NPR

What We've Learned From School Shootings

When school shootings happen, experts work backwards to connect the dots. After the tragedies at Columbine High School and Virgina Tech, a number of studies have been conducted to identify potential threats. The disclaimer is always the same: every case is different.

Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Neal Conan is away. After the horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut last month, is there anything that can be learned about predicting this type of violence? There are many studies that look at how to identify potential threats, but the disclaimer is always the same: Every case is different.

Not every loner is angry. Not every angry young man is violent. So today we'll look at where the research currently stands and what's being done in schools to act on threats once they've been identified. If you work in a school, we're wondering: How has your school's approach to security changed? Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website as well. Just go to npr.org, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later on the program, NPR's Mike Pesca will talk about the blown knee heard round the NFL, but first what we've learned from past school shootings. Joining us now from member station KUCI is Dr. Paul Dietz. He's a forensic psychiatrist and president of Park Dietz and Associates. He was brought on as a consultant after the Columbine shooting. Welcome.

PARK DIETZ: Thank you. Good to be with you, Celeste, despite the terrible topic.

HEADLEE: Absolutely. You know, I read that you were actually brought in to do a psychological autopsy after Columbine. What exactly is that?

DIETZ: Well, that consists of an effort to understand the motivation and mental state of people who are no longer available to be interviewed. And we did that by interviewing 50 other people who knew the shooters, by reviewing enormous numbers of documents and by studying everything made available to be studied.

HEADLEE: Well, I wonder, you know, we hear all the time, as I said, every case is different, every shooter is different, every motivation is different. So what do we learn from a psychological autopsy? How does that help us predict the next shooter, the next person who might do something like this?

DIETZ: Well, in that instance it was very confirmatory of what I had been able to learn from studying prior incidents. By 1993 it was crystal clear that there were about 10 features that mass murderers had in common, and that's proved to be true regardless of whether they act in schools, in workplaces, or in the public arena, at restaurants and movie theaters and so on.

So we know very well what these people have in common, but that's a different issue from prediction. And the main thing we've learned does not really come from research, it comes from long experience, managing cases in which someone has had the good sense to bring to the attention of careful decision-makers their concerns about someone that they know.

And what we've learned over the years is that threats, when they're actually uttered, are a very late-stage warning sign, preceded universally by many other warning signs. Now, those other warning signs, the early indicators, are quite non-specific, and so what becomes necessary is a good system for receiving reports of the early warning signs and then thoughtfully gathering additional information to see which ones require any intervention at all.

HEADLEE: Let me interrupt you for just one second, Doctor. We're speaking with forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz. It sounds like you're saying we learn more that's useful in prevention from attacks that don't happen than from those that do. Is that correct?

DIETZ: Well, we have to look at both, but if you only look at the attacks that do happen, you'll miss the big picture. By looking at thousands of cases of threats that were managed successfully, we see that it's quite easy in the vast majority of cases to interrupt a progression that could result in a mass murder, in a suicide, in sabotage or in other lesser forms of harm.

HEADLEE: Well, that's really interesting. As I said, we're talking to Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist, president of Park Dietz and Associates. And I want to reiterate a question to you. If you work in a school, we wonder how your school's approach to security has changed. The number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And join the conversation as well by going to our website, npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Here on the line with us is James in Rock Island, Illinois. James, what has changed? You work in a school, I assume?

JAMES: Yeah, I actually teach at a community college here in Illinois, and yesterday we did our in-service. And I was just wondering if your guest has heard of this. It's a program, the acronym is called ALICE, and this was given to us yesterday. We started school again, and obviously this was because of what happened with the school shooting right before the Christmas break.

But some of the things that it recommended were telling your students not to hide and telling your students that if an active shooter comes into a classroom, one of the things they should do is throw all their books and laptops or whatever they have, basically, at the shooter and then try to tackle the shooter.

And a lot of us were, I think, frankly pretty surprised by this advice.

HEADLEE: All right, that's James. Thanks very much. That's James in Rock Island, Illinois. Doctor, had you heard of this particular program?

DIETZ: I haven't, and it sounds absurd if that's actually what was promoted. The - first of all, what we're talking about here is secondary prevention once an attack's in progress, and far more important is primary prevention so it never gets to that point, and that's been the focus of my life's work. Now...

HEADLEE: Well, let's bring in someone else who is also involved in that. Roger Depue is also with us, founder of the Academy Group, Inc., former chief of the FBI's Behavior Science Unit. He also served on the Virginia Tech review panel. And he's joining us today from member station WVTF in Charlottesville, Virginia. Roger, thanks for being with us.

ROGER DEPUE: It's a pleasure to be here, Celeste.

HEADLEE: And you are also involved in the things that Dr. Dietz is talking about, which is in terms of kind of putting together a profile, correct, of a possible shooter?

DEPUE: Yes. First, hello to my good friend Park Dietz.

DIETZ: Hi, Roger.

DEPUE: We have also been studying these situations for many years. The Academy Group has been in existence for nearly 25 years now. And we've looked at literally hundreds and even thousands of violence in public institutions, as well as in public places.

And basically we have put together a list of predictors, you might say. More accurately it would be indicators or red flags, similar probably to what Dr. Dietz has done. These indicators are based on a theory that we have, which we talk about as fantasy. The fantasy exists first, and then...

HEADLEE: The fantasy of harming people.

DEPUE: The fantasy of harming people, yes. And Einstein said the thought is father to the action. So first there exists a fantasy, and that's a valuable thing for us to know because a fantasy frequently has what I call leakage, and that is the more intense the fantasy, the more likely that it will leak out of the person in either voluntary or involuntary ways.

HEADLEE: But this is - this is the issue, isn't it, Roger? We're speaking with Roger Depue of the Academy Group. Because, you know, we had reports this week of a fifth-grader, I think, a young kid who was suspended because he was playing with his friend and made the gesture of a gun. Is that what you're calling leakage?

DEPUE: Well, you're talking about in that case zero tolerance, and when I talk about zero tolerance, I mean that it doesn't mean that you expel someone from school, it just means that you will pay attention to that behavior. And in that case the gesture of holding your finger like a gun, it would be rather extreme to just expel someone from school.

However, gestures are very important. They're a part of human behavior, and when you take gestures into account with other warning signs or indicators or flags, then there may appear a psychological predisposition toward violence.

HEADLEE: All right, well, let's go to another call here. This is Carrie(ph) in Buffalo, Wyoming. Our question was: If you work in a school, how has your school's approach to security changed? Carrie, how has your school's approach changed?

CARRIE: Actually, I used to be a police liaison officer in a small northern Minnesota Indian reservation. And when I was working with them, the superintendent wanted me to lock my sidearm in the trunk of my squad prior to entering the school. We had metal detectors. When I left law enforcement in that area, they had - security guards were unarmed, but on March 21 of 2005 we had school shootings there where 10 people were killed.

And the first one to be killed was an unarmed security guard.

HEADLEE: All right, Carrie, thank you very much for your call. Carrie is calling from Buffalo, Wyoming. So let me go back to you, Dr. Park Dietz, forensic psychiatrist. How does this come down? All of the research that you do in terms of identifying these indicators, as Roger Depue mentioned, how does that work in the school itself? How do you train teachers and administrators in what to recognize and what to do about it?

DIETZ: Well, we ruled out training for all of the school districts in the state of Tennessee through threat assessment group in the last two years. And I'll use that as an example. Each school district sent decision-makers to a two-and-a-half day training so that they would learn how to function as a team, how to investigate reports that were made about behaviors of concern, and how to manage the most common behaviors that arise in school settings, whether it be threats or stalking or problems with parents.

And that provided each district with a basis for handling cases reasonably well when they received reports, and they have the ability to call for outside help on cases that are outside the norm or that they're particularly worried about.

Then we also provide training that the Department of Education can provide for any school that wishes it that teaches all the indicators...

HEADLEE: OK, Doctor, hold that thought, we're going to come back in just a second. Dr. Park Dietz and Roger Depue, former chief of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, are my guests. We're talking about what we've learned about school shootings. If you work in a school, we want to hear from you. How has your school's approach to security changed? The number is 800-989-8255. Or send us an email to talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Celeste Headlee, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HEADLEE: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, President Obama asked Vic President Biden to head up a task force to draft concrete proposals to reduce gun violence. Today the vice president met with representatives from victims groups and gun safety organizations who shared personal stories of gun violence.

Tomorrow he will meet with the National Rifle Association. The NRA's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, has said previously that, quote, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. That group has proposed a national School Shield Program to help make schools safer.

And so if you work in a school, how has your school's approach to security changed? Give us a call and let us know at 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our website, as well. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

With us now, Dr. Park Dietz, who consulted after the Columbine shooting; and Roger Depue, who served on the Virginia Tech review panel, are talking about this issue. And I wanted to go back to you, Dr. Park Dietz, because we were talking about how teachers and administrators can be trained to distinguish between, you know, sort of an offhand remark or just somebody drawing a picture of a gun, as opposed to a real threat.

DIETZ: Well, the first key is that they have to hear about all of it, whether it's going to turn out to be a false alarm or not. In fact we encourage that there be great over-reporting with plenty of false alarms, also known as false positives. When the information comes in that there's been a sighting of something of concern, now it's time to thoughtfully and without disruption learn more about the situation.

Who are the people involved? What's the source of this behavior? Are there other problems of concern? Is the involved student or adult thought to have a substance abuse problem? Have they been violent before? Once all the information's assembled, then one can make a very good judgment as to what, if anything, needs to be done.

But none of that will happen unless people are trained on what they should report and unless there's someone they report it to who knows what to do with the information.

HEADLEE: Well, let me go to Craig here, calling from Sacramento, California, because Craig, it sounds like you have the same question I have. What's your question?

CRAIG: Well, I was very intrigued by Dr. Dietz's comment earlier, very early in the conversation, when he said that there were about 10 attributes of these known mass killers, and it would - I thought it would be very interesting if he could explain or list what those are so folks can understand what to look for.

HEADLEE: Thanks very much. That's Craig in Sacramento, California. That's something that you talked about, as well, Roger Depue. What are these 10 indicators, as you say?

DEPUE: Well, I actually have more than 10 in our scheme. I'd like to mention, too, at this point, because of what Park was talking about, we advocate that schools put together a threat assessment team. That team is made up of people from the administration, from law enforcement or security, from behavioral science, mental health, and from legal, law.

You put that team together, and then you have a team that can assess the threat from several disciplines and make informed decisions. Now, as far as the - some of the actual indicators, we talked about anger problems, but one is a fascination with weapons and the accoutrements of weapons, in others words not - we're not talking about hunting weapons or target practice weapons, we're talking about here weapons that are specifically designed to kill human beings, war-type weapons.

And sometimes the fascination with those weapons is a good indicator because it not only gives the individual the indicator, but it also causes or gives them the capacity, if they have the weapons or access to the weapons, to carry out the violent behavior.

And then other things are being a loner, suicidal ideation. About 60 percent of these situations end in suicide. So you have both homicidal and suicidal ideation, and so there are more indicators that accompany each of those things. Certainly stalkings, interest in previous shooting situations.

HEADLEE: Stalkings, you're talking about someone who is a stalker, has stalked another person.

DEPUE: That's correct, yes. As you know, Cho, for instance, was making...

HEADLEE: The shooter at Virginia Tech.

DEPUE: That's correct, yes, had made some advances toward girls. He scared the girls. The girls reported it to police, and he didn't stop, he just chose another victim and pursued her. So those are the kinds of things that we're talking about.

And I mentioned fantasy and the fact that there are many ways to express fantasy, and so you'll often see writings or drawings that these people make, stories, essays, compositions, even poetry and artwork and music that also would depict now a fantasy. Now, one of these things would be of no value, but once you have a cluster of these warning signs, then you'd better have someone take a look at it.

HEADLEE: All right, let's go to a call here. This is Amanda(ph) calling in from Fredericksburg, Virginia. Amanda, what have you seen change?

AMANDA: Hi, actually in addition to all of our doors now being locked, our resource officer, our police officer, is now actively walking the halls, where prior to the shooting in Connecticut he was a bit more stationary, in an office area. But now he is actively walking the halls, and there's more of a presence...

HEADLEE: And that makes you feel safer, Amanda?

AMANDA: I was - you know, to be honest, no, not really. I was a little taken aback at first. I thought, oh, wow, there actually - something is changing. But I'm still, you know, a little wary when I walk through, you know, the halls.

HEADLEE: Yeah, I can imagine.

AMANDA: And in addition to that, my daughter is a first-grader, and her elementary school sent home a letter letting all parents know that they would also have a heightened police presence at the school. So they have a police officer at the entrance of the school in the morning, and they have a police officer patrol car at the driving entrance of the school at all times.

HEADLEE: Right.

AMANDA: So that is something that absolutely changed immediately after the shooting.

HEADLEE: OK, thanks so much, Amanda in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Again, she's talking about things that would occur at the very tail end of what the two of you have talked about. And we have Ken here from San Francisco. He has a question for you, Dr. Park Dietz. Ken, your question?

KEN: Hi, good morning. So my question is, I'm part of a threat management team at my high school, and one of the things I'm advocating for but can't seem to get consensus on is rather than these reactionary efforts or basically scaring kids with police that we have or enhance the role of the school guidance counseling office, where these kids are checking in every month to talk about their career plans post-high school.

And that gives also a mental health check. So they can talk about any of their problems before it devolves into a situation where they're doing something violent and there's a law enforcement response. The thing that our management team - everyone is concerned about but we don't have hard data on is: What is the effect on the would-be criminal of foreseeing the images and faces of these shooters splashed across the media for weeks at a time?

If these folks want to go out in a big way, certainly getting their face plastered around the nation like Jesse James is the way to do it. Any comment about that?

HEADLEE: And we're going to have - I'm going to have the doctor answer that, but can I ask you, Ken: How recent is this threat assessment team? Is this a new development?

KEN: It's been in place about a year and a half, but it was enhanced significantly in the wake of the shootings.

HEADLEE: Enhanced in terms of your reach?

KEN: Enhanced in terms of more often meetings about planning and concerns.

HEADLEE: OK, thank you very much, and now we'll get your answer to that question from Ken in San Francisco. So Dr. Park Dietz, what is the effect, is there any effect of seeing other shooters on the news?

DIETZ: Well, I've been an outspoken critic of the way the news has covered this for the past 20 years. It's my belief that each time there is saturation-level coverage of a mass murder, we should expect another one within one to two weeks. Now, this only applies to a type of mass murder known as pseudo-commandos, who often use multiple weapons, have some element of military clothing or gear, and have fantasized themselves as carrying out a mission.

I think the more important point I can make in response to that question is that the key issue for threat assessment teams, which is something that we invented with 3M Company collaboratively in the 1980s, is that they be properly trained.

Training for those teams doesn't just happen by reading stuff on the Internet. They need to understand the whole range of things they might go through, how to investigate cases, how to manage cases, how not to overreact, how not to do harm. And that takes some time, and most...

HEADLEE: Yeah.

DIETZ: ...schools have been reluctant to do that.

HEADLEE: Possibly, I would imagine, because of funding. You're listening to Dr. Park Dietz there, a forensic psychiatrist, president of Park Dietz & Associates. Also with us, Roger Depue, founder of The Academy Group and former chief of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit.

And here's a question for you, Roger. Jerry Newman(ph) in California has this question: What, if any, differences are there between persons who act alone, say at Virginia Tech, or act together, as in the case of Columbine?

DEPUE: I think one of the differences, of course, is the - is this concept of the loner characteristic, and the individual at Virginia Tech, for instance, Seung-Hui Cho, was a loner, kind of a social isolate. And when you're a loner, you don't get feedback. I mean, people do not correct your behavior or - because they don't know what you're thinking.

In the case of Columbine, I was an expert witness in that case as well. And in that case, you had more than one. You had two individuals, and I would characterize that case as not a case of a mentally ill shooter or shooters. These were two bad guys, in my opinion, and evil existed there as opposed to Cho and many of the other single individuals where you have mental illness as playing a part.

HEADLEE: All right. Let's - oh, go ahead, doctor.

DIETZ: I have a slightly different view of this. Cho was certainly far more seriously mentally ill than Klebold or Harris, but what we found is that Klebold had some significant depression, and Harris had some significant anger perhaps bordering on paranoia. And the common factor we've seen among mass murderers is that they're depressed, often suicidally so, and paranoid. And neither of those boys had both those features...

HEADLEE: Right.

DIETZ: ...but together they had what it took to do this.

HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's take another call here. This is Jeanne(ph) in Kokomo, Indiana. Hi, Jeanne.

JEANNE: Hi.

HEADLEE: So what's changed for you at your school since...

JEANNE: I work at several different schools. I'm an itinerant. But one of the schools that I go to, the superintendent called a meeting before we returned to, of course, from winter break and had different members of the community come in, a sheriff from the sheriff's department, the director of the 911 and a member of a SWAT team come in to talk to the staff about what to expect if there is a active shooter in your building. And he also, the superintendent, has also said that there are going to be more liaison officers in the building.

HEADLEE: Right.

JEANNE: One of the things that I found informative to us was that we need to know where we are in our building because if there is a shooting that happened, say, in a gymnasium, you need to know which gymnasium you're in. So he taught - the officers were talking about we need to know what door numbers are everywhere, like...

HEADLEE: Oh, that's interesting. Right.

JEANNE: ...throughout the whole building and, like, if we know if we're on, like, the north, east, south or west part of the building.

HEADLEE: Right.

JEANNE: So I thought that was really good information. That's information you could use anywhere you're at.

HEADLEE: Absolutely. That's Jeanne in Kokomo, Indiana. Thank you very much. And I wanted to read this question here, Dr. Park Dietz. We had Cindy(ph) writing in and says: The focus right now at the elementary level is on keeping young students from becoming anxious or fearful and reassuring them they're safe and cared for. I'm curious about your guests' take on why school and public shootings are committed by males. Why does it seem to be a male problem in our society?

What do you think?

DIETZ: Well, first, it isn't only males. Sylvia Seegrist was the first pseudo-commando female in America, and there have been others since then. But it is mostly males, and the reason it's mostly males is no doubt the same as the reason that most violence is done by males. And that has both biological and cultural explanations.

HEADLEE: Meaning - it sounds like you're saying that males tend to be more violent.

DIETZ: Well, they do, yes.

HEADLEE: OK. Let me take a call here from Stacy(ph) in New Orleans. Hi, Stacy. I keep putting Stacy on hold. Sorry about that, Stacy. Go ahead.

STACY: That's OK. I work in an elementary school, and I work with several. And, I mean, I feel like we take measures to be secure. There's always extra steps that, you know, we put into place and things like this happen. But I - my first thought when I saw the Newtown issue was that school did everything. I mean, the - I guess for me from a - I mean, my question is, from a psychiatry standpoint, when you have people with mental illness and we're not thinking in the line, that someone would bombard themselves and not follow the guidelines, knocking on the door or pushing the buzzer.

HEADLEE: Right.

STACY: You know, we have parents who push through security even though they're supposed to show their ID. So...

HEADLEE: Really good - let me - real quickly. Stacy, thank you so much, calling from New Orleans. Roger, let me give you a chance to answer that. She sounds like she's saying that you can't predict or prevent these things.

DEPUE: Well, there's always a tradeoff between freedom and security. You can make your school so secure that there is no freedom but it's very safe. In this case, I would work backwards and I would say that parents have a responsibility to pick up on these warning signs in their own children. When I make presentations before groups, often after the presentation someone will come up and say Dr. Depue, my son or my nephew looks like this, what do you think?

(LAUGHTER)

DEPUE: And I say, you know, it's excellent that you came up to talk me. Let's sit down and talk about it and let me give you some advice about where you should go and what you might do with someone who's - excuse me - showing these characteristics. So parents - we have a couple of instances now where parents are coming forward ahead of time and soon this is done.

HEADLEE: Although that takes a great deal of courage. We'll have to leave there. Roger Depue, founder of The Academy Group. Former chief of FBI's behavioral science unit. He also served in the Virginia Tech review panel. He spoke with us today from member station WVTF in Charlottesville, Virginia. And Dr. Park Dietz, forensic psychiatrist, president of Park Dietz and Associates, joined us from member station KUCI in Irvine, California. Thanks to both of you. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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