School Violence: The psychology of youthful mass murder and what to do about it
By Dr. Laurence Miller
Q: Just when we were so preoccupied with the fear of terrorism, now comes news of the deadly Virginia Tech shooting. It looks like school violence is back in the news. What causes someone to commit mass murder? What are the effects on individuals and communities? How can law enforcement and the general public best prevent, respond to, and recover from episodes of school violence?
A: School violence is not really back in the news because it never left. Most recently eclipsed by the war on terror, incidents like Virginia Tech – as with Littleton, Columbine, and others – remind us that most killers of Americans are still our own citizens and that many of these murders take place where we expect them least, our schools. This column will provide some insight into the psychology of this modern form of mass murder and provide some practical recommendations for preventing, responding to, and recovering from school violence.
Demographics of School Violence
The good news is that youth violence as a whole has been decreasing in frequency since the 1970’s. However, during the same period, the severity of juvenile violence has dramatically increased, with a greater number of homicides and involving more potent weapons. In addition, students are committing violence at increasingly younger ages. According to National School Safety Center, almost 3 million crimes are committed on or near a school campus each year, accounting for 11 percent of all reported crimes in the United States.
In this context, high-profile multiple murders on school campuses, horrific though they may be, are still relatively low-frequency events. Much more common are the everyday instances of bullying, harassment, and nonlethal violence that occur on school campuses across the nation and the world. These, too, can be psychologically traumatizing and may set the stage for episodes of explosive violence.
The kinds of intimidation and harassment that would get an employee fired at almost any job is routinely tolerated by school authorities when it occurs between students. In virtually every case of school violence studied, the perpetrators had been harassed or persecuted in some way by other students and their efforts to have their cases resolved by school authorities were rebuffed or ignored. Of course, a far greater number of bullied students suffer in silence without seeking to redress their injustice with a greater atrocity.
Peer victimization is the experience of being a target of the aggressive behavior of other students. Indirect aggression is carried out through a third party or in some way that conceals the identity of the aggressor. Relational aggression is behavior which damages peer relationships and acceptance within the social group. In verbal victimization, the student’s status is attacked or threatened with words and this can be exceedingly vicious and damaging to a student’s psyche and self-image.
Studies have shown the effects of school victimization to include lowered self-esteem, increased loneliness and isolation, anxiety and panic attacks, depression and suicidal thoughts, psychosomatic symptoms, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Victimized children miss more days from school, suffer impaired academic performance, and make more trips to the doctor. Only rarely, do disturbed, desperate students resort to violence but, when they do, it often highlights systemic problems that have occurred for a long time – a strong parallel with workplace violence.
School Violence Perpetrators
For all the media attention given to school violence, very little empirical work has been done in the psychology of this kind of youthful mass murder. Accordingly, much of what we know about school violence perpetrators has been extrapolated from studies of other types of mass murder, especially older perpetrators of workplace violence, who have been studied for several decades, as opposed to school shootings, which are a more recent phenomenon.
The cycle of violence typically begins when the student undergoes an event or series of events that he perceives as the “last straw” in a cumulative series of humiliations. Based on his predisposing personality and psychological dynamics, his reaction will consist of some combination of persecutory ideation, projection of blame, and violent revenge fantasies. As thoughts and emotions stew, the student isolates himself from the input of others and enters a mode of self-protection and self-justification in which a violent act may come to be perceived as “the only way out.” The actual commando-style mission may be executed impulsively and all at once, or it may undergo numerous revisions and months of planning. The violent act itself may be carried out alone or with the collaboration of like-minded compatriots. In most cases, the episodes end with the death of the perpetrator(s), either by their own hand or by responding law enforcement authorities.
Preventing School Violence
Academic administrators who remain unmoved by the human costs of school violence might want to consider the potential legal and financial liabilities. In Stoneking v. Bradford Area School District, 1988, the court found that, if a school is aware of dangerous and unlawful activities on its premises and takes insufficient action to address them, it may be found liable under the 14th amendment. School officials may be protected from liability, however, if they can demonstrate due diligence in their prevention of crime on campus. Accordingly, the following recommendations are adapted from a large body of work in the area of workplace violence that can be productively applied to the academic setting. Law enforcement officials, in particular, should be aware of these concepts because local police departments are typically the main agencies contacted by schools for advice on violence prevention programs, and they are almost always the first to be called when a crisis erupts.
Clear Policies. Schools should have clear, strong, consistent, written policies against bullying, intimidation, and harassment. They should have effective security programs, a standardized, confidential, and user-friendly reporting system, a supportive faculty, open channels of communication, and training in verbal negotiation and conflict resolution skills. Schools must have a clearly understood policy of zero tolerance for violence. This should be contextualized as a safety issue, the same as with rules about fire prevention or disaster drills. Plans should be in place that specify how threats are reported and to whom, as well as a protocol for investigating threats.
Safe Discipline. As in the workplace, many acts of violence relate to the perpetrator feeling he was treated unfairly by the administration; some of this relates to confusion over the very zero-tolerance policy cited above. Schools should develop an individualized disciplinary program that strikes a balance between a too heavy-handed approach that might discourage reporting and participation, and a too lax approach that gives the impression of ambivalence and lack of control. Discipline should occur in stages, with a clear policy and rationale for each action taken. School officials should not be afraid to “pull rank” where student safety is concerned.
Safe Suspension or Expulsion. If it comes to that, suspension or expulsion from school can be clear and firm, without being inhumane. This should include a systematic process of documentation of the precise behaviors and rule violations that have necessitated these actions. The student and his family should be treated with reasonable respect, but should understand that the action is final and will be backed up. The student should be informed of any counseling or other services offered by the school for the transition period. For behaviors that constitute criminal acts, school officials should report these to local law enforcement or their own school police if they have them.
Responding to School Violence
Sometimes, despite the best efforts at prevention, a dangerous situation begins to brew and a violent incident becomes a distinct possibility. Or the incident just erupts explosively and personnel have to respond immediately. In either case, the effectiveness of the response will be determined by how thorough the pre-incident planning and training have been.
Warning Signs of Impending Violence. It’s always best for school officials to know their individual students, but generic warning signs include deterioration or changes in dress, speech, facial expression, increased agitation, anxiety, isolation and/or depression, evidence of substance use, or preoccupation with violent events in the media. Almost always, the student’s peers will know something is up way before parents or teachers, which is why a safe and confidential reporting system is so important.
Defusing Violence. Planning and training for defusing potentially violent episodes should be developed, put in place, and reviewed periodically. Elements of such a protocol include initial actions to take when danger begins to escalate, codes and signals for summoning help, chain of command for handling emergencies, appropriate use of verbal control strategies and body language, scene control and bystander containment, tactics for dealing with weapons, and hostage negotiation procedures.
Recovering From School Violence
The crisis is not over when the police and TV crews leave. Students or faculty may have been killed, others wounded, some held hostage, and many psychologically traumatized. Schools should proactively establish policies, procedures, and training for responding to the aftermath of a violent incident, and the plan should include the following elements.
Law Enforcement, Physical Security, and Cleanup. A school representative should be designated to work with local, regional, and/or federal law enforcement. Within the limits of safety, the crime scene should be kept intact until investigators have gone over the area. There should be someone assigned to immediately check, protect, or restore the integrity of the school’s data systems, computers, and files. Physical cleanup of the area, pending approval from law enforcement, should be conducted in as respectful a manner as possible.
Mental Health Mobilization. This includes a prearranged plan for school representatives to contact local mental health professionals immediately, arrange for the clinicians to meet first with school officials for updates and briefings, conduct crisis counseling with affected students, faculty, and families, and arrange follow-up schedules for mental health clinicians to return for psychological services as needed.
Student and Family Interventions. Another designated school official should notify the victims’ families of the incident and be ready to offer them immediate support, counseling, and referral services. The school should arrange time off for grieving and traumatized students and faculty. After the initial stages of the incident have passed, mental health clinicians should help students and school officials find ways of memorializing the victims.
Media and Public Relations. A media spokesperson or public information official should be designated to brief the media and shepherd them away from grieving students, family members, and faculty. School officials should cooperate with law enforcement authorities as to the timing and content of news releases.
Legal Issues and Post-Incident Investigations. These measures include notifying the school’s legal counsel who should be asked to respond to the scene, if necessary. Investigatory questions include the nature of the perpetrator(s), their relationship to fellow students and faculty, history of disciplinary action or suspension, specific circumstances or institutional stressors that may have led to the incident, the role of mental illness or substance abuse, any warning signs that should have been heeded, and a thorough review of the school’s overall security, threat assessment, and critical incident response protocols.
In summary, if any good can come out of a school violence episode, it will be in the form of improved policies and procedures that adopt a best-practices model to the prevention, response, and recovery to and from any kind of institutional mass violence. In these efforts, law enforcement agencies have a vital role to play.
NOTE: To learn more about this topic, see:
Miller, L. (1999). Workplace violence: Prevention, response, and recovery. Psychotherapy, 36, 160-169.
Miller, L. (2001). Workplace violence and psychological trauma: Clinical disability, legal liability, and corporate policy. Part I. Neurolaw Letter, 11, 1-5.
Miller, L. (2001). Workplace violence and psychological trauma: Clinical disability, legal liability, and corporate policy. Part II. Neurolaw Letter, 11, 7-13.
Miller, L. (2002). How safe is your job? The threat of workplace violence. USA Today Magazine, March, pp. 52-54.
Miller, L. (2002). Posttraumatic stress disorder in school violence: Risk management lessons from the workplace. Neurolaw Letter, 11, 33, 36-40.
[Reprints are available from the author]
Laurence Miller, PhD is a clinical and forensic psychologist and law enforcement educator and trainer based in Boca Raton, Florida. Dr. Miller is the police psychologist for the West Palm Beach Police Department, a forensic psychological examiner for the Palm Beach County Court, and a consulting psychologist with several regional and national law enforcement agencies. Dr. Miller is an instructor at the Criminal Justice Institute of Palm Beach County and at Florida Atlantic University, and conducts continuing education and training seminars around the country. He is the author of numerous professional and popular print and online publications pertaining to the brain, behavior, health, law enforcement, criminal justice, and organizational psychology. His latest books are Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement (Charles C Thomas, 2006) and the forthcoming Mental Toughness Training for Law Enforcement and Street Psychology 101 (Looseleaf Law Publications). Dr. Miller can be contacted at (561) 392-8881 or online at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.