Preventing school shootings: Potential warning signs

David Williams

As of Feb. 25, there have been a total of 19 incidents involving gunfire on school grounds.

Seven of these occurred during school hours, five resulted in deaths or injuries. The recent school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, claimed the lives of 17 students and left 14 injured. This prompted significant public outcry in the debates over gun control reform and mental health, as schools and parents scramble to find the best ways to protect their children.

But warning signs and red flags of potential mass shooters can vary. In 2004, the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education released “The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative” in which they attempted to find a profile for the average school shooter.

“There is no accurate or useful ‘profile’ of students who engaged in targeted school violence,” the report found. “Although all of the attackers in this study were boys, there is no set of traits that described all — or even most — of the attackers. Instead, they varied considerably in demographic, background and other characteristics.”

Using the work done in 2004, along with the help of a graduate student, sociology professor Anthony Vander Horst compiled his best attempt at a profile of the “mass shooter in education.”

They found mass shooters in schools are typically white, experienced a major loss (a girlfriend, a parent or other family member), have some kind of mental health issue, are prescribed or are taking some kind of psychotropic or antipsychotic drugs and possess an ideation that they are seeking to cause harm to themselves or to others.

In many cases, this ideation has come in the form of social media posts or some other sort of threat prior to the incident. Most of these signs applied to many mass shooters throughout history, including Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Seung-Hui Cho, James Holmes, TJ Lane, Adam Lanza, Nikolas Cruz and even those as far back as Charles Whitman.

“If somebody would have given me the paperwork on [Nikolas] Cruz, I would’ve said, ‘Get somebody on him now; he’s going to shoot up a school,’” Vander Horst said.

The question of mental health is one that is often raised in response to school shootings, but it goes back far before they became so prevalent. On Oct. 31, 1963, just weeks before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act. At the time, nearly all mental health facilities in the U.S. were managed by the federal government out of hospitals. The act aimed to establish mental health facilities which all Americans could access when needed so they could treat their illnesses while still working and living at home.

Kennedy said the act would build 1,500 mental health facilities around the country and would reduce the number of people living in mental institutions by half. However, half of these facilities weren’t constructed. Those that were built were not fully funded and as such, couldn’t adequately treat people. Despite this, the population of mental health facilities was cut by 90 percent.

According to the Ohio Revised Code Sections 5122.01 and 5122.10, “Mental Illness” is defined as a “substantial disorder of thought, mood, perception, orientation or memory that grossly impairs judgement, behavior, capacity to recognize reality or ability to meet the ordinary demands of life.”       The ORC also states that a person may be taken into custody if that person, because of their illness, “represents a substantial risk of physical harm to self, […] represents a substantial risk of physical harm to others as manifested by evidence of recent homicidal or other violent behavior” or “would benefit from treatment for the person’s mental illness and is in need of such treatment as manifested by evidence of behavior that creates a grave and imminent risk to substantial rights of others or the person.”

Steps have been taken and procedures put in place to attempt to prevent these potential incidents from happening. For example, Kent State has a program called Step Up and Speak Out, which helps faculty and staff identify if there is an issue with a student. The program does not exclusively deal with potential shooters, but also addresses depression, anxiety and other issues and has a list of resources on and off campus.

Kent State also has what they call the Care Team. According to Lt. Chris Jenkins with KSUPD, the Care Team is a cross-divisional crisis management committee of faculty and staff which meet on a weekly basis to assess any potential problems with students and address them accordingly.

The Care Team is chaired by Kent State Dean of Students Lamar Hylton. Referrals to the Care Team may be made by contacting the Dean of Students at 330-672-4050 for a unified institutional response.

“I think it would do a great service to this country if we took the people who are severely mentally ill and got them the treatment they need,” Vander Horst said, “because it seems very toxic to have severely mentally ill people in a Second Amendment culture.”

David Williams is the safety reporter. Contact him at [email protected].