Educators have a unique, but daunting role in the identification, prevention, and mitigation of school violence. As our country and communities continue to experience these acts of violence, it is important to understand some of the facts and fiction associated with increased risk and perceived threat, specifically in terms of mental health symptoms. Because school shootings and thus school shooters are relatively rare, it is difficult to develop a specific predictive profile of individuals who may engage in violence on a school campus.

It is difficult to determine the type of person that will engage in school violence, but there are some common characteristics of past school shooters…

  • Mostly male
  • Mostly white
  • Average age of about 16
  • Access to firearms
  • Some, but not most, have experienced prior legal involvement for a variety of offenses.
  • Of the school shooters whose childhood experiences have been verified, nearly 100% of them experienced at least one ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences).

Most individuals have multiple reasons or activating events that result in school violence…

  • A significant majority of school shooters have a specific grievance related to interpersonal relationships at school. Being the victim of bullying is a common grievance.
  • Recent stressors (e.g. changing schools, change in family income, failing grades) were determined to be other common factors in the recent experiences of school shooters.
  • Another personality attribute among school shooters is a predilection or interest in violence, death, and/or power over others.

Mental health difficulties do not fully explain school violence, but there are some patterns worth mentioning…

  • Depression and suicidality are most often associated with the individuals who inflict violence on their school community.
  • The presence of mental health diagnoses are not the norm among school shooters and diagnoses involving psychotic disorders are rare.

Ultimately, while some individuals who commit school violence may have mental health difficulties, it appears that situational and isolated events, such as perceived negative changes in interpersonal relationships and problematic family dynamics, are most often the primary catalyst for violence.

What you can look for as an educator to help identify those at risk of being violent at school…

  • A change in functioning is always a good indicator that something is going on. If a student experiences a drop in grades, increased withdrawal, or is engaging in physical aggression more often, it would be beneficial to take some time to talk with this student about their current life circumstances and internal experiences.
  • Some children and adolescents who commit school violence will display an interest in violence and aggression. It is important to pay attention to what children and adolescents write, draw, wear, and say to determine if an individual may be preoccupied with violence, death, and aggression.
  • Interpersonal difficulties and significant changes in circumstances appear to be the primary triggers for school violence and It is exceedingly rare for students to suddenly “snap” and engage in lethal violence.  Individuals who wish to inflict harm on their school community often display multiple warning signs and some even verbalize their intent to other students and/or school staff.