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School shootings are a multicausal phenomenon. Although mental illness is frequently cited as the main cause of school shootings, it is only one contributing factor among many other factors involved in youth violence and cannot explain the complexity of school shootings (Metzi & MacLeish, 2015). In developing ways to prevent school shootings and youth violence, researchers, government officials, and school administrators should be focusing on the impact that peer rejection and bullying has on youths and young adults. Peer rejection and bullying may be the precipitating factor in school shootings; therefore, attention should be given to ways on reducing peer rejection and eliminating bullying within schools (Leary, Kowalski, Smith, & Phillips, 2003). School shootings appear to be increasing in frequency, but school shootings are extremely rare events and do not occur as often as people are led to believe (McGinty, Webster, Jarlenski, & Barry, 2014). The catastrophic effect that these violent offences have on the community is long lasting; therefore, further research is needed to clearly understand these violent offences so that they can be prevented in the future.
Keywords: school shootings, violence, mental illness, peer rejection, bullying, prevention
School Shootings: A Multicausal Phenomenon
School shootings are one of the most serious violent offences committed by youths and young adults. Typically, school shootings result in mass casualties and has a lasting negative effect on the community. Thus, researchers, school administrators, government officials, and community members seek to understand the cause of these violent offences, so as to develop ways in which to prevent their occurrence (Gerard, Whitfield, Porter, & Browne, 2015). There are several risk factors that contributed to violent behaviours among youths and can explain youth violence (Verlinden, Hersen, & Thomas, 2000). School shootings differ from other violent incidents that involve guns and mass casualties, for they are extremely rare incidents and typically occur in suburbs and rural areas (Bushman et al., 2016). In addition, prior to committing a school shooting, offenders often display warning behaviours such as accumulating weapons or posting online their intent to commit a violent offence (Meloy, Hoffmann, Roshdi, & Guldimann, 2014). Due to the catastrophic nature of school shootings, the media increases coverage of these events, and although the coverage is informative, the media can have a negative impact on how these events are understood and portrayed (McGinty et al., 2014). The most frequently cited cause of school shootings, other than gun control, is mental illness (Metzi & MacLeish, 2015). Even though serious mental illness does increase one’s risk for violence, people who are mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violent crimes rather than perpetrators (Arseneault, Moffitt, Caspi, Taylor, & Silva, 2000). Research has shown that peer rejection and bullying may be the precipitating factor in school shootings when combined with other risk factors (Leary et al., 2003). Therefore, mental illness is a contributing risk factor, but it is not the sole cause of school shootings, for school shootings are a multicausal phenomenon that cannot be explained by mental illness alone.
Violence is the intention to cause physical harm, such as injury or death to another person (Bushman et al., 2016). During adolescence and into young adulthood, incidents of youth violence increases dramatically, but tends to desist and decrease over time among most individuals (Bushman et al., 2016). In the United States, a disproportionate number of youths and young adults commit violent offences and experience higher incidents of death and injury due to violence compared to other developed countries (Bushman et al., 2016). Exposure to risk factors, in the absence of protective factors, contributes to an individual’s risk for committing a violent offence. Risk factors come in different forms and come from several different sources. Thus, there are several risk factors that contribute to the increase in youth violence and explains why some individuals commit violent offences while others do not (Bushman et al., 2016).
Risk Factors for Violence
Research has found that many youths who commit violent offences have a history of prenatal trauma and birth complications (Verlinden et al., 2000). Prenatal trauma is correlated to problems with hyperactivity and impulsivity, and research has found a significant correlation between violence and hyperactivity/impulsivity (Verlinden et al., 2000). Problems with hyperactivity and impulsivity may be due to low inhibition control and/or deficits in executive cognitive functioning due to prenatal trauma (Verlinden et al., 2000). Deficits in executive functioning may also lead to poor social skills and ineffective or dysfunctional problem-solving skills, and both have been implicated as a risk factor for violence (Verlinden et al., 2000). In addition, children who have a difficult temperament, which is characterised by irritability, negative mood, reactive emotional responses, and poor attention have an increased risk for violent behaviour during adolescence (Verlinden et al., 2000). Furthermore, serious mental illness and substance abuse also increases one’s risk for violence (Arseneault et al., 2000; Verlinden et al., 2000). Although there are several individual risk factors that can contribute to violent behaviour, early signs of aggression are one of the most predictive factors for later violent behaviour (Verlinden et al., 2000). However, early signs of aggressive behaviour do not always lead to violent behaviour later in life, but it does increase one’s risk for violence (Verlinden et al., 2000).
In addition to individual risk factors, there are several family, social, and environmental factors that increase one’s risk for committing a violent offence. Ineffective parental skills, such as poor monitoring, supervision, and low parental involvement is associated with aggressive and violent behaviour (Verlinden et al., 2000). Having a parent with mental health problems and/or substance abuse problems also increases one’s risk for engaging in violent behaviour (Verlinden et al., 2000). Furthermore, neglect and maltreatment may foster feelings of rage and helplessness which could lead to aggression and violent behaviour (Verlinden et al., 2000) Research has found a significant correlation between maltreatment and violent crime, and those who experience serious forms of maltreatment and neglect have the highest delinquency rates (Verlinden et al., 2000). Therefore, neglect and maltreatment are also highly predictive of violent behaviours and offences (Verlinden et al., 2000).
Furthermore, research has found that peers have a substantial impact on one’s behaviour, for one tends to model behaviours exhibited by peers and peers act as reinforcers for behaviour (Verlinden et al., 2000). Association with antisocial peer group can lead to violence, for one will model and learn antisocial behaviours and may engage in antisocial behaviours to be accepted by the group (Verlinden et al., 2000). Lastly, peer rejection and bullying are correlated with violent and aggressive behaviour, for peer rejection and bullying may help foster bonds with antisocial peer groups and leads to feelings of aggression and anger towards others (Gerard et al., 2016; Verlinden et al., 2000). Even though there are several risk factors that contribute to one’s risk for violence, having at least one pro-social peer can mitigate the effects of the risk factors and can act as a protective factor against developing violent behaviour (Verlinden et al., 2000).
Overview of School Shootings
Characteristics of School Shootings
School shootings are complex offences and they differ from violent street crimes in many ways. Street crimes typically occur in heavily populated areas within large cities and in areas with high crime rates, and also in impoverished, low socioeconomic neighbourhoods (Bushman et al., 2016). In comparison, school shootings often occur in rural places, suburban areas, and in areas where violent crimes are uncommon occurrences (Bushman et al., 2016). Both violent street crimes and school shootings rarely occur, but school shootings are extremely rare and occur less frequently than violent street crimes (Bushman et al., 2016). More often than not, multiple guns and semiautomatic weapons are used in school shootings, and these weapons are usually obtained from the offender’s home or from a family member’s home; whereas, violent street crimes typically involve hand guns that were sold or obtained illegally on the street (Bushman et al., 2016). In addition, multiple people or gangs are often involved in instigating a violent street crime, and school shootings sometimes involve more than one offender, but most school shootings are implemented by a lone offender (Bushman et al., 2016). Furthermore, many school shootings are characterised as murder-suicides, for several school shootings end with the offender taking his or her own life after they have killed or wounded as many victims as possible (Bushman et al., 2016). Murder-suicide is a common characteristic or feature of school shootings and is rarely a characteristic of violent street crimes (Bushman et al., 2016). However, people who commit suicide differ from those who commit murder-suicide in that extreme suicidal ideation is paired with long term resentment and anger towards others (Bushman et al., 2016).
Many offenders who commit violent school shootings are often Caucasian, adolescent males, and the victims of school shootings are often of the same race but may be a combination of both male and female victims (Bushman et al., 2016; Gerard et al., 2016). Offenders come from various family backgrounds, for some offenders come from dysfunctional or broken homes, and others come from intact, two-parent households (Gerard et al., 2016). Even though some offenders come from intact, two-parent households, research has found that many of the homes lacked parental supervision, emotional or intimate closeness, and healthy attachments (Gerard et al., 2016). Although many offenders of school shootings seem to receive average grades in school, many lack appropriate problem-solving skills regarding social situations and have poor coping skills for negative social interactions (Wike & Fraser, 2009). School shooters typically do not have a criminal record or a past history of violent or criminal behaviour; however, offenders may have problems with anger management and may be overly reactive towards emotional stimuli (Gerard et al., 2016). In addition, substance abuse is uncommon among school shooters (Bushman et al., 2016; Gerard et al., 2016). Depression and suicidal ideation are common among offenders, and offenders are typically untreated for mental illness, and have not received treatment in the past prior to the incident (Gerard et al., 2016). Also, offenders are often labelled as loners because they tend to isolate themselves from others, especially after being rejected by peers or feeling victimized by bullies (Wike & Fraser, 2009). Offender characteristics become potentially dangerous when paired with an obsession or fixation with weapons, feelings of anger or aggression towards others, and feeling victimized by bullies (Wike & Fraser, 2009).
Warning behaviours are indictive of school shootings (Meloy et al., 2014). Warning behaviours are different than risk factors for committing a violent offence, for warning behaviours are patterns of behaviour that have changed from normal everyday behaviour to pathological behaviour and are evidence for pending violence (Meloy et al., 2014). Research has found that there are several warning behaviours associated with school shootings (Meloy et al., 2014). Many offenders spend extensive time planning for an attack and will often spend time researching other violent offences and will start to prepare for an attack (Meloy et al., 2014). For example, offenders may begin to accumulate weapons or become fixated with weapons. In addition, pathological fixation or preoccupation with a particular cause or person who has wronged them in some perceived way, such as some one who may have rejected them or humiliated them in front others (Meloy et al., 2014). Furthermore, offenders may start to identify with past assailants or may start to adopt a “warrior mentality,” in that they spend more time associating with weapons and practicing using weapons (Meloy et al., 2014, p. 204). Committing a violent act for the first time that appears to be unrelated to the planned or targeted attack is also a warning behaviour (Meloy et al., 2014). Another warning behaviour associated with school shootings is a sudden increase in the frequency of activities related to the desired attack, such as increased planning and associating with weapons (Meloy et al., 2014). Furthermore, offenders often communicate their intentions to others, which is commonly referred to as leakage and communicating a direct threat to a person or law enforcement officials (Meloy et al., 2014). For example, many offenders will post on social media outlets their plans to commit a school shooting and their intention to cause others serious harm (Meloy et al., 2014). The last warning behaviour is increased feelings of distress, and many offenders often feel that violence is the only alternative for solving their problems and is seen as a last resort or final act (Meloy et al., 2014).
Although warning behaviours are indicative of school shootings, many troubled youths who display aggression or problem behaviours can also display warning behaviours associated with school shootings (Meloy et al., 2014). However, not all youths will commit a school shooting (Meloy et al., 2014). The difference between youths who display problem behaviours and youths who commit a school shooting is the number of warning behaviours displayed prior to an incident (Meloy et al., 2014). The most common warning behaviours displayed by school shooters is extensive planning, pathological fixation, adopting a “warrior mentality,” leakage, and increased feelings of distress (Meloy et al., 2014). Compared to other students whose behaviour is concerning or problematic, students who execute school shootings display several warning behaviours prior to an attack; whereas, problematic students typically only display leakage behaviour without the other warning behaviours (Meloy et al., 2014). Therefore, it is the combination of several warning behaviours that is highly concerning and indicative of school shootings.
Impact of Media Portrayal
Mass shootings, due to their devasting and shocking effects, draws the attention of the world and multiple media outlets. School shootings are discussed extensively for long periods of time among community members, school administrators, and government officials (McGinty et al., 2014). Several people struggle to understand why someone would commit such a heinous offence, and often people will turn to the media to try to understand the cause of the incident (McGinty et al., 2014). Although the media is informative and offers a source of understanding, the way in which the media portrays school shootings and the reasons given for the cause of the shooting can be misleading and problematic (McGinty et al., 2014). The media frequently associates mental illness with school shootings and other violent incidents that have resulted in casualties (McGinty et al., 2014). This association leads to the mentally ill being blamed for violence and leads to the idea that mentally ill persons are violent and dangerous (McGinty et al., 2014).
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