Psych Services: Let’s study some realistic responses to school shootings after our grieving, prayers and mental health studies

Lisa Garmezy

Metal detectors.

Clear backpacks.

Threat assessment teams.

Age restrictions.

Armed teachers.

Assault weapon buy-backs.

Red flag laws.

More mental health care, or more prayer in the schools . . . Will any of these, alone or in combination, stop school shootings? We toss out ideas while America’s kids live with fear. This month’s column offers a little insight, a few resources and a small nonpolitical step anyone concerned about youth can take.

 

Three Kinds of Killers

 

Dr. Peter Langman, an FBI and Homeland Security consultant, studied school shooters over the last 50 years. Five percent turned out to be female, and some, like Jayden Fryberg, were popular. In 2014, Fryberg killed four, wounded one and took his own life a week after he was elected to his school’s homecoming court. When he texted the girl who broke up with him, “Just pls talk me out of this” and, “the guns in my hand,” she told him to quit texting.

 

Langman, whose website is www.schoolshooters.info–has, identified three types of killers, noting that some fit in more than one category. The first is the psychopath. Think Eric Harris taunting and laughing at victims at Columbine, devoid of any moral sense or regard for others. The psychopath may take “sadistic delight in inflicting pain on humans and/or animals.”

 

Harris’s partner, Dylan Klebold, is in the second group. These shooters have either a psychotic disorder, or a milder related illness, schizotypal personality disorder, which Langman thinks Klebold had. Members of this group seem odd and don’t relate well to others. Their thinking is strange and distorted, and, if psychotic, they cannot tell what is real from what is not. Klebold, for example, believed he was in human form but not truly human, writing, “Humanity is something I long for.”

 

The third type, the traumatized shooter, experienced trauma or abuse. Unlike the first two types, these shooters are likely to come from dysfunctional homes. An example is Mitchell Johnson, who was physically abused at home and raped repeatedly by an older boy in the neighborhood. With Andrew Golden, in 1998, a year before Columbine, Johnson killed five and wounded 10. Thirteen and 11 at the time of the shooting, they are now free, and their adult lives make for scary reading.

 

School shooters seek glory or revenge, or both. They may or may not be victims themselves. More than adult shooters, they embrace violent role models, real or fictional, such as a peer, Harris, or Hitler. That’s why “nonotoriety.com” is a movement.

 

Langman warns us away from stereotypes, as the next shooter could be anyone. Identifying him or her is complicated by what the Washington Post called “the general camouflage of teenage life.” In adolescents, “Dark moods and obsessive thoughts and sudden changes in clothing and beliefs are not all that strange.”

 

Hardware Vs. Software

 

Psychologist Scott Poland, fresh from responding to Parkland, recently shared his expertise with Houston psychologists. We knew him from his groundbreaking work during 24 years as head of Psychological Services for the Cypress-Fairbanks schools. Poland, reviewing Langman’s types, pointed out the obvious: “These are disturbed kids.” A little bullying does not a killer make.

 

The veteran professional sits on the board of Safe and Sound Schools, founded by a Sandy Hook parent. Among other proposals, the group has asked that all classroom doors be equipped with locks. Poland supports “hardware” proposals, but naturally pushes for what he calls the “software” side of school safety. It’s not about computing.

 

He promotes strengthening relationships and people skills as a means to preventing tragedy. The goal is to make kids feel too darn wonderful to kill, of course, but there’s a deeper agenda. Students who trust others bring forward information that makes threat identification more likely.

 

The software approach capitalizes on a second difference between adult and young shooters: juveniles are more likely to advertise their intentions. As our former HISD superintendent said (when not distracted by bedbugs on buses), “One of our first lines of defense is our community.” Often, the kids know.

 

Our challenge is getting the kids’ knowledge to people who can act on it. Cy-Fair ISD’s standards for student conduct include adherence to a “Safety Pledge” promising to immediately report serious threats, or, at the elementary level, “tell an adult right away if I hear anyone threaten another person,” or if a weapon is brought to school. Receptive police officers are key. And, since trust doesn’t come easily and young people live much of their lives online, anonymous electronic reporting systems are essential.

 

Tag Lines and Promises

 

Find out whether your neighborhood schools encourage anonymous reporting and make it simple to do. Is a similar pledge part of the code of conduct, and if not, why not? Lack of funding is no excuse. A free reporting program is available through the group Sandy Hook Promise, started by families of the children lost in 2012 (see sandyhookpromise.org).

 

When I looked at what our local school offered, I found a reporting form online under the bland heading, “Bullying Incidents or Other Disciplinary Concerns.” A stronger sense of urgency is communicated in Colorado’s model “Safe2Tell” program: “Your community. Your school. Your friends. Your call.”

 

The Sandy Hook Promise should inspire any of us, adult or child, to take action. The parents’ pledge is, “Though we continue to be filled with unbearable pain, we choose love, belief, and hope instead of anger. . . Our hearts are broken; our spirit is not.” We can’t let them fight this menace alone.