On February 14, 2018 an armed person took the lives of 17 children and adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Since Columbine in 1999 more than 100 have been killed in mass school shootings.
Less than a week later the now usual pattern of finger-pointing and withdrawing to respective corners has already begun. In one corner are those who believe gun control is the primary solution to these tragedies. In the other are those who believe cultural degradation is the culprit and more guns are the solution.
And from every corner questions are asked, “where were the parents, law enforcement, the FBI to prevent this”?
Meanwhile, inevitably there comes a point when the shooter is called, “evil, deranged, mentally ill, a monster”. Doing this helps us feel better.
We can believe this tragedy is something unusual and rare, caused by someone barely human, an aberration. Once the national mourning is over, we are lulled into complacency. Evil will not come to our community. We are safe.
That is what we long to think and that is just what we must stop thinking. We can, over time and given proper effort, make the violence stop.
This article will examine possible causes for school shootings, what evidence there is to support them, and what can be done based on the evidence.
Permissive parenting is a term which is poorly defined and tends to mean “parents who are less strict than mine were”.There is no evidence that permissive parenting leads to a more violent child or adolescent (whether that means no corporal punishment, or no limits on video games and dating).
That said,lack of supervision for children and teens can lead to exploring dangerous activities and individuals, which can lead to involvement in illegal and violent situations.
Once again everyone has a different definition of what a morally bankrupt society looks like depending on their own cultural values. In a truly morally bankrupt society one would expect a never ending increase in crime and violence.This is not what is seen, even while the incidence of mass shootings increases. Crime rates are down considerably since peaking in the 1990’s.
On the other hand, societies going through a period of economic transition (such as the trend for more jobs to be automated) and with less national cohesion (as seen during and since the 2016 Presidential election and perhaps prior to that), tend to be societies with more violence.
Many studies have shown a short term increase in aggressive behavior or change in mood for children and teens who have been exposed to media violence (movies, television or video games).However there is no correlation between exposure to media violence and real life violence.
This makes sense when we consider the vast numbers of children and teens exposed to media violence and the small percentage of those children who commit serious violent crimes.
Bullying is itself a form of aggressive and sometimes violent behavior. It is also a stealthy behavior, hidden from authority figures. Sometimes victims of bullying will become desperate and lash out physically in anger either towards others or towards themselves.
However recent more recent evidence concerning the Columbine shooters has shown that neither of them were loners and neither were bullied.The problem of bullying is real and serious, but it does not seem to create mass murderers.
In general people with mental illness, even severe mental illness, are not dangerous.
The majority of violent crimes are committed by people with no mental illness. When people with mental illness are violent, it usually takes the form of suicide, not homicide.
That said the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) has estimated that up to half of all mass shootings are accounted for by people with severe mental illness (poorly controlled schizophrenia or bipolar disorder primarily).The risk of committing a severe act of violence increases with substance abuse, a history of prior violence and lack of treatment. Paranoia and hearing voices commanding them to act violently are more extreme symptoms which can lead to violence.
Alcohol and other substance abuse can impair judgement and lead to impulsive acts of violence. They can also intensify the symptoms of mental illnesses such as hallucinations and paranoia.
Efforts to obtain money to purchase alcohol and drugs can also lead to criminal acts and potentially violence.
Many factors are clearly connected to school mass shootings, including:
– ready access to assault type weapons and school campuses
– inadequate resources for mental health and substance abuse treatment
– a lack of assistance for families with troubled children
Other factors that can contribute to violence and misery in society in general, but are not directly related to school shootings:
– lack of adult supervision of pre-teens and teens
– periods of job displacement (think automation)
– a divisive cultural context (think blue vs. red states).
There are warning signs that can predict future violence: a past history of violence starting at an early age, pleasure in hurting animals and persistent discipline problems.
A family or environment that condones violence, witnessing domestic violence, and being physically abused also increase risk. Factors which compound this are a persistent scorn for authority, severe mental illness, suicidality, substance abuse and a lack of empathy for others.
Some attitudes are so common to many adolescents that they are not a reliable sign of potential violence. These attitudes and feelings include resentment, a sense of entitlement, being unique or a misfit, and not being recognized properly for one’s abilities.
The main red flags for future violent behavior are:
– a past history of violent behavior
– pleasure in hurting animals
– a lack of empathy
There are many compounding factors including:
– severe mental illness
– child abuse
– family approval of violence
– witnessing abuse of others
Putting an end to school shootings will not be simple or quick. That does not mean we need to despair. It is possible to reduce the number and lethality of school shootings working towards the goal of making such events unthinkable.
As an example, in the 1970’s drunk driving was involved in over 60% of traffic fatalities.Since that time, that percentage has been reduced more than half. This is due to persistent efforts including raising the legal drinking age to 21.
Below are some measures which could reduce violence in schools overall and help prevent school shootings in the future.
Reduce the easy accessibility to assault type weapons. There are many ways to implement this, such as limiting the ability to purchase weapons for those who have a history of inappropriate or criminal violence.
It is still unclear if any further type of gun control is possible given the current political climate. Protests by the teenagers of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, may keep the issue visible. At minimum Congress should provide funding for the Centers for Disease Control to once again study ways to improve gun safety.
Increase support for parents and young children such as home visits for infants and toddlers. These visits screen for developmental problems and provide support and education for parents.
Improved availability of high quality day care with an emphasis on helping all children develop social skills and competencies including anger management.
Provision of after school programs and activities for children and teens including clubs and sports.
Mental Health screenings and services can be provided at school. This helps reduce the stigma of going to a local mental health center for treatment and also reduces the amount of class time a child might miss if having therapy at a clinic.
Increase funding and accessibility of mental health services in general. Family therapy may be very important for the support of families with adolescents in particular, as it is often more successful than individual therapy for this age group.
In crisis situations availability of quality in-patient care is vital. There is currently an extreme shortage of psychiatric hospital beds, making this more intensive treatment unavailable to those who require it the most.
Parents may bring a child to a hospital for admission and be turned away, or face having their child “live” in the emergency room waiting for a bed. Few parents are willing to expose their child or adolescent to such an ordeal.
Increased security at schools may also prevent some incidents of gun violence. There should be some caution used in terms of arming staff as many school shooters are suicidal and would not be deterred by a guard yielding a firearm.
Another consideration is the expense. It seems difficult to advocate for better fencing and guards at schools when in some districts school buildings are unsafe or lack basic supplies such as textbooks.
There are many avenues available to prevent school shootings, such as:
– Preventing access to assault type weapons and to school campuses
– Increasing support for families including provision of high quality daycare and afterschool programs
– Improving access to mental health care and substance abuse treatment
– Increasing research into gun safety and prevention of violence so that funds can be targeted most effectively.
Can the United States stop its school shooting tragedies? It is possible with determination and some sacrifice. It is possible with persistence.
If one avenue to reduce violence and improve school safety in not politically palatable, another avenue can achieve funding. If gun safety is not possible, improvements in treatment for mental illness or improved supports for families and children may be.
There is much we can do. It comes down to a question of will.
How important are our children’s lives to us? What is the proper balance between the right to purchase a gun and the right to know that no one will shoot at children in school today? Are we willing to forgo some tax cuts in order to fund studies and programs to reduce violence and treat those with mental illness?
These are the questions we face. These are the questions we must answer.
Catherine Munson, MD is a retired psychiatrist with over 25 years clinical experience. She currently works as a freelance writer for Parenting Pod. In her spare time she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and drawing pencil sketches. She has two grown sons.