FBI: Rash of School Shootings Not 'Copycat' Crimes

Both teens and adults have been identified as the shooters in three recent school sieges across the United States. However, FBI officials say the only similarities between each incident is the scene of the crimes.

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, in Mexico new schoolbooks offer straight talk about sex, and some parents don't like what they're reading.

First, it is bad for everyone when FBI Special Agent Mary Ellen O'Toole has a busy week. And she has been very busy these days. It is her job to profile school shooters. After the recent burst of school shootings, NPR's Ari Shapiro talked with the agent about what these offenders have in common.

ARI SHAPIRO: It started last Wednesday with a shooting in Colorado. Two days later, a 15-year-old shot his school principal in Wisconsin. Then came the massacre in an Amish school in Pennsylvania over the weekend. Mary Ellen O'Toole has looked at many incidents like these in her years with the FBI. She says it's not at all unusual for one shooting to follow another.

Ms. MARY ELLEN O'TOOLE (FBI Profiler): That is the copycat phenomenon. There are individuals who will view the events in the media of the past week and will be tremendously impacted by that. And those events can serve as motivators for them to make the decision to act out violently.

SHAPIRO: She says they may do it to achieve notoriety, fame and attention.

Ms. O'TOOLE: And what's important for people to understand is that after an incident such as the ones that we've seen recently, all of us in law enforcement and in education and mental health really do need to be more vigilant. Because we do know that there seems to be a spike in threats and actual attempts to carry out threats in schools in and around the time that we've actually had school shootings.

SHAPIRO: O'Toole says every teenage school shooter has given some indication before the shooting took place that he intended to commit violence. The challenge for teachers and law enforcement officials is to sort out the many threats that will never lead to violence from those that are serious.

Ms. O'TOOLE: There is no one behavior, like wearing a black trench coat or coloring one's hair purple or listening to a certain music. But one of the things that we've seen is when thoughts of violence occur, and everything that that individual does, whether it's writing an essay for school, whether it's in a home economics class and they bake something in the shape of a gun, whatever they're doing, they're thinking is reflected in indicators of violence.

SHAPIRO: She says this is different from kids who like violent TV shows or music or video games.

Ms. O'TOOLE: We're talking about a small select group of people for whom this violence is almost systemic in everything that they do, say, think, and those are the people that need to be looked at differently. But they are truly in the minority.

SHAPIRO: She says certain things are always true of teenage school shooters, but in two of the three shootings of the last week the alleged killers were adults. O'Toole says that's a totally different situation, where it's much harder to make general statements.

Ms. O'TOOLE: When an adult commits a crime, you have to look at other things that are going on in that crime scene. You have to look at why was that school selected. It could have perhaps been just as easy to select a hotel lobby or 7-Eleven.

SHAPIRO: She says unlike with teenage shooters, there may be no relationship between an adult offender and his chosen crime scene.

Ms. O'TOOLE: They may have selected that crime scene for reasons that only they know and those reasons can even include, well, it was convenient. It could include, the people who were in that environment were easier to control, there were more of the type of victims that I wanted there at that particular crime scene. So there are many other issues when you have a crime where the victims appear to be crimes of opportunity.

SHAPIRO: O'Toole says in the popular imagination and in the minds of would-be school shooters, the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado was a watershed moment.

Ms. O'TOOLE: People have said they are going to commit a Columbine-type of an attack, they will Columbine their school. So it's really taken on a totally different perspective than any other school shooting. And unfortunately for a very small group of people, the individuals involved in school shootings - or other crimes of violence - can become almost like a folk hero to someone who was already thinking about acting out violently.

SHAPIRO: FBI agent Mary Ellen O'Toole says in every act of violence there's one question she gets asked over and over.

Ms. O'TOOLE: And when the violence is particularly egregious and it just almost brings you to your knees because it is so awful and so horrifying, people keep saying in the public and the media, what is the motive, why would somebody do something like this, what is the motive?

SHAPIRO: She says her team can search hard, gather facts, even discern motivations. At the end of the day, though, none of that information is enough to satisfy people's need for answers.

Ms. O'TOOLE: We'll find the reason, but it will never make sense.

SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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