Is there a valid psychosocial explanation for school shootings?
There is no single answer to the cause of mass school shootings, but it goes much deeper and further than issues of gun control and mental illness
On February 14, a former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, walked onto school grounds and proceeded to randomly gun down students and teachers in one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history.
Sadly, this story is a familiar one. It has once again ignited a series of national debates, particularly in reference to gun control and mental illness, and rightfully so. Why has there been a surge in mass school shootings since Columbine in 1999?
There is no single answer to the cause of mass school shootings, but it goes much deeper and further than issues of gun control and mental illness. As a criminologist, I have several theoretical explanations that may shed some light on the topic by focusing on the shooters themselves.
Profiling school shooters
Ever since the mass school shooting at Columbine High School, we can safely surmise that the typical American school shooter is likely to be a Caucasian adolescent male from a middle-class community who attends or attended a suburban high school. Further, the shooter is likely to be a loner, an outcast, and is described by teachers and peers as being socially awkward with a limited number of friends.
Reports also indicate that the majority of school shooters were victims of bullying. Bullying continues to be a pervasive social problem among adolescents and includes both verbal and physical provocation in schools, as well as cyberbullying. Many of the shooters were ridiculed, belittled, demeaned, or even ostracized to the point where it might be assumed revenge or retaliation became a strong motivating force for their actions.
Based on this information, Hirschi’s Social Control Theory (1969) can be used as a reliable and valid psychosocial explanation for school shootings, specifically in understanding the risk factors associated with someone who might resort to such violence.
Applying Social Control Theory to School Shootings
Unlike most criminological theories that explain why people engage in mass shootings and other crimes, Hirschi’s theory explains why people obey rules and remain law-abiding.
Social control theories primarily focus on how external environmental and institutional factors influence how we conform to society’s rules and expectations.
Hirschi’s theory consists of four main "social bonds." When one or more of the following social bonds are weakened, or severed altogether, individuals are more susceptible to crime and deviance.
Attachment is expressed as compassion and empathy toward friends, family, coworkers, and even acquaintances like classmates. School shooters lack attachment. They harbor and internalize anger, frustration, and disappointment that can stem from being bullied by their peers, whether real or perceived. These antagonistic emotions grow in the days, weeks, or months leading up to the attack. While some school shooters have targeted specific people, many of them, like Cruz, have fired indiscriminately. The random direction of these shooters’ aim suggests that they have no regard for human life and have rationalized their actions. This is very similar to the cognitive restructuring process that terrorists use to justify the killing of innocent lives.
Commitment pertains to the time and energy an individual spends pursuing a specific social goal or activity, such as obtaining a college degree or pursuing a particular position within their desired profession. Most people know that engaging in crime will likely jeopardize their career ambitions and educational goals; therefore, they conform to society’s norms and expectations. However, many school shooters adopt a mindset where they do not foresee a future beyond a shooting event. That is why many of them display a kill or be-killed attitude and are willing to take their own life by suicide or suicide by cop.
Individuals who are engrossed in conventional and fulfilling social activities often do not have the time or interest in engaging in unlawful activities. One of the main reasons parents want their children involved in athletics, extra- curricular activities, or any other socially appropriate activity is that it keeps them out of trouble and gives them a sense of belonging to a team, club, or social organization. Individuals who commit school shootings are often described as loners or outcasts, meaning they do not feel like a meaningful part of any group or community.
The fourth and final bond is when an individual believes in the social rules, expectations, and laws of society as taught to them by parents, family members, and friends as well as educational and religious institutions. The stronger one’s moral beliefs in the social norms, the less likely they are to participate in delinquent or criminal activities. Criminal offenders either disregard society’s shared beliefs or rationalize their own deviant behavior. For example, the belief that killing is wrong is reinforced by parents, education and religion; however, a shooter will disregard what he/she has been taught or rationalize their behavior so they can go through with the mass shooting.
Weak Social Bonds Lead to School Shootings
In order to fully understand and appreciate the paradigm and applicability of Hirschi’s theory, it is important to recognize the historical context from which he wrote Causes of Delinquency (1969).
In the 1960s, Hirschi observed a loss of social control over individuals and an accompanying rise in crime, particularly among adolescents. Social institutions such as organized religion, the family, educational institutions, and political institutions were not as prominent in the life of adolescents. As a result, these individuals started to challenge conventional social norms and expectations.
Hirschi blamed this on the breakdown of the aforementioned social institutions, particularly the breakdown of the family due to increasing rates of divorce and single-parent households.
Fast forward to present day and this shift in family structure has continued. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 34 percent of children today are living with an unmarried parent – up from just 9 percent in 1960, and 19 percent in 1980. In most cases, these unmarried parents are single.
I feel strongly that individuals who carry out school shootings can lack resiliency and coping skills due to the breakdown of family structures, as well as reduced value placed on religious and educational institutions. These social institutions are important for molding and shaping individuals and instilling compassion, empathy, and respect for the law and those in authoritative positions.
More important, family members, friends, religious leaders, and teachers provide guidance to young people about how to adapt to – and cope with – rejection, disappointment and frustration. Learning how to be resilient is important for adolescents.
The American Psychological Association defines resilience as the process of adapting in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy and other significant sources of stress and how we “learn” to “bounce back” from difficult experiences.
Being resilient does not suggest that an individual does not experience challenges or distress. Rather, it emphasizes how one processes thoughts, behaviors, and actions when confronted with stress.
One of the primary ways to build resilience is having a support system of family and friends. This support system is built on compassion and trust, and it provides individuals with unconditional encouragement and reassurance. People need to have a strong foundation of positive self-image and self-confidence to overcome low and challenging moments.
While there are many factors that lead to school shootings, all children need to be taught how to manage stress in a healthy way to control their negative impulsive behaviors that often lead to self-destructive outcomes.
Ten Strategies to Build Resilience
The American Psychological Association outlined 10 strategies to build resilience:
- Make connections. Individuals need to build positive relationships with family members, friends and others whom can provide support. Being active in civic groups, faith-based organizations, or other local groups provides social support. It can also be beneficial to help others in their times of need.
- Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable. Highly stressful events happen to everyone, but what counts is how one interprets and responds to them. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be better. Note any subtle ways in which you might already feel somewhat better as you deal with difficult situations. These are your coping mechanisms and can be consciously applied when you face future challenges.
- Accept that change is a part of living. As you get older, certain goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations. When you accept that some circumstances cannot be changed, it allows you to focus on other circumstances that you can influence.
- Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly – even if it seems like a small accomplishment – that enables you to move toward those goals. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, "What's one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?"
- Take decisive actions. Rather than detach completely from problems and stresses or wish they would just go away, take decisive actions to improve the situation as best you can. Avoidance is not the answer.
- Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often learn something about themselves and grow in some respect as a result of struggling with loss, rejection, or disappointment. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardship report later they have stronger relationships, a greater sense of strength even while feeling vulnerable, an increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality, and a heightened appreciation for life. As you’re going through a hardship, remember that there may be benefits in the long run.
- Nurture a positive view of yourself. Have confidence in your ability to solve problems and trust in your instincts. Believing in yourself in a positive way helps build your overall resilience.
- Keep things in perspective. Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion.
- Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.
- Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.
Teaching children and adolescents how to apply these strategies can help them build their resiliency so that when stressful situations happen – which they inevitably will – they have the ability to get through it in the most positive and beneficial way possible.
The more equipped people are to cope with stress and adversity, the less chance they will act out with dangerous and impulsive actions, including school shootings.
About the Author: Dr. Michael Pittaro is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice with American Military University and an Adjunct Professor at East Stroudsburg University. Dr. Pittaro is a criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of institutional and non-institutional settings. Before pursuing a career in higher education, Dr. Pittaro worked in corrections administration; has served as the Executive Director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility and as Executive Director of a drug and alcohol prevention agency. Dr. Pittaro has been teaching at the university level (online and on-campus) for the past 15 years while also serving internationally as an author, editor, presenter, and subject matter expert. Dr. Pittaro holds a BS in Criminal Justice; an MPA in Public Administration; and a PhD in criminal justice. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.