Polarized shouting matches won’t solve the school shooter problem

Yesterday, a friend of mine began a discussion of the school shooter problem with a measured status update that, rather than looking for simplistic solutions, clearly invited people to look at the culture and the nature of our society that are behind what might be called an epidemic.

While most of those commenting seriously tried to talk about why people with access to guns today are becoming school shooters when young people have, for years in this country, had access to guns (hunting, trap and skeet shouting, informal target practice) and–until recently–didn’t kill their classmates in mass shootings.

Other commenters didn’t like this approach for various reasons centering on beliefs that (a) so-called profiles of school shooters also described a lot of other people who “suffered the same problems” but didn’t become shooters, (b) the solutions–such as get the guns, arm teachers, put metal detectors at school entrances–were clear and, if approved, could be implemented before efforts at understanding today’s youth would get off the ground, (c) psychology is a “soft discipline” that most insurance plans don’t even cover, so how could it possibly be expected to solve what people believe is a law enforcement issue.

Some people said they thought the media–both news and social–helped fuel the problem by inciting copy cat killings, contributing to the so-called easy fix approach  through non-stop panels of experts, and by providing a fame of sorts to the shooters. Others speculated that non-stop texting and social media use made today’s youth more isolated while giving them the impression they were tied into a larger whole.

In his “Psychology Today” article “‘Profiling’ School Shooters,” George S. Everly states that  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.”

The emphasis here is not, I think, to come up with a formula that predicts who, amongst people suffering similar problems, will be the next shooter. To me, what’s important is considering conditions which appear to have impacted shooters to date and using them not as predictions but as issues to address in schools, families, and perhaps society itself.

Every’s list of primary factors, includes:

  • Males who were students or former students at the school–that is, they were part of the target school’s population.
  • Anger and revenge from people who had been bullied or felt they had been treated unfairly.
  • Individuals who were socially awkward and had few friends.
  • Media contagion as a motivator to frustrated and angry individuals.
  • Dysfunctional family situations.
  • Individuals who expressed frustration/anger through social media posts or some form of “art.”

My list oversimplifies the article, so I encourage you to read it. Whether or not such indicators are within the purview of school counselors is not for me to say. I suspect they are already overworked with a career-choice focus. Parents and parent associations might discuss these in relation to their own children, though we don’t expect a dysfunctional family to have a family meeting and vote to become functional.

Those who think rooms full of youths who are all texting others who aren’t there rather than interacting with those they’re sitting next to certainly have an issue to study. Why do kids do this? Does it isolate them and/or cripple their social skills of dealing with people more directly?

The legality of looking too closely at these indicators might pose problems, such as muzzling a free press, stifling free speech, or the school’s intrusion into emotional issues that parents think belong within the family’s discretion.

As a former journalism teacher, I think there is much the press can do to act with greater caution and restraint in its reporting. “Sitting on a story” for hours and hours during periods when no new information is available not only gives rise to inaccurate reporting and reliance on the opinions/speculations of experts, but ignores other news around the world. For shooters who are looking for their 15 minutes of fame, this endless coverage gives them more fame than they ever dreamt of.

Santa Fe school system photo

We saw how the Ferguson, Missouri violence was fueled in part by the lies told–and perpetuated by the media–about the Michael Brown shooting by people who claimed to be witnesses who weren’t even there. A lot of violence occurred based on those lies, and even after they were proven false, many people continued to believe them. A network I won’t name was taking phone calls after the Santa Fe, Texas shooting from people that did not appear to have been vetted who claimed to have been there. Were they really there? The network took their comments as gospel, something no good reporter would ever do. In this approach, the network wasn’t a news organization but another cog in the social media spreading viral information that could only incite more incorrect views on causes, and perhaps our next shooting.

Addressing these so-called indicators isn’t a quick fix. Personally, I am more interested in knowing what in society has changed that has allowed/facilitated this epidemic.  Some people think “getting the guns” is a quick fix, yet they seem to have no idea that much of the prospective legislation bandied about so far wouldn’t have stopped many of the shooters and/or would be unconstitutional. Trying to repeal or alter the Second Amendment is a process that–even if Congress starts the procedure–would take years and would probably fail. Not a quick fix. Others suggest metal detectors at school doors  which, of course, would have to be manned. So far, the costs appear to be higher than school system budgets. Not an easy thing to do even though it seems so obvious.

I don’t have the answer. And, it might be possible that even if we knew exactly what had changed in our society to create this problem, it might include a slough of so many things it would be hard to address. However, what doesn’t help, is intruding into a civilized Facebook post that’s looking for reasoned discussion with a single-quick-fix solution and then slamming those who don’t agree with it.

If this Facebook thread mirrors society as a whole, we’ll never stop the shootings. Meanwhile, as one survivor of the Santa Fe, Texas, shooting said in an interview, “It’s been happening everywhere. I’ve always felt it would eventually happen here too.”

Let’s hope public policy doesn’t become fatalism.

–Malcolm

A friend of mine has continued some helpful resources:

The School Shooter: A Quick Reference Guide
HOW WE TALK ABOUT BULLYING AFTER SCHOOL SHOOTINGS CAN BE DANGEROUS: EXPERTS
Are mass shootings a white man’s problem?

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