human systems, and who are governed excessively by their emotional reactions to their environment (read a discussion of his arguments, by clicking here). School shooters are young people in severe emotional pain and they typically do end their violence by taking their own life or are shot by police . Often this is their ultimate goal. Psychiatrist James Gilligan notes that this has become such a common phenomenon on US streets that it is referred to as “suicide by cop”. Consistent with Cameron’s notion of an “empty vessel”, Gilligan, who has worked with some of the most violent prisoners in US prisons, mentions that they frequently refer to themselves as being “dead”, with their violence being perceived as a means to feel alive: Gilligan explains this by arguing that they are so deeply shamed that they lack the psychological sense of selfhood. These individuals also have never developed a capacity for guilt — the emotion that inhibits violence, but will only develop if one feels sufficient self-worth, they lack sufficient nonviolent means to gain self-esteem and see violence as a solution (for more on this argument watch his video on this site).
In an interesting book, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings (2004), Katherine Newman identified five necessary conditions for rampages, which she defined as assaults in which the victims are mulitiple and randomly-selected; the attacks are not simple cases of personal revenge. Some of the shooters were bullied and subject to gender-based teasing, but all felt marginalized and isolated from their peers, and had psycho-social problems that worsened their situation; many had made a previous suicide attempt. All shooters saw violence as a solution, had access to a gun, and embraced a concept of manhood that valued violence, guns, and domination, believing that their deadly rampage would reinstate their social status. Finally, she points to a school system that failed to see the danger signs, with no single individual having enough access to information to see the various factors that were dangerously coalescing. Also, most were average students who did not have a history of violence, their emotional distress remained under the radar, and, while most uttered threats, these were either ignored or heard only be their peers.
Schools, therefore, should undertake the necessary precautionary steps of planning for a tragedy of this kind and reinforce appropriate security measures, but all of these studies point to a deeper role, one that can bring dividends for all students, not simply those most at risk of perpetrating extreme violence. Schools need to be more sensitive to bullying, recognizing that sometimes one needs to look for it, and promote an inclusive and respectful culture sensitive to the various sources of “othering” in our culture, including class and ethnicity, gender representation and sexual orientation, athletic abilities, and appearance. We need to recognize the need to foster in all students a sense of real achievement and promote the skills and knowledge that help them find nonviolent means to gain a stable sense of self esteem. Finally, we need to tackle the cultural ideas that all too often make violence seem a legimate solution to one’s pain. Thus, we need to address the roots of violence.
Watch an inspiring video of Jerzy Nowak, founding director of the Virginia Tech Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, who discusses his university’s efforts to transform a tragedy into a positive initiative for peace.