Criminal and forensic psychology experts from the University of Denver and the University of Colorado-Boulder say there are typically warning signs that a young person needs intervention, and the case is true for perpetrators in school shootings.
Data and research into the people who carry out such attacks are growing with each incident. Forensic psychology professor Kimberly Gorgens, echoed by fellow DU professor and forensic psychology expert Apryl Alexander, said there was a unique element to the May 7 STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting that left Kendrick Castillo dead and eight other students wounded.
Devon Erickson, 18, and Alec McKinney, 16, were arrested on suspicion of carrying out the attack.
“Most (incidents) are single shooters,” Gorgens said. “There is an even smaller number of two-perpetrator circumstances.”
The Columbine High School massacre serves as one example of the two-suspect scenario. On April 20, 1999, two students opened fire at the school, killing 13 people before killing themselves. More recently, two students at Mountain Vista High School were arrested in 2015 for plotting to attack their school. The girls were sentenced in 2017 after pleading guilty to juvenile and adult charges.
Multiple suspects are less common because offenders are often socially isolated and experiencing rejection, Alexander said.
When more than one person is involved, she said, it’s usually because they hold similar ideologies and shared ideations over feeling rejected, feeling slighted by others, a sense of superiority or even a sense of having been betrayed.
“It could be that bonding of feeling as though they are outcasts or are different,” Alexander said. “When we see children or adolescents who are socially isolated, they usually find anti-social peers.”
Examples of anti-social behaviors include violating curfew, skipping school and vandalizing property, Gorgens said. Warning signs also include changes in behavior.
About 78 percent of school shooters had a history of suicidal attempts or ideation, Alexander said. It’s common for them to self-harm. There may be overt or ambiguous writings on social media.
Beverly Kingston, director of the Center for Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado Boulder, said warnings signs that a school shooting is imminent could include a person stockpiling weapons, writing down plans or telling someone of his or her intentions.
Among school shooting attackers, 81 percent told someone about their plan and 93 percent exhibited strange behavior beforehand, said Kingston, citing a U.S. Secret Service report.
A guide produced by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit examined strategies for conducting threat assessments and preventing targeted acts of violence, such as school shootings or public figure assassinations.
Targeted acts of violence incite fear because they feel random, the report says, leaving the public wondering if they are safe at any given time.
The report was compiled after a 2015 symposium that gathered experts in law enforcement, mental health, academia and other people involved in threat assessment to discuss “the active shooter phenomenon.”
The guide notes, as Gorgens also mentioned, that the base rate for targeted violence remains low but is increasing and has a high impact on those involved.
“That said, this guide was not written to highlight statistics and probabilities. It was written because these incidents are horrific, wrenching, and may be preventable,” the guide says.
Trauma and grief for a community impacted by a school shooting “is really profound,” Gorgens said.
“And for the larger Colorado community there is an element of really raw, vicarious trauma,” she said, “and we wear our trauma, our school shooting trauma, on our sleeve.”
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