How To Recognize A Potential School Shooter

October 22, 2021

By Aara Ramesh

On Wednesday, Oct. 20, Nikolas Cruz, 23, pled guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted first degree murder for his shooting spree at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018. Despite this, however, he is still facing the death penalty — a decision that will be left up to a jury and one the prosecution has pushed for.

On Valentine’s Day nearly four years ago, the then-19-year-old Cruz went on a seven-minute rampage, during which he killed 14 students and three staff members using an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. This is still the deadliest high school shooting ever recorded in the U.S., and one of the worst mass shooting incidents ever.

According to analysis and reporting from Education Week, in 2018 there were 24 shooting incidents on K–12 school property that resulted in injuries or deaths. The following year, that number was at 25, with 8 deaths and 43 injuries. In 2020, however — largely due to the Covid-19 pandemic and associated school closures — there were 10 school shootings that resulted in 3 deaths and 9 injuries. The publication has tracked 24 school shootings so far this year, with 16 of those taking place after Aug. 1. There have been six deaths and 34 injuries in these incidents so far in 2021, with the latest occurring Oct. 12, per Education Week.

Arguably, the most infamous school shooting in modern American history is the April 1999 Columbine High School massacre, in which two gunmen killed 14 fellow students and one teacher. Since then, a Washington Post estimate says, there have been 278 school shootings, resulting in at least 474 deaths or injuries. Another study found that, before the pandemic interrupted the trend, school shootings were becoming more commonplace, with fewer days in between individual incidents.

This begs the questions — are there warning signs that a child has the potential to be a school shooter? What are they? And is there anything peers and adults in that child’s life can do to stop that from happening?

Since Columbine there has been almost an obsession with creating a “profile” for a school shooter. That is, creating a checklist of sorts that an adult can refer to and tick off factors as they go along, which would concretely identify someone as a potential school shooter. Over the years, this approach has been criticized by both law enforcement and the psychiatric community as being unhelpful and ineffective. Not all school shooters are alike, nor do they all share a revenge motivation, nor are they all “weird” or “aberrant.”

It is true, on the other hand, that they do tend to share some baseline characteristics. One analysis of school shooters since 1966 found that:

  • 45% had witnessed or experienced childhood trauma
  • 77% had mental health concerns, usually previously and formally diagnosed
  • 75% displayed some form of interest in past mass shooting incidents, expressing this in their writing, social media posts, etc.
  • 87% showed “signs of a crisis” in their behavior before the shooting
  • A staggering 78% talked about their plans ahead of time, on social media or through schoolwork
  • Only around one-third were motivated by a dispute or grievance, but there were a wide variety of other factors (as depicted in the graphic below)
Image source: U.S. Government Accountability Office

In the Columbine case, there were indications that not all was right with the two shooters in the lead-up to the attack. They had both gotten into trouble with the law for breaking into a van a few months before the shooting — in fact, both were arrested and sent to a diversion program that involved counseling and community service. Dylan Klebold had expressed suicidal ideation. Eric Harris posted his hateful opinions extensively online. Both had a history of depression.

In a similar vein, at Cruz’s sentencing trial, prosecutors intend to show that there was concrete intention behind the killings and that he had been planning and threatening such an attack for a while. Per reporting from the Associated Press, Cruz had “a history of threatening, frightening, unusual and sometimes violent behavior that dated back to preschool.” The defense, on the other hand, might use his history of “mental and emotional instability,” as well as the premature deaths of his parents, to paint a picture of a troubled boy left without support or help.

From studying such cases, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), U.S. Secret Service, non-profits, and academicians have put together some general warning signs that peers, teachers, school staff, parents, caregivers, mentors, and law enforcement can keep an eye out for:

  • School shooters tend to be male, and between 12 and 17 years old. The majority have been white.
  • They are extremely likely to be current or former students of the school.
  • They are likely to express some form of suicidal ideation – four in every five school shooters were found to be suicidal. They may also display signs of self-harm, like cutting.
  • They may exhibit “a strong fascination or obsession with firearms,” one that might be considered unusual in its intensity.
  • They express fascination with previous mass shootings and are well-versed in firearm techniques and training, or brag about their knowledge of military, law enforcement, terrorist, or fight training.
  • They exhibit excessive interest in violent topics in general, like in Hitler and the Holocaust.
  • They brag about how they have “unsupervised, illegal or easy access to firearms.” Studies have repeatedly shown that most school shooters steal their weapons from their own homes.
  • They fly off the handle, overreact, or act out aggressively for what may seem like small or inconsequential reasons.
  • Their academic performance and/or mood suddenly deteriorates, or they suddenly withdraw from social activities, as well as friends and family.
  • They express that they have been bullied and may be an “injustice collector,” i.e., they misconstrue the smallest of slights as an attack on them and keep track of who has “attacked” them.
  • They express a “victim” or “martyr” ideology in which they are the oppressed who will one day seek revenge on their oppressors (bullies). They may also be paranoid or feel they are being excessively persecuted or treated unfairly.
  • They may display “inappropriate affect,” i.e., they do not react when they see cruel behavior, may express anger or humor in situations where that is not a socially acceptable response, or they may display a lack of remorse or empathy.
  • They talk — even jokingly — about carrying out a school shooting, or they make a threat (whether specific or in jest; law enforcement will be able to best assess the urgency of that threat).
  • Their writings (academic or otherwise), social media activity, artwork, reading and viewing preferences, etc. contain fantasies of violence.
  • They have a history of troubling behaviour, whether that is getting in fights, hurting animals, breaking the law, etc. They may also have a previous school disciplinary record.
  • They come from a highly dysfunctional family and lack an emotional support system.
  • Their behavior, mental state, or actions have been the subject of concern or complaint from another student or adult.

It is important to keep in mind that one or more of these behaviors could just be signs of a teenager being a teenager. Young people at this stage are prone to social isolation, mood swings, antisocial behavior, aggression, anxiety, depression, etc. This is what makes it so difficult to identify the potential for violence in a child.

Overall, school shooters represent a microscopic fraction of teenagers with mental health issues and not every teenager suffering any of the above illnesses will go on to become a school shooter. There is no “magical number,” either, the FBI says, on how many of these traits an adolescent needs to exhibit to be a potential school shooter.

That said, it is not impossible to intervene and thwart a deadly shooting before it happens. Child and adolescent behavioral experts say that there is a degree of nuance and subjectivity in analyzing whether the student is falling into normal developmental patterns or whether they are exhibiting unusual and possibly dangerous behavior. As a result, they add, it is beneficial that adults in the child’s life receive training on crisis intervention and how to support such students.

The body of research seems to generally agree that the traditional prevention tactics — like lockdown drills or threats of suspension, expulsion, criminal charges, or even the death penalty — are largely ineffective. Instead, it is crucial that students be monitored for some of these signs and then be offered help, not preventative punishment, experts say. The best way to intervene before this type of deadly incident is to provide the child, who is often hurting and confused, support, social services, and mental health treatment so that they do not resort to extreme violence as a coping mechanism.

You can find the FBI’s comprehensive school shooter threat assessment strategy and protocol here.