Last Wednesday, upon returning from a day of speaking in Missouri, I got off the plane and was met with the news of yet another school shooting. I quickly learned that an expelled student had claimed the lives of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. “It seems like there’s another one every day” I heard. “The media doesn’t even cover all of them anymore. It’s become commonplace. There’s just too many to report”. My heart dropped as I nodded. It’s true. School shootings in America are becoming more frequent and even more deadly. Each tragic incident leaves us asking “Why does this keep happening and how do we stop it?”
Common Themes in School Shootings
Perhaps the most notable school shooting in America’s history is the massacre at Columbine High School which took place April 20th, 1999 in Littleton, Colorado. Two mentors in my life were personally impacted by the shooting, which changed how we saw violence in schools forever. That day, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris took the lives of 12 students and 1 teacher before committing suicide in the school library. The journals of the two shooters showed a life of anguish and anger. They were considered outcasts and had been repeatedly teased and tormented at school. Rejection from their peers and a desire to fit in brewed hatred and later revenge, all leading up to that fateful day when they would bring guns, ammo, and bombs to Columbine. It was their way of getting noticed, get respect from those that had cast them aside. Their carefully planned mission failed to cause the destruction they hoped for but left America scarred forever.
Whether you’re analyzing the events at Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary, or the recent shooting in Parkland, Florida, some common themes can be identified. Often we hear people who knew the perpetrator share that something felt “odd” or “off” about them. In the case of Harris, Klebold, and Nikolas Cruz, each had made reference to a mass shooting prior to carrying out the attack. Hate of a certain people group such as racism, particularly white supremacy, is another theme that has surfaced after mass shootings. Convicted church shooter Dylann Roof, is the first person to be convicted of a federal hate crime and sentenced to the death penalty, after gunning down nine black worshipers. The Columbine shooters certainly made their stance against people of color and Christians very clear. Rachel Joy Scott, the first student shot and killed, was added to a hit list due to her outspoken faith in God. It is now reported that Nikolas Cruz had a string of threats on social media, so disturbing that it prompted a report to the FBI.
The Mentality of a Shooter
Behind almost every school shooting is a gunman with mental health issues and, at the root of it, a victim mentality. The age-old phrase “hurting people, hurt people” is true. Consider Adam Lanza, the gunman behind the shooting at Sandy Hook. To say that Lanza was mentally disturbed is to put it mildly. He suffered from Asperger’s syndrome as well as depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. These are common mental health disorders, though. Most people that are diagnosed do not go on to harm others, which leaves us wondering what made Lanza snap.
As we examine the psyche of the shooters behind Sandy Hook, Columbine, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, we see that not only did these shooters have deteriorating mental health but they also shared a fascination with violence and weapons. The demeanor of the shooters also displayed a sense of entitlement Each of them, with the exception of Lanza also had a history of finding pleasure in hurting animals. Lanza, in stark contrast, declared that he was vegan due to his desire not to harm animals. Still, his fixation on guns and access to them made a deadly combination. Each shooter seemed to obtain firearms quite easily, including assault rifles.
The toxicity of living with a victim mentality seems insurmountable to some, though feelings of victimization can almost always be overcome. Therapy can greatly help reframe a person’s thoughts and actions, therefore changing their feelings. Dr. Albert Ellis, the founder of Cognitive and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy paved the way to freedom for those that feel like victims. He taught his clients how to not be easily disturbed. This concept is echoed in many religions including Christianity. In the Bible, for example, Ecclesiastes 7:9 says “Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools.” I wonder how the thinking of these shooters may have changed, had they been exposed to Ellis’ techniques and been provided help to cope with their anger and feelings of rejection.
Much of what I’ve already shared in this article can be taken as warning signs but even more obvious than this is the blatant threats made by shooters prior to the attacks. Nikolas Cruz said that he would shoot people with his AR-15. Just five months ago, he proclaimed his aspiration to become a “professional school shooter”. If this isn’t a red flag, I’m not sure what is. One might argue that naivety was the reason that the shooters at Columbine were not taken seriously. At that time in history, we had never seen a mass shooting incident on a school campus. You would think that in our present day, though, these signs would be taken more seriously. Cruz even had a gun in a lockbox, which was kept under his bed. Since there was an FBI investigation in process due to his actions, it leaves us wondering “Did the authorities simply not get to him in time?”
A grandmother named Cathi O’Connor took actions when she saw a warning sign in the form of a threat in her 18-year-old grandson’s journal. Joshua Alexander O’Connor allegedly wrote “I’m preparing myself for the school shooting. I can’t wait,”. Like many shooters he made a clear threat and plan for his shooting which others were aware of prior to it taking place. Her quick call to 9-1-1 may have stopped a school shooting at ACES High School in Everett, WA.
Some warning signs are subtle, such as a child who withdraws from activities that normally interest him/her. This can also be a sign of social isolation and/or depression, two other common factors in school shootings. One thing is for sure, any threat or sign of violent behavior, whether overt or subtle, should be taken seriously and immediately reported to the authorities.
Preventing School Shootings
First, and foremost, we must use our voices for good, including reporting anything suspicious. As a high school freshman attending a rough inner-city school, my father and I attended a meeting with the head principal. At this meeting we shared with her the bullying issues that I was experiencing as well as the threats being made towards me. Her response was “How can I worry about things like this when I have students bringing guns and knives to school?” As a 14-year old, I replied “When you don’t solve the little problems, they turn into big problems”. What was sad is that this principal did not see my situation as significant. Perhaps worse is that it took a 14-year old kid to point this out to her. She was later injured when trying to break up a violent fight between students, on campus.
If we want to prevent big problems like school shootings, we must pay attention to the little things like students with anger issues, those that isolate themselves, and every threat of violent behavior, no matter where it occurs or how it is communicated. Often there are signs that, once informed, can alert us of those in need of professional mental health services and the judicial system, when appropriate, to reduce risk of aggressive and violent behavior. These issues can be dealt with before they become a big problem. We simply need to take action, and that starts with recognizing that mental health is just as important as physical health. It’s time to squash the stigma. I believe that we will continue to see tragedies such as these until we take mental health as seriously as we take academics. Furthermore, I believe that the real cause of school shootings is that many children do not understand how to overcome emotional disturbances and cope with common stressors, like rejection. It is my mission to see that social and emotional learning (teaching students how to feel and how to deal) is at the forefront of our efforts in education.
As a kid who endured both school “bullying” and abuse at home, I can honestly say that it was the coping skills I learned and the supportive adults in my life that helped me forgive my abusers and reduce the toxic victim mentality I once had. It is my honor and obligation to share this message of resilience with many generations to come, in hopes that I might empower those who feel like victims. When we teach victims how to overcome, their toxic feelings of victimization are removed. As Dr. Albert Ellis once said, “I think the future of psychotherapy and psychology is in the school system. We need to teach every child how to rarely seriously disturb himself or herself and how to overcome disturbance when it occurs.” I remain committed to this cause and ask you to join me. Whether it’s mentoring a child, sponsoring a prevention program, or simply volunteering with youth in your community, you can be part of the solution. My prayers are with our children, families, and all those that serve them.
Learn how to stop bullying and overcome a victim mentality through empowerment.