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See Inside August/September 2007

Deadly Dreams: What Motivates School Shootings? [Preview]

After a recent spate of school shootings, researchers are analyzing the malignant fantasies of young assassins for warning signs that could help prevent future tragedies

Such communications should not be ignored. School personnel, parents and peers alike need to be alert for verbal, written and other signs that an adolescent is becoming engulfed in a destructive fantasy world.

We are training teachers, principals and school psychologists to differentiate signs of serious trouble from ordinary adolescent rebellion. In addition to disclosing aggressive intentions, a student who is extremely interested in obtaining guns, collects movies and posters of shooters, regularly visits fan Web sites for school shooters or is a social loner is likely to be in dire need of professional help. Symptoms of depression in a young person are another warning sign. In December 2005 a physician examined Cho and found him mentally ill, noting that he had a flat affect and depressed mood.

Access to weapons is yet a further cause for alarm, indicating that the youth has the means to turn fantasy into reality. Robert Steinhauser, a 19-year-old expelled student who executed 16 people in a school in eastern Germany in 2002, was a gun club marksman who had access to enough ammunition to kill hundreds of people.

On the other hand, teachers should not panic if a student sports a rebellious hairstyle or outfit, and they should exercise judgment if someone is carrying a potentially dangerous object. In the aftermath of the Columbine killings, a student was expelled for coming to school with green hair. Another child who brought a knife to school because her mother thought it would be useful for cutting an apple was expelled after the student turned the knife in on her own. Such an overreaction perpetuates fear and hurts the students.

Seeking Respect
For kids in need of help, however, a thoughtful response to the problem is essential. School psychologists and social workers need to help disillusioned youths find a place for themselves in society, something many of them feel they lack. In one of Castillo's home videos he says: "All I wanted was respect.... No one respected me." Earning that respect might take the form of finding a job or an activity that they enjoy and in which they excel. On a broader scale, schools should offer seminars that advise students on ways to discover their talents and interests and how to use them to earn admiration.

Strong relationships with peers, teachers and other adults provide an even more effective shield against destructive fantasies. Criminologists have known for decades that building and maintaining relationships with socially accepted people is the best way to prevent violence. When a youth establishes ties to people he cares about, he is apt to feel that he has too much at stake to act out his brutal dreams.

All adolescents, not just teens at risk, should receive more social training in school. Primary violence prevention classes, for example, teach students social skills (such as empathy) and peaceful options for resolving conflicts. In addition, a teacher's role should extend beyond dispensing knowledge to forging friendships with students and providing young people with adult confidants and role models. At the same time, teachers would be advised to educate students to view critically all media that glorify violence.

The news media must take a stand as well. To make identifying with other school shooters more difficult, journalists and producers should focus less on the perpetrator, his deviant motives and the moment-by-moment unfolding of the deed--and more on the consequences of the crime.

This article was originally published with the title "Deadly Dreams."

(Further Reading)

  • Seductions of Crime: A Chilling Exploration of the Criminal Mind--From Juvenile Delinquency to Cold-Blooded Murder. Jack Katz. Basic Books, 1988.
  • The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective. M. E. O'Toole. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1999.
  • The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. B. Vossekuil, R. A. Fein, M. Reddy, R. Borum and W. Modzeleski. U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C., May 2002.
  • Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. K. S. Newman, C. Fox, D. J. Harding, J. Mehta and W. Roth. Basic Books, 2004.
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