School Shootings: History Keeps Repeating Itself (Part I)

What We Already Know, and What Schools, Staff, and Students Need to Do

Dear Colleagues,

  • January 3:  St. John’s, MI (East Olive Elementary School)
  • January 4:  Seattle, WA (New Start High School
  • January 10:  Sierra Vista, AZ (Coronado Elementary School)
  • January 10:  San Bernardino, CA (California State University)
  • January 10:  Denison, TX (Grayson College Criminal Justice Center)
  • January 15:  Marshall, TX (Wiley College Campus)
  • January 20:  Winston-Salem, NC (Wake Forest University)
  • January 22:  Italy, TX (Italy High School)
  • January 22:  Gentilly, LA (The NET Charter High School)
  • January 23:  Benton, KY (Marshall County High School)
  • January 25:  Mobile, AL  (Murphy High School)
  • January 26:  Dearborn, MI (Dearborn High School)
  • January 31:  Philadelphia, PA (Lincoln High School)
  • February 1:  Los Angeles, CA (Salvador B. Castro Middle School)
  • February 5:  Oxon Hill, MD (Oxon Hill High School)
  • February 5:  Maplewood, MN (Harmony Learning Center)
  • February 8:  New York, NY (Metropolitan High School)
  • February 14:  Broward County, FL (Stoneman Douglas High School)
  • February 20:  Massillon, OH (Jackson Memorial Middle School)

There have been 19 shootings so far this year—on or around school premises—including the one at Stoneman Douglas High School that claimed 17 souls last week.

And many of us have been discussing school shootings since the 1998 transformational event in Jonesboro, AR when two 11- and 13-year old students killed four classmates and one adult, and injured 10 other children in their schoolyard after the boys were excused from class and pulled a fire alarm to draw their victims outdoors.

Twenty years of school shootings. . . where students, staff, and others have lost their lives. . . others have suffered life-long injuries. . . and still others have been traumatized because of the tragic events.

And remember, in the possession of the 11- and 13-year old Jonesboro killers were thirteen fully-loaded firearms, including three semi-automatic rifles, and 200 rounds of ammunition.  All of the weapons were taken from one of the boy’s homes.  And their stolen van had a stockpile of supplies as well as a crossbow and several hunting knives.

Twenty years of school shootings. . . and how have we progressed? 

Nineteen shootings in just the first 33 actual school days of this calendar year.

Why This School Shooting Analysis is Different

Just like you, I have followed the TV, print, and social media news reports and public responses to the most-recent tragedy.  I understand the politics . . . I know the policies and practices . . . and I recognize the diverse emotions . . . from anger to disbelief, from grief to blame.

But I also bring two important perspectives to this discussion.  One is an historical perspective.  The other is a school psychological perspective.

From an historical perspective, I want to review and analyze (below) what we already know about preventing and responding to school shootings— “translating” this into 21st Century/2018 terms.

I am comfortable doing this because, after the Jonesboro shootings, I was asked by President Clinton to be on the writing team that published— through the U.S. Department of Education—the Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools that eventually was distributed to every school in the country.

My ultimate point is that we have not learned from history, and history (i.e., the school shootings) continues to repeat itself.

But some, especially in the media, are saying that “this time is different”— especially given the articulate, and anguished, voices of the Stoneman Douglas High School students, parents, staff, and community leaders. 

Clearly, these students and this community in Florida has kindled a grass-roots national response and dialogue that has been broadcast (literally and figuratively) more extensively than ever before.

But whether the response is sustained, and the dialogue reaps substantive change remains to be seen.

From a school psychological perspective, I also know that the national response and dialogue has been over-simplified, politicized, and polarized—and this may be undermining our comprehensive understanding of the problem, and our ability to fully address it.

Missing has been a recognition that the dynamics and factors related to school shootings are complex, and that the ways to prevent them—and to minimize the loss of life if they occur—are multi-faceted and comprehensive.

Missing also has been a focus on school safety in the context of school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management, and the objective analysis of the root causes of this complex problem.

And so, below is an historical analysis and discussion of the potential root causes of a school shooting, and what districts and schools need to (continue to) do now to prevent future school shootings—or, at least, to minimize their impact.

How and Why School Shootings Occur:  It’s Not Just about Mental Health

Historically, the vast majority of school shootings have involved a single perpetrator.  And while some of these individuals had or could have had mental health (e.g., DSM-5) diagnoses, that does not de facto establish a causal relationship or link between their diagnoses and problems, and their violent and deadly actions.

We have known since the June 2004 joint report from the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education, The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States, that there is no single profile or finite set of characteristics that define or predict a school shooter.

Critically, this Report was based on analyses of 37 incidents of targeted school shootings and school attacks that occurred in the United States from 1974 to May 2000 (including the June 1999 Columbine High School attack).

While all of the shooters studied in the Report were male, and most (76%) were White and between the ages of 13 to 18 years old (85%), most of the other variables analyzed were not predictive. 

These included: Student grades and academic status, whether they were from two-parent families, whether they were social isolates or not involved in extracurricular or other school-related social activities, whether they had school discipline problems or had been involved with law enforcement, whether they had threatened their eventual victims.

But what did emerge was that many of the attackers:

  • Felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack.
  • Had not received a mental health evaluation, been diagnosed with a mental disorder, or were involved in substance abuse.
  • Had some history of suicidal attempts or thoughts, or a history of feeling extreme depression or desperation.
  • Demonstrated some interest in violence, through movies, video games, books, and other media.
  • Were known to have had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures.
  • Planned their attacks and had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack.
  • Engaged in some behavior, prior to the incident, that caused others concern or indicated a need for help—indeed, some knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack.

Extending this Analysis to Today

Since 1990 (through yesterday), there have been 186 incidents of gun violence in a K to Grade 12 school that resulted in 177 fatalities and 340 injuries.  Ten states have never experienced a school shooting.

Those that have include the following:

Midwest States: 43 incidents of gun violence, which resulted in 26 fatalities and 65 injuries

Deadliest incident: Red Lake High School massacre on March 21, 2005, where 16-year-old Jeffrey Weise killed five fellow students, one teacher and a security guard before killing himself.

Northeast States: 12 incidents of gun violence, which resulted in 38 fatalities and 21 injuries

Deadliest incident: Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre on December 14, 2012, where 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 20 children and 6 adults before taking his own life.

Southern States: 75 incidents of gun violence, which resulted in 47 fatalities and 126 injuries

Deadliest incident: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on February 14, 2018, where a former student killed 17 people and wounded at least a dozen others before being arrested by police.

Western States: 56 incidents of gun violence, which resulted in 66 fatalities and 128 injuries

Deadliest incident: Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999, where 18-year-old Eric Harris and 17-year-old Dylan Klebold killed twelve students and one teacher, before turning the guns on themselves.

In this context, the number, depth, and breadth of school shootings— especially since Columbine—has not changed since The 2004 Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States.

But what has changed is that:

  • Bullying has “gone social” and now involves cyber-bullying    
  • Substance abuse has more synthetic variations—along with the current opioid crisis
  • Ways to build weapons of mass destruction and to attack a school are easily accessed on the internet
  • The types of weapons available to youth are more sophisticated, available, and deadly

   And yet:

  • There are more ways for students (and others) to report their concerns about other students’ potential for violence (even though these notably failed at Stoneman Douglas High School)
  • More schools are more physically secure, more procedurally prepared (for emergencies and school attacks), and have more security protections—in and outside of the school

Understanding the Root Causes of School Shootings

Relative to the root causes (or motives) for the attacks, the 2004 Report identified the following:

Revenge was a motive for more than half of the attackers (61%, n=25). Other motives included trying to solve a problem (34%, n=14); suicide or desperation (27%, n=11); and efforts to get attention or recognition (24%, n=10). More than half of the attackers had multiple motives or reasons for their school-based attacks (54%, n=22). In addition, most of the attackers held some sort of grievance at the time of the attack, either against their target(s) or against someone else (81%, n=33). Many attackers told other people about these grievances prior to their attacks (66%, n=27).

Critically, this list of root causes or motives reinforces the fact that mental health issues were but one root cause of the school shootings analyzed.

Indeed, many of the other root causes suggest that the shooters were consciously motivated by a triggering event, an explicit goal, and/or a clear and specific outcome.

But two implicit causes are apparent from a psychological perspective.

First:  Even if mental health issues were present, analyses were needed to determine how the mental health issues were impacting the shooters’ emotions, thoughts, understanding, and/or behavior.  These analyses then needed to be linked to specific and individualized services, supports, interventions, and treatments.

Second: Beyond the additional motives of loss, grief, and hopelessness, many of the shooters did not have the interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skillsneeded to respond to some of the triggering events or school, peer, or life conditions that they were experiencing.

One of the highlighted recommendations in the 2004 Report was the importance of having professionals available to conduct threat assessments in schools.

But as noted above, comprehensive and multi-facet solutions are needed.

What Schools, Staff, and Students Need to Do

While I know that this is not occurring, districts and schools should not wait for legal solutions to certain aspects of this problem.  While I applaud and support the current push for national legislation, the problem (obviously) is now, and schools must address as many solutions as possible in-house.

At the same time, Part II of this discussion will provide analyses of the relevant state laws that currently exist.  These analyses will demonstrate that some states have already begun to address the problem (even though improvements are needed), and that the push for national solutions might not be as unreachable as we might think.

From now, the many needed school-specific solutions can be organized as follows:

  • Creating inclusive, positive, prosocial, supportive, and collaborative school and classroom environments and staff-student relationships that are devoid of teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical threats and aggression
  • Teaching all students, from preschool to high school, interpersonal, conflict prevention and resolution, social problem-solving, and emotional control and coping skills and behaviors
  • Identifying, engaging, and addressing students who need multi-tiered services and supports when they exhibit frequent or significant social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health challenges or concerns
  • Training school staff and parents and students (a) to recognize the early warning signals for these challenges or concerns; (b) having different, confidential school and community referral systems publicized and in place; and (c) having available and well-trained school, district, and community professionals available to conduct threat analyses and then to provide the multi-tiered services, supports, interventions, and therapies needed and noted immediately above
  • Ensuring that our schools are physically secure, and (coordinated at the District level and supported by community-based First Responders) comprehensively prepared for crisis situations
  • Establishing and implementing prevention, early response, strategic intervention, and intensive/crisis management social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health policies, practices, and procedures at the school and district levels—that include (once again) threat assessments and mandatory reporting (see Part II of this discussion)
  • Establishing, financially supporting, and implementing state and federal laws and statutes that complement the prevention, early response, strategic intervention, and intensive/crisis management processes immediately above


While I have written on all of the areas in the section immediately above (see the Subject Index to this Blog site), we still need to address the availability of guns to children and adolescents and mental health reporting system.  This will occur in Part II (upcoming) of this Blog series.

For now, districts and schools need to complete an audit of the areas above, and independently take the steps needed to protect themselves.

As noted, there are multi-faceted and multi-layed solutions that are in place in some schools, but that must be present and successfully implemented in all schools . . . even as we wait for the federal and state legal decisions and changes that will hopefully strengthen and complement these here-and-now actions.

Once again, the ultimate goal is: To prevent the next school shooting from occurring. 

At the same time, we know that we can’t prevent every school shooting.  And so, we must take every step possible to minimize the effects of the next school shooting.

I grieve, with you, for those who lost their lives and were injured last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  My prayers are personal, however, as I lived and worked in Florida for 18 years, and because a number of my former graduate students are now school psychologists tending to the psychological needs of the students, staff, and community in Broward County.

I hope that this discussion has added a different—and, hopefully, practical and action-focused—perspective to this tragedy.  In order to learn from history, however, we need to act to change history.

While it is frustrating that we have not changed the contemporary history of school shootings, we must transcend the frustration and act now to change the next hour, day, week, month, and school year for every student across this country. 

This is our responsibility.  This must be our commitment.

Let me know how I can assist you in this charge.  I am always available by e-mail or conference call.