Author Q&A: 'School Shooters: Understanding High School, College and Adult Perpetrators'

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

School shootings have pervaded the news and the national conversation in recent years, casting a shadow on what should be safe spaces devoted to learning. Scenes from Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook are etched into collective memory as clearly as the questions they conjured: Who are these shooters? Why do shootings happen? How can they be prevented?

Peter Langman, a psychologist who has evaluated potential school shooters and studied incidents across the country and around the world, maintains a trove of resources online and published his first book on the topic, Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, in 2010.

In his new book, School Shooters: Understanding High School, College and Adult Perpetrators, released Friday, Langman presents four dozen brief sketches of shooters. He covers cases ranging from Charles Whitman's 1966 rampage at the University of Texas through Adam Lanza's 2012 massacre of first graders and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, before parsing out themes and addressing prevention.

In a Q&A, Langman discusses patterns that emerged from years of research into school shooters, common misconceptions and warning signs. Edited excerpts follow:

What spurred your research interest in school shooters?

Back in 1999 I was doing my doctoral internship in a hospital for children and adolescents with psychiatric problems. On April 20, 1999 the attack on Columbine High School occurred. Just 10 days later, April 30, a 15-year-old boy was admitted to the psychiatric hospital because he was seen as a risk for going on a Columbine-type ramage. He was the first potential school shooter I had to evaluate but he was not the last. Over the 12 years I was at that organization, each year there'd be one to two kids, sometimes more, coming through the hospital who presented a serious risk of mass violence in schools. So my interest in the topic began kind of out of necessity, because I was dealing with this population of potential shooters.

Originally people were looking for the profile: Who are these kids? What are their characteristics? Can we create a checklist so we recognize them when we see them? But what struck me in the early years of my research was not how similar but how different they were.

What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions or stereotypes about school shooters that you wanted to address, dispel or add nuance to?

One is that the perpetrators are always isolated loners. I think that perception comes from certain cases in which that may have been true, for example Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook. He was profoundly isolated. But most shooters have some level of social connection. If people think they know what a school shooter looks like and they see a kid playing on the football team and socializing with friends and going out with girls, they may assume that kid cannot be a danger. And that would be a dangerous assumption to make.

Another big misconception is that school shooters are virtually always the victims of horrendous bullying that is so bad it drives them to seek retaliation against their tormentors. School shooters have been picked on, but not all of them.

In almost no case has a school shooter specifically targeted a kid who has picked on them. When there are specific targets—and in over half the cases I've studied, there are specific people the perpetrators are seeking to kill—the most common targets are school personnel. Teachers who have given them an unacceptable grade, teachers who've failed them for a class, administrators who disciplined them with suspension or expulsion. And the second most common target of school shooters are girls or women, either specific girls that have broken up with them or targeting females as a general population.

Can you describe the three populations of shooters you look at in your book?

As I say in the book, if you just look at the total spectrum of school shooters it's hard to make sense of anything because there's just so much variation. But when you break them down into specific groups, you start to see patterns emerge. So one grouping I look at is what I call the population, and I divide them into three populations: secondary school shooters, college shooters and what I call aberrant adult shooters.

What about the three psychological types?

Psychopathic shooters are profoundly narcissistic. It means they're willing to meet their own needs at the expense of other people, that they don't experience empathy, guilt or remorse like most people do. [They think] that they're essentially above the law and that they ought to be able to do whatever they like. So they're very entitled, and when the world doesn't give them the gratification they think they're entitled to they can react with rage.

The second type I present is the psychotic shooter, and psychosis refers to being out of touch with reality. Most commonly it means shooters have experienced the onset of schizophrenia and their psychotic symptoms may take the form of hallucinations, most commonly hearing voices, and/or delusions.The psychotic shooters typically struggle socially and emotionally. They often know there's something wrong with them, they don't understand what is going on inside their minds, and they're full of anguish.

The third type of shooter is the traumatized shooter and unlike the first two—the psychotic and the psychopathic shooters typically come from more or less intact, stable families—the traumatized shooters come from highly dysfunctional families. There's almost always one parent, if not two, that has drug or alcohol problems; there's often a criminal history among the parents; there's often financial stress and poverty; the kids grow up with violence in the home; they're victims of physical abuse and emotional abuse and sometimes they are also victims of sexual abuse either from within the home or someone outside the home.

Why was it important for you to present brief profiles of a few dozen actual shooters in your book?

To me it's important to know each case as an individual perpetrator. I could have just presented group data about the different categories, but that would feel kind of disembodied. I think it's very powerful to read the stories and really get a sense of who these people were and what their lives were like. And then step back and look at them more broadly and compare similarities and differences.

In your book you talk about shifting the conversation from emergency response procedures to prevention. Can you explain?

My impression is that schools across the country have instituted crisis response or emergency response protocols involving lockdown drills and so on. That's important to minimize damage if there's an armed intruder in the building, but that is not prevention. Prevention means early detection of potential danger. And to do that you need to know what the warning signs are and schools need to have a team of people trained in threat assessment procedures so when they do become aware of potential warning signs, they know how to investigate and evaluate that threat.

What are the warning signs?

Perhaps the most important one to look out for is what's called leakage, in which the perpetrators leak their intentions. That can take various forms: Sometimes kids try to recruit a peer to join them in the attack; other times they warn their friends to stay away from school on a certain day because they're going to commit a shooting; they may ask kids to help them get bombs and firearms; they may brag about what they're going to do. In many cases, especially among the secondary school shooters, the younger perpetrators, there is a long trail of leakage and if people recognize that and respond promptly, they may be able to prevent attacks.

Why are these often missed before the rampages?

If you know the person or you know the family you might just find it impossible to believe that that particular person is capable of committing mass murder. That is a huge hurdle for people to get past, especially if there is no history of violence. They may say, "I've known him all his life, he's always been a good kid, lots of kids say things they don't mean." It's easy to rationalize it. In other cases parents might not want to get their kids in trouble, friends might not want to get kids in trouble. Schools may underreact because don't want bad publicity, or they're afraid parents might sue them for having stigmatized their kid who hasn't done anything wrong yet, maybe just made a comment or two.

So what can we do?

I think the most important thing is to train school personnel and students in the warning signs of potential violence, and have mechanisms in place where students can easily come forward, anonymously, and make their reports. When school shootings have been prevented, most commonly it's because students reported what they knew. That's probably the best first line of defense, getting students involved in school safety.

What do you hope readers can take away?

The ultimate goal of the book is to help schools and society be safer. And my hope is that by shedding light on the lives of perpetrators and the warning signs they've left, people will be more sensitive to behaviors and know better what to do if they do encounter warning signs.