Concept of the Month -- May 2007

Virginia Tech: Can a Future School Shooter be Identified?

In the aftermath of the nightmare that took place last month at Virginia Tech, discussion is taking place in this country about whether future school shootings can be prevented. Despite the certainty expressed by some experts that we know enough to identify future perpetrators of homicides in schools, the answer unfortunately is that we are not able to predict such occurrences in advance.

After the fact, mental health professionals, educators, and others can put together "tell tale signs." It is quite a different matter to say that we can do this accurately before tragedy occurs. Many juveniles and adults express their "dark thoughts" in drawings, writings, and even in conversations. We pay to see mayhem and slaughter at the movies. Surely, every person who shows an interest in killing, articulates a wish for revenge, or renders chilling illustrations in doodles or formal artistic work does not constitute a danger. Nor does every loner or student who seems weird pose a menace.

Let us suppose that we can spot the future school shooter. What do we do with him? Perhaps we can persuade him to see a counselor. Or, if he refuses and we have evidence he is dangerous to himself or others, we can get a court order for mental health services. We can at best lead him to treatment. But we cannot compel him to cooperate. Individuals with antisocial characteristics are quite opposed to treatment. They are not truthful. They are self-serving and are very good at feeding others what they think will get them out of a jam and off their back.

In my book "Before It's Too Late," I do state that we can detect early patterns of destructive behavior in children, sometimes as early as in the elementary grades. Just ask a fourth grade teacher if she knows a child who constantly lies, blames others for his wrongdoing, and insists on controlling others, using any means to an end! We do not know whether these children will become law breakers, much less school shooters. We do know that they will experience serious conflicts in interpersonal relationships and interfere with the rights of others. We can do a great deal more than we are doing in terms of identifying and helping some of these children and engage in such an effort without labeling little kids as future "criminals." And, of course, we can encourage children to inform someone who is a responsible position of authority if they discover that another youngster is planning to harm someone.

But we are kidding ourselves if we think we can predict with any degree of reasonable certainty who, among our many troubled youngsters, will be the next perpetrators of mass killings such as those occurring at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and other educational insitutions.

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