Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Picture of School Gun Violence in the U.S. | Who's Shooting + Why

The picture of gun violence among American adolescents is  sobering the morning after a murderous event like the one in Ohio yesterday. The details of that story are yet to be unraveled, so there’s little to be said today about what led to that tragic incident.

Today, we can look at the bigger picture. In 2002, the U. S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education issued the final report of an exhaustive study of school shootings from 1974 - 2000. [1] Here's a summary of some of their findings: 

• Targeted school violence is rarely as sudden and impulsive as it appears.  
— About half of attackers develop the idea for at least a month.
— Most prepare their attack for at least two days.

• Few attackers are loners or losers. 
— Most appear to be mainstream kids. 
— Most live in two-parent homes. 
— Most are doing reasonably well in school. 
— Few have been in serious trouble at school. 
— Few have histories of violence toward others or cruelty to animals. 
— Many are involved in organized social groups in or out of school. 
— Nearly all act alone, but most have close friends.

• Almost all attackers engage in behavior that signals a need for help. 
— Most tell at least one peer what they’re thinking about. 
— In most cases at least one adult is concerned by pre-attack behavior. 
— About 60% display interest in violent media or personal writings.

• More than half of attackers are motivated by revenge.
— Most feel bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others. 
— More than half target one or more adults employed by the school. 
— Two-thirds tell someone about their grievance before the attack. 
— Less than one in five threatens his target(s) directly.

• Most attackers are sad before they’re angry. 
— Nearly 2/3 have a documented history of depression or desperation. 
— More than three-quarters have a history of suicidal expressions. 
— Almost all experience or perceive a major loss prior to the attack. 
— Most exhibit considerable difficulty coping with that loss.

• Nearly all attackers use guns. 
— Handguns are most common, followed by rifles and shotguns.
— Nearly half carry more than one weapon into the attack.
— Most of the guns are acquired at home or at the home of a relative.

Here’s the thing: If you’re looking for obvious patterns to help you spot kids who are likely to take guns to school with the intent to harm themselves or others, there are none. 

The Secret Service/Department of Education report concludes, “There is no accurate or useful ‘profile’ of students who engaged in targeted school violence.” By no accurate or useful ‘profile’ they mean simply that adolescent school shooters are typically Caucasian male students who struggle with a self-defined loss and have relatively easy access to a firearm. 

Which means we need to keep an eye on roughly one in three American high school kids? Not very helpful... 

But it is what it is — both simpler and more complicated than almost anyone is prepared to accept: 

Preventing lethal adolescent gun violence depends on sustained, attentive relationships with ordinary schoolboys. 

This is quite simple because these guys are in constant contact with adults and peers who have a pretty good chance at reading the signals of potential violence.

And it’s complicated because sustained, attentive relationships require taking time for deep listening against the backdrop of observable behavior. 

It’s also complicated because it means taking the risk of thinking the unthinkable and speaking the unspeakable.

No one wants to think her son is capable of harming himself or others. But he may be. No one enjoys the prospect of asking her student if he’s having thoughts about suicide, or asking a youth group kid if he’s thinking about taking revenge on someone who caused him harm. But that’s what we have to do, want to or not.

Some practical suggestions:

Secure your guns
In 2010, 632 Americans under the age of 18 were murdered with firearms.[2] That number more than triples if you count Americans under the age of 22. Homes with guns are about five times more likely to experience suicide than homes without guns.[3] This is not a Constitutional crisis — it’s due diligence. If you own guns, secure them and tell your relatives you expect them to do the same.

Don’t frustrate kids needlessly 
Parents, teachers, coaches, employers, youth workers: consider this ancient wisdom: “…don’t come down too hard on your children or you’ll crush their spirits” (Colossians 3:21, The Message). 

Perhaps the most common way adults come down too hard on kids is expecting more than children can deliver at their stage of life. 

No matter how intelligent or accomplished he is, a teenaged boy is still a boy; relatively inexperienced and subject to tidal surges of hormones;  not yet fully mature in reasoning and judgment. Instead of coming down hard when a kid fails to live up to adult performance standards, bend down a little and meet him where he is. 

On our best days, we know what our children feel because we once felt it ourselves in a life that may seem long ago and far away but which nonetheless connects us to our children and each other. 

Remembering requires periodic trips through emotional neighborhoods many of us would just as soon not revisit. But it’s worth the journey because that kind of remembering helps us identify with an adolescent’s feelings and frame them in a larger context (all without diminishing the immediate circumstances and responsibilities). Sometimes that means holding a kid’s feet to the fire; other times it means knowing when to let up and show some mercy.

Look for signs of bullying, depression, desperation, revenge-seeking and suicide 
Revenge for a perceived injury looms large in gun violence. Also in suicide and adolescents stand a greater chance of dying by suicide than murder and a much greater chance of ending their own lives than ending the lives of others. None of us wishes to lose a child either way. Keep an eye peeled.

This post is based on a chapter of a book I wrote with Rich Van Pelt called The Parent’s Guide to Helping Teenagers in Crisis. The Parent’s Guide includes chapters on dealing with Anger, Bullying, Death, Divorce, Hazing, Sexual Abuse, Sexual Identity Confusion and Suicide — any of which may contribute to the possibility that a depressed or desperate young man may be a danger to himself or to others.

Pay attention to self-expression
Over a third of targeted school attackers have expressed themselves in violent writings — poems, essays, or journal entries — prior to their attacks. That’s three times as many as those who expressed interest in violent video games and half again as many as expressed interest in violent movies and books.[4

Writers shouldn’t be punished for creativity; writers should be able to discuss what they’ve written in age-appropriate literary terms. Trust your senses. If what a kid says about what he wrote (or drew or sang or painted) doesn’t pass the smell test, get some help to sort it out.

Create safe places
Kids need sanctuaries where they can vent and grieve and gain perspective without having to endure moralizing sermons. Do everything you can to create safe places where kids you care about are immune from physical, emotional and spiritual danger, judgment, and inhumanity.

I don’t think it’s too much to expect that safety should the norm among the adult and peer friendships, extended families, schools, workplaces and youth groups inhabited by our children. 

I don’t think it’s too much to expect that, but here in the real world we know we have to work hard and tirelessly to produce and sustain safe environments for our children. Mostly we seem to get there a little at a time over a period of years. That’s fine…whatever it takes, for as long as it takes.

[Hint: If you’re in a family relationship, “friendship” or church where you don’t feel safe, chances are your child won’t either.]

Keep checking in
You can’t know if your son is depressed or desperate about a real or perceived loss or injustice if you go for days at a time without meaningful contact. And that’s hard — everyone is busy and stressed and fatigued. 

Do it anyway. If you can’t come up with anything else, if you’re fortunate enough to have a dishwasher, disconnect it and make your son dry while you wash. Then talk about your day and ask honest, open-ended questions about his. Do that enough days in a row, and he’ll start to believe you want an honest answer in return. Whatever it takes to stay in touch.

Build Alliances with other adults
It takes a village. Shut up; it does! It takes more than one or two adults to bring a child to adulthood. If you don’t have partners (and if others don’t have you as a partner) this will be much harder than it has to be; much harder than it should be. Find people who agree with you about this and build mutually beneficial alliances.

[1] B. Vossekuil, R. Fein, M. Reddy, R. Borum, and W. Modzeleski, The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center, Washington DC, 2002,  (accessed 28 February 2012).

[2] FBI Uniform Crime Report (accessed 28 February 2012).

[3] J. Doan, S. Roggenbaum, & K. Lazear. (2003). Youth suicide prevention schoolbased guide(c/p/r/s)—True/False 1: Information dissemination in schools—The Facts about Adolescent Suicide. Tampa, FL: Department of Child and Family Studies, Division of State and Local Support, Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, University of South Florida. (FMHI Series Publication #219-1t),  (accessed 28 February 2012).

[4]. B. Vossekuil, et al., The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative, 22.

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