For many of the young people who’ve opened fire in schools, the path to violence has common traits. Psychologists and researchers have developed a body of study on the topic.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Details are continuing to emerge about how events unfolded at Robb Elementary School on Tuesday. One thing we do know – the shooter was 18. So we wanted to take a step back and look at what’s become a familiar pattern – a well-armed young person with a troubled history taking out their rage on others. What can be done to divert potential shooters from a violent path? NPR’s mental health reporter Rhitu Chatterjee joins us now to talk about that, too. Hi, Rhitu.
RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So do researchers who study violent behavior, do they see like a profile that they can point to when it comes to young people who might one day become shooters?
CHATTERJEE: No, there isn’t a profile, but there are certainly many similarities between school shooters, whether we’re talking about Columbine, Parkland, now Uvalde. And there’s often a range of situational factors that have played out over time, putting a person at a higher risk of getting on that path to a mass shooting.
CHANG: And what are those factors?
CHATTERJEE: So I talked to Courtney McCarthy. She’s a school psychologist for the Salem-Keizer School District in Salem, Ore., which has a long-standing effective prevention program. And here’s what she told me.
COURTENAY MCCARTHY: So some of those things might be like bullying and harassment, so someone developing long-standing grievances against other people for perceived wrongs in their lives.
CHATTERJEE: And we know that was the case for the Sandy Hook shooter. And now it seems that bullying and harassment was indeed the experience of the Uvalde shooter, too. And he had a troubled home life. His mother struggled with addiction. And that’s not uncommon, either. Many shooters have had difficult family lives. Childhood traumas and mental health issues are often in the mix. Now, I should point out that mental health problems alone don’t cause somebody to become violent. In fact, those with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.
CHANG: I’m really glad you pointed that out. We should be clear the vast majority of people struggling with mental health issues do not physically attack others.
CHANG: So, Rhitu, what puts a small minority of these individuals on such a horrific, violent path?
CHATTERJEE: So a big, big factor is the absence of positive supportive relationships, especially with caring adults – a teacher, a coach, a mentor who can be a good role model for investing in this young person, showing them ways to problem solve in non-violent ways. So most of these individuals, you know, have often spent a long time feeling alone as they’re struggling with all the things that they’re dealing with. Reid Meloy is a forensic psychologist and a consultant with the FBI, and he says this is what happens for most adolescent males in these circumstances.
REID MELOY: When every day is misery, one will then tend to withdraw into fantasy. And in that fantasy, you begin to imagine that you are, in a sense, larger than life, that you are more powerful than you are in your actual life.
CHATTERJEE: That’s when they start to identify with the past school shooters, and their anguish turns into anger. And they start researching plans and coming up with their own, which brings me to one of the most important risk factors, and that’s easy access to guns, which is what makes it possible for someone to act on their plans.
CHANG: So what can be done? What’s being done to stop young people from going down this road?
CHATTERJEE: Well, first of all, I want to remind everyone that schools are still one of the safest places, even if these horrific incidents are going up. But experts I spoke to said schools are more and more engaging in something called behavioral threat assessment. When a group of individuals work together intentionally – law enforcement, mental health professionals, schools, communities – spot those early warning signs so that law enforcement can intervene.
CHANG: That is NPR’s Rhitu Chatterjee. Thank you so much, Rhitu.
CHATTERJEE: Thank you, Ailsa.
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