Linda Lewis Griffith

School shootings: How to identify potentially violent students

April’s rampage at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, Pa., put the national spotlight yet again on school violence. We ask, “What kinds of students attack classmates?” and “Why in the world do they do it?”

The FBI report titled “The School Shooter: A Quick Reference Guide” says there is no profile of the typical attacker, although most are male, white and middle class.

Dr. Helen Smith, a forensic psychologist in Knoxville, Tenn., told NewsOK that many school shooters display narcissism, a personality disorder in which people think they are special and entitled to rights and privileges that others do not share. Young narcissists may feel the urge to punish or defeat someone who has threatened their inflated view of themselves. She says that narcissism often combines with previously unexpressed rage to create a deadly outcome.

Smith, who has worked with gangs and inner-city juvenile killers as well as those from seemingly untroubled families, says that urban youth killers attack for utilitarian reasons, such as a robbery, a gang initiation or a drug deal. But sheer rage is repeatedly cited as the cause for school shootings.

Attackers have a variety of reasons for their actions. According to the FBI report “The School Shooter: A Quick Reference Guide” published Jan. 3, 2010, three-quarters of the perpetrators reported being bullied or persecuted by others at the school. Sixty-one percent were motivated by a desire for revenge. Twenty-seven percent felt desperate or suicidal. One-quarter admitted seeking attention or recognition.

One commonly held fallacy is that school shooters “just snap,” that their actions are random and impulsive. In fact, 93 percent of assailants planned the attack well in advance, some for months or even years.

A second misunderstanding is that no one sees it coming, that friends and family members are oblivious to the attacks before they happen. Quite the opposite. Statistics reveal that 80 percent of shooters informed at least one person about their plans. Nearly two-thirds told two or more. The people who knew were most likely peers, friends, schoolmates or siblings. Unfortunately, those confidants failed to notify authorities of the impending threat.

Many offenders experience a serious loss or destabilizing event, such as a death, breakup or divorce in the family, before the attack. Most of the attackers have an interest in and access to guns. Two-thirds had a history of weapon use, and 68 percent used a weapon from their own home or that of a relative.

Perpetrators tend to be obsessed with violence. They may be fascinated with previous school shootings and repeatedly watch movies depicting campus shootings, such as “Zero Day” and “Elephant.” At first glance, it may seem as if school shootings are rampant. However statistics from the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports for the years 1980-2011 show that murder by juveniles with firearms is actually decreasing, down 39 percent since 2007.


Concerned about a student’s potential to inflict harm on others? Ask the following questions adapted from “The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative,” published in 2002 by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education:

Does the student have a motive or a goal for potentially harming others?

Have there been communications suggesting ideas or intent to attack?

Has the student shown excessive interest in school attacks, weapons, and/or mass violence?

Has the student engaged in any attack-related behaviors?

Does the student have the capacity to carry out an act of targeted violence?

Is the student experiencing hopelessness, desperation and/or despair?

Does the student lack close and trusting relationships with responsible adults?

Does the student see violence as an acceptable or desirable way to solve problems?

Are other people concerned about the student’s potential for violence?


The full 63-page government report from the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education, titled ”The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States” is available online. Just go to  to read the document or download it.