Five years ago, shortly after the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., I visited a program in Los Angeles aimed at heading off school shootings before they occurred.
What I learned was both terrifying and encouraging. High schools and colleges, it turned out, were rife with troubled students who expressed violent thoughts. One scribbled “Kill Everyone Leave None Alive” in a notebook beside drawings of bombs hitting a building that looked disturbingly like a school. Another posted pictures of himself on Facebook holding guns alongside the words “School — Tomorrow.” A third student said that Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, had done a good thing in killing those 20 children by enabling them to escape the travails of life.
But I also realized that mental health experts, law enforcement agencies and criminal justice researchers had learned a great deal about how to identify potential perpetrators of school violence, how to assess whether the threats were real — a vast majority are not — and how to intervene. With at least 17 people dead at a high school in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday and 40 school shootings recorded in the United States since 2000, it is worth paying attention to what this knowledge is.
Studies have shown, for example, that in school shootings, the killers virtually always “leak” their intentions, leaving a trail of clues behind them. Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old who the police said has confessed in the Parkland shooting, apparently was no exception: Students reportedly avoided him and joked that if anyone were going to shoot up the school, it would be him.
Researchers have also found that in many, if not most, cases of school violence, the perpetrator has done extensive research on previous school shootings, studying them in detail, often with special attention to the killings at Columbine High School in 1999. A study of nine school shootings in Europe conducted by J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist in San Diego who consults on threat assessment for schools and corporations, found that a third of the killers had “consciously imitated and emulated what had happened in Columbine.”
Finally, there is nascent, but increasing, evidence that violence begets violence, with one school shooting — especially if it receives a lot of publicity — leading to others, a phenomenon that researchers refer to as “contagion.” And some psychologists believe that news media reports of mass killings may propel people who are already at risk of violence into committing copycat crimes.
Violence is, of course, notoriously difficult to predict, and no one thinks that all school shootings can be prevented. Yet experts in assessing threats say that there are approaches that in some cases can be effective in derailing a planned act of violence.
Improved communication among agencies authorized to detect and prevent violence is one promising strategy. In many areas where there are coordinated threat assessment systems in place, barriers to such communication have been dismantled to reduce the chances that a student who is “on a path to violence” will fall through the cracks.
But few localities have as comprehensive a system as I saw in Los Angeles County, where law enforcement, the county mental health department and educational institutions share information and train staff members to recognize and report worrisome behavior. Students, teachers and parents are encouraged to report any troubling behavior. When a threat appears potentially serious, mental health workers and law enforcement officers might visit a student’s home, talk to the parents and even ask if they can see the student’s room.
Tony Beliz, a consultant to schools and corporations on violence prevention who for many years ran the mental health side of the Los Angeles program, which was started by the Los Angeles Police Department, has noted that parents often have no idea what their children are up to. I n more than a few cases, a team visiting a home has found weapons or other indications of deadly intention.
School shootings are rare events, and account for only a tiny fraction of gun-related deaths each year. Still, many experts believe that it should be far more difficult for severely troubled teenagers to get hold of weapons like the semiautomatic AR-15 used in the Parkland, Fla., attack. In California, disturbed teenagers who seem seriously bent on violence can sometimes be committed to a psychiatric hospital for 72 hours of observation, an action that then allows any firearms they possess to be legally seized. In other states, it is not so easy.
Educating local clinics, school psychologists and teachers about laws governing the release of privileged communication can improve the chances of identifying potentially dangerous students. Many educators and mental health professionals believe that they cannot disclose troubling confidences, even if they believe that there might be a threat to public safety. But this is not the case.
Dr. Meloy, the forensic psychologist, and other experts think the media can also do more to prevent mass shootings. He does not expect news outlets to forgo covering school shootings. But, Dr. Meloy says, reporters and editors could avoid describing a killer using words that might “convey a certain cool pose” to some teenagers, including “lone wolf” or even “school shooter.”
“From the perspective of a young male, being a school shooter is something that can be idealized, and it brings a coolness to the behavior that otherwise does not exist in his life,” Dr. Meloy told me.
After my trip five years ago, I wrote a story about the Los Angeles program and others like it and left feeling hopeful that even if our society can’t stop school shootings altogether, we can certainly reduce their frequency.
The horrific shooting in Parkland raises the question of whether we are serious about trying.
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