School Shooters: Understanding their path to violence is key to prevention
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There were 25 school shootings last year. Thirty-three children and adults died in those incidents. More than 60 people were injured. Experts say to prevent these attacks, we need to understand what's behind the rage of school shooters. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee explains what puts these kids on the path to violence.
RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: April 20, 1999 - it felt like the beginning of a new and terrible era in America where parents feared that their kids could go to school in the morning and never come home. Two students walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and shot dead 13 people and then killed themselves. When Sue Klebold heard about the shooting, she panicked and hoped her son was safe. Then she learned that he was one of the shooters.
SUE KLEBOLD: I was completely confused. I didn't know what had happened or why. I was trying to accept that my son was dead, that he was being held responsible for this terrible, terrible tragedy.
CHATTERJEE: Klebold says after the incident, her son Dylan was called many things.
KLEBOLD: My son was called a monster. He was called evil.
CHATTERJEE: But that wasn't the boy she knew.
KLEBOLD: He was kind and friendly and nice and gentle.
CHATTERJEE: Then months after his death, she discovered a side of her son that he'd hidden from nearly everyone. The police returned his journals to her.
KLEBOLD: There, I could clearly see here was a young man who was saying, I am in agony; I want to get a gun; I want to kill myself. He was saying that when he was 15 years old.
CHATTERJEE: His writings reveal that he'd been depressed and suicidal for almost two years before the shooting. Now, it's almost impossible to empathize with someone like that. The brutality of their crime is unspeakable. Psychologist John Van Dreal gets that.
JOHN VAN DREAL: Someone went out of their way to target and kill children who look like our children and teachers who look like our teachers and did it for no other reason than to hurt them. And that's very personal.
CHATTERJEE: Van Dreal directs the safety and risk management program at Salem-Keizer Public Schools in Oregon. But he and other psychologists do think about what it's like to be one of these kids because they want to figure out how to prevent these shootings and keep children safe.
There's no official count of school shootings. An extensive Washington Post database shows more than 230 incidents where a gun was fired at K-12 schools since Columbine. Six of those were mass shootings. And here's what experts have learned about school shooters. Most have had one struggle after another.
PETER LANGMAN: My assumption, based on years of research into dozens of perpetrators, is that there are significant psychological issues.
CHATTERJEE: Peter Langman is a psychologist in Allentown, Pa., and the author of the book "Why Kids Kill: Inside The Minds Of school Shooters."
LANGMAN: So whether or not they've ever been diagnosed, whether or not they're severely mentally ill, you know, something is going on that could be addressed through some kind of treatment.
CHATTERJEE: But most never got treatment even though they had childhood traumas, unstable homes. They felt like outcasts at school where they'd been bullied, and many had experienced severe losses. The defendant in the case of the shooting in Parkland, Fla., last year - his mother died the year before the shooting. His father died when he was a little boy. John Van Dreal says these struggles add up over time.
VAN DREAL: They don't feel very good about themselves or where they're headed in their life. They may wish someone would kill them, or they may wish that they could kill themselves.
CHATTERJEE: Most of these kids were in despair. Many did kill themselves in their attacks. But most people who are feeling suicidal don't attack others, and most people with mental illness are not violent. So what makes a tiny percentage of kids become violent and homicidal? Van Dreal and other experts think it's because these kids had been struggling alone and failing for a long time, and their despair had turned into anger. Reid Meloy is a forensic psychologist and has consulted with the FBI.
REID MELOY: There's loss. There's humiliation. There's anger, and then there's blame.
CHATTERJEE: Blame - a precursor to violence. These individuals had a history of collecting grievances and fantasizing about revenge.
MELOY: And the fantasy is one in which the teenager begins to identify with other individuals that have become school shooters, that have used violence as a way to solve their problems.
CHATTERJEE: And access to guns turns that fantasy into a reality. But psychologists say these attacks can be prevented. There are often weeks or months in the planning. And John Van Dreal says there are signs that someone's struggling and heading towards violence.
VAN DREAL: I've stopped being the kid that went to Boy Scouts and church and loved his grandmother, and now I want to be that kid with camouflage who's isolated and attacks people and hurts them.
CHATTERJEE: Fourteen months before Columbine, Dylan Klebold, who was a gifted student, started to get into trouble. He and his friend Eric Harris got arrested after they broke into a van and stole some equipment. His mother was concerned. She asked him, did he need therapy? He said no. And she never realized how deep the problem really was.
KLEBOLD: The piece that I think where I failed the most is that we tend to underestimate the level of pain that someone may be in. We all have a responsibility to stop and think someone we love may be in a crisis.
CHATTERJEE: The solution isn't to expel or suspend a student, which is what happened to her son. Time and again, psychologists and educators have found that what these kids need is support and help.
Tomorrow on Morning Edition - what schools are doing to prevent troubled students from going down the path to violence. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.
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