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School Shootings: Ethical & Confidentiality Boundary Issues
10 CEUs School Shootings: Ethical & Confidentiality Boundary Issues

Section 2
Predictors of School Shootings (Part 1)

Question 2 | Test | Table of Contents | School Shootings CEU Courses
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In the last section, we discussed concerns regarding therapist-client confidentiality in regards to the risk of a school shooting incident.  We also discussed the six step Action technique for fact based risk inquiry regarding confidentiality ethics.  These six steps are attitudes that support or facilitate violence, capacity, thresholds crossed, intent, other’s reactions, and non-compliance with risk reduction interventions.

In this section, we will discuss the first five of nine current explanations of school shootings, and how these theories hold up under professional scrutiny.  These first five explanations of school shootings are mental illness, "he just snapped", family problems, bullying, and peer support.

With the increase in school shootings in the past decade, academics, government groups, and think tank researchers have tried to account for the patterns observable among school shootings.  Perhaps more than a dozen explanations have emerged in this process. However, I feel that it is important to carefully analyze possible explanations from these sources, and identify where these possible explanations may fall short.

First Five Explanations of School Shootings (#6 - #9 on the Next Section)

♦ Explanation # 1 - Mental Illness
The first of these explanations of school shootings is mental illness. As you know, very few school shooters are diagnosed with mental illnesses before their crimes take place, but a large percentage are discovered afterward to be mentally ill. This post-incident diagnosis is made more prevalent by the fact that many school shooters have committed suicide following the attacks, and others have done so little to prevent being shot by police officers that they have been referred to as committing "suicide by cop."

One case study that illustrates the complex nature of mental illness as a causal factor is the case of Michael Carneal.  In 1997, Michael, then 14, shot several students at Heath High School in Kentucky. Michael had no known history of mental illness before the shooting.  However, after the shooting, a family history of mental illness was discovered. 

When Michael was evaluated by forensic psychiatrists, they reported he was able to understand the consequences of his actions, but had nevertheless been mentally ill at the time of the shooting. Michael went on to develop full-blown schizophrenia while in prison, which needed to be managed with medication. 

While there is considerable evidence that mental illness may play a role in school shootings, the explanation does not lend itself well to helping teachers and mental health professionals identify potential shooters before events begin.  The concept of mental illness being connected with school shootings would also raise the question of the Tarasoff confidentiality boundary "duty to protect" decision. 

As you are aware, it is exceptionally difficult for adults in children’s lives to spot disorders that are in their early stages during the high school years, as children become aware that they are different from others, and fearing the stigma of this difference, work very hard to conceal all obvious signs of their troubles.

♦ Explanation # 2 - He "Just Snapped"
A second explanation of school shootings is that the shooter "just snapped."  By this, most people mean that a single, proximate, and immediate painful event was the catalyst for the shooting.  There is little evidence to suggest that this is actually the case, as you are well aware. 

For example, Luke Woodham, who killed two students and injured 7 in Mississippi in 1997, broke up with his girlfriend a few months before the shooting.  Since his ex girlfriend Christine was one of the first people shot,  opinion held that this breakup was what caused Luke to "snap."  However, Luke carefully planned his attack in the months following the breakup.  He did not act impulsively immediately after the breakup occurred.

♦ Explanation # 3 - Family Problems
In addition to mental illness and "he just snapped", a third explanation of school shooting is family problems. However, as you know, the actual picture of the families of adolescents who perpetrate school shootings is very murky. A study conducted by the Secret Service of 41 school shooters between the years of 1974 and 2000 found that perpetrators come from a wide variety of homes; from "intact families with numerous ties to the community to foster homes with histories of neglect." 

This, of course, is not to say that factors such as parental neglect, domestic abuse and turbulent parent-child relationships do not contribute to youth violence.  And certainly, a proportion of school shooters have come from difficult family lives. 

One FBI study reviewing 18 school shootings concluded that the following were potential warning signs of a school shooting:

  1. A turbulent parent-child relationship
  2. Family acceptance of pathological behavior
  3. Access to weapons in the home
  4. Lack of closeness or intimacy with family members
  5. A child who "rules the roost"
  6. No limits or monitoring of internet usage or television viewing

However, the FBI study warned that many students fit this profile, so distinguishing between shooters and nonshooters on the basis of family characteristics is not possible.

♦ Explanation # 4 - Bullying
A fourth explanation of school shootings is bullying.  Would you agree that this is perhaps the most commonly accepted explanation for school shootings?  Of course, this is for good reason.  A majority of shooters express fury at being excluded, teased, and tormented.  Clearly, bullying is a nationwide problem. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, about 160,000 children miss school every day out of the fear of bullying. 

Victims of harassment tend to exhibit lower levels of emotional and social adjustment, and since it is harder for them to make friends, they feel lonely. The bullies themselves may get involved in delinquency and substance abuse.  Evidence suggests that children who are both bullied and also bully others may be at the highest risk for violence- already they are both victim and aggressor.  There is supporting evidence of this in the testimony of students who have known school shooters. 

In Michael Carneal’s case, for example, he listed "being tired of being picked on" as a reason for his actions.  However, some of his peers expressed surprise at this, indicating that they knew Michael as likely to tease and pull pranks on other students.

♦ Explanation # 5 - Peer Support
In addition to mental illness, "snapping," family problems, and bullying, a fifth explanation of school shootings is peer support.  In almost half of the shootings studied by the secret service, attackers were influenced or encouraged by others. The Columbine shooting, for example, was perpetrated by a pair of students, and in several other cases, law enforcement officials have tried to link the events to several other youths.  In any case, it is difficult to substantiate the amount of peer involvement, as those who may have had prior knowledge of school shootings are likely to remain quiet after the event occurs. 

In  addition, it can be hard to interpret a shooter’s testimony concerning outside involvement, as shooters may either underplay peer involvement to protect their friends, or in order to claim all the "credit" for themselves.  Peer involvement raises confidentiality boundary questions. If a student were to tell you in a session about another’s intent to harm, the criteria for taking action varies from case to case. 

What voice tone, words used, mannerisms perhaps out of character would red flag for you a peer involvement that would cause you to violate the client confidentiality boundary to perhaps prevent a school shooting?

Clearly, a discussion of peer support must include a discussion of those students who, while not coconspirators, had forewarning of the event.  Certainly in some cases, the approval of peers, even if the peers feel the threat is a joke, may further bolster a shooter’s resolve.  However, in no case has a shooter appeared to have been overwhelmingly influenced or manipulated by his peers. 

In one case, friends of one shooter learned he had a gun and was suicidal, and did their best to take turn watching him to make sure he did not kill himself.  However, in the complex mix of factors that lead to a school shooting, peer support, even perceived support, misinterpreted by a socially marginal or psychological unstable youth, can lead an individual further down the path towards violence.

My client Anne, 42, was highly concerned about her son Dennis, 15.  Anne stated, "Last week, one of Dennis’s friends was caught bringing a knife to school.  When I asked Dennis what had happened, he had said his friend Mark had told him and his friends he was going to bring the knife.  I yelled at him… I mean, how could he not tell someone!  But Dennis totally shut down on me.  How can I make him know how important it is to come to me, or a teacher, or just someone about things like that?  If I try to sit him down and tell him, he just spaces out or I get sarcasm!"

♦ Technique: How to Avoid the Big Talk
I suggested Anne might try the "Avoid the Big Talk" technique.  I stated to Anne,  "A 'big talk' or lecture can be incredibly stressful for kids.  You might find it’s that way for you, too.  Instead of trying to prepare what to say, and sitting Dennis down, you might try looking for opportunities for small talks instead.  For example, if Dennis says he’s excited about a movie that contains a lot of revenge violence, you might take the opportunity to state your concerns in a neutral tone. 

"You might say, ‘Even though they are just actors, I don’t like the idea of people using violence to get back at someone who has hurt them.’ This expresses your opinion, and gives Dennis the opportunity to share his views. This way, you both avoid the stress of a planned talk, and you invite Dennis to be an active participant in the discussion. You might try using television, the newspaper, even conversations you overhear as opportunities for avoiding the big talk.  Think of your Anne. Would the Avoiding the Big Talk technique be useful for him or her?

In this section, we have discussed the first five of nine explanations of school shootings and how these theories hold up under professional scrutiny as well as raise questions concerning certain confidentiality boundary issues.  These first five  explanations of school shootings are mental illness, "he just snapped," family problems, bullying, and peer support.

In the next section, we will discuss the second four of nine explanations for school shootings.  These second five explanations are the culture of violence, gun availability, violent media, and the copycat effect.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Markey, P. M., Ivory, J. D., Slotter, E. B., Oliver, M. B., & Maglalang, O. (2019). He does not look like video games made him do it: Racial stereotypes and school shootings. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Advance online publication.

Raitanen, J., & Oksanen, A. (2019). Deep interest in school shootings and online radicalization. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 6(3-4), 159–172.

Reddy, M. K., Seligowski, A. V., Rabenhorst, M. M., & Orcutt, H. K. (2015). Predictors of expressive writing content and posttraumatic stress following a mass shooting. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 7(3), 286–294. 

Wozniak, J. D., Caudle, H. E., Harding, K., Vieselmeyer, J., & Mezulis, A. H. (2020). The effect of trauma proximity and ruminative response styles on posttraumatic stress and posttraumatic growth following a university shooting. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(3), 227–234.

What are the first five of nine explanations of school shootings? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

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