Peter Langman ’00 Ph.D.—a sought-after expert on the psychology of young people who commit rampage school shootings—recently sat down with Joseph Roy ’09 Ph.D., superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District and an expert in school leadership, to discuss school shootings at the request of Lehigh College of Education Dean William Gaudelli.
The following is an edited version of their discussion.
Joseph Roy (JR): When we talk about school safety, there seems to be an over-emphasis on the physical security side. I literally receive emails every single day from businesses selling stuff, [providing] training, door wedges, whatever. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Peter Langman (PL):Sure. In terms of school safety from a physical security standpoint, there is a lot of emphasis on keeping people out of a building. There are door-locking systems, buzzing systems, surveillance cameras and so on. And yet most shootings are done by people who belong in the building.
JR: If you look at the shooters, it seems like most of times they are….
PL: Usually they are current students, and occasionally former students. Usually they are not outsiders. There have been a very small number of attacks at schools by people who have no business being there. But that’s the extreme minority among cases that are extremely rare to begin with in the mass school shootings. So, that is one point. You cannot just keep people out, because the people doing the shooting often belong in the school and have an ID badge to be buzzed in just like they ought to be. So, that alone is not going to prevent shootings.
Also, another fact that people tend not to know about is, the school shootings do not always happen inside the building. I have tracked at least 18 attacks that happened wholly or partly outside. And that could be when people are arriving in the morning. It could be at recess, it could be when everyone is leaving at the end of the day.
JR: Everybody shows up at the same time and leaves at the same time at the end of the day. So, they typically know and utilize the vulnerable times. So, that doesn’t mean you don’t try to keep people out of the building who have no business being there. But if you only focus on physical security, there are those times of the day when people are outside the building. I just mention too that when a parent calls attention to something—I think that is a critical piece of prevention when it comes to things happening outside of the school and yet still on the school grounds. Parents are doing a great job of helping to keep that space safer.
If you show up every day to pick up your child at school, you know who is there usually and you also notice a break in routine. A few times we had situations where parents never had seen that person before, and it turned out to be completely innocuous—a grandparent coming to pick up the child. We learn that they notified the school and that can be checked. That type of observation ends up helping tremendously.
PL: Right. There are people who have no business at the school, who may be checking out the school two or three days ahead of time. They just kind of hang around and someone noticed them but they didn’t report them. And two or three days later, they attack. So, that kind of awareness is important.
JR: And I don’t think we do enough to constantly remind parents of that: You are the eyes here. Or the sign in the subway, “See something, say something.”
PL: But that’s a key point. The stereotype of the school shooters, based off of media portrayal, have people thinking that school shooters look a certain way. You know, the misfits, the outcasts, the loners and the quiet kids. Maybe they don’t have friends. Maybe they are victims of bullying.
"In reality, most of the school shooters in middle school or high school are not loners."
Dr. Peter Langman
JR: It’s like the image of the Columbine boys got locked in–that is the stereotype.
PL: Yes, and in reality, most of the school shooters in middle school or high school are not loners. I think our perceptions are skewed by a couple of high-profile cases, like Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. Both of those cases were adult shooters aged 23 and 20. And those were some very odd young men who did not have friends and so on. But, that’s not the norm.
And, juvenile school shooters typically do have some friends. They may not have the social success they want, but they are not the isolated loners that people tend to think they are. Sometimes, they are isolated, sometimes they have a group of friends, and sometimes they have girlfriends. The two Columbine perpetrators had a pretty wide group of friends of both males and females. They were not alone. And they were not really bullied. It was high school and there was some teasing back and forth, but they gave worse than they got. They threatened and intimidated other kids, made fun of them and so on. They were on the receiving end of that too, but nothing out of the ordinary.
In 2014 there was a school shooter who was voted homecoming prince, and the week after homecoming, he invited his best friends to meet them at the cafeteria. As they were sitting around and eating lunch, he pulled out the gun and gun them all down. He was not the isolated loner. He was very well-liked kid. Obviously, got voted as homecoming prince. Maybe the most popular boy in his grade and he was also on the football team. So, you know, the idea that you can tell a school shooter just by looking at someone is really wrong. And it’s dangerous because if people think they know what a school shooter looks like, and there is a warning sign from the popular kid, maybe another football teammate or the class president, they may not take this warning sign seriously because it doesn’t fit their image. It’s a really important point for people to be aware of when looking for warning signs.
So, there are a lot of misconceptions about who school shooters are, and what drives their attack. If you are thinking that the school shooter is a victim of horrendous bullying, then your understanding of school shooting is that they are retaliations against tormentors. And yet very rarely has a school shooter sought out and killed someone that had been picking on them. That just about doesn’t happen; out of dozens of cases I could just find maybe two or three.
If we try to find the motivation for the attack through the principle, of what is called victim selection, how do you understand the crime, who is the victim? Let’s start there: it’s almost never the bullies that are shot. It’s far more often teachers who failed the kid, gave them a bad grade, or the administrators who suspended or expelled them, the girls who rejected them, or broke up with them. So, if we want to understand the motivation, let’s look at who are those targeted victims.
JR: I think that the assumption is that there is a bully, and somehow they have been victimized. The things you just mentioned: didn’t get the attention, the girls they wanted, bad grades and so on. Those are normal life experiences. So, what is it about the things that for the vast majority of kids are normal life experiences, tip some kids over to commit murder? As a superintendent you worry about thousands of kids. So, how do you get to that identification piece?
PL: Let’s talk about the psychology or mental health issues. That is a big piece of the answer to that question. Most kids get bad grades at same point, maybe get detention, suspension, or rejected by a girl, or breakup, whatever—ordinary life events, but that doesn’t turn into murder. So, what is different about these kids? There are three answers to that. There are three different psychological types of school shooters. So, to understand why ordinary events might be the tipping point for some of these kids, you have to look at who they are, psychologically speaking.
The first type is what I call the psychopathic school shooter. Psychopaths are profoundly narcissistic. They live for themselves. They don’t respect other people as full human beings. They feel special and entitled. They don’t have a sense of empathy for people. They don’t really have a conscience. So, they don’t really have guilt or remorse. And when they don’t get what they want, that can lead to absolute rage and eventually to murder. This type of person is just callous, sometime sadistic, some of them really fantasize about how much fun it will be to mutilate somebody. It is a thrill for them because they are seeking power. And murder is a crime of power. You can call it the ultimate crime of power, the power of life and death. And for some of them, it may be revenge because someone slighted them in some way. For others, it may really just be that seeking of power, seeking the thrill that goes with that.
That could manifest itself in ways in schools that are identifiable in their interactions with teachers. That could be helpful. And certainly, for a lot of the psychopathic shooters, there is a very strong sense of superiority.
But you also may see that in other shooters, even co-existing with the [feeling of] superiority, is a sense of inadequacy, and that may be driving their presentation, or desire to be superior. They are more concerned about themselves, so, to become somebody, to have the power over those who may in real life be better than you in some ways, or have had power over you, like a teacher, an administrator, or a girl who has the power to reject you. You know, there might be an element of revenge, but they are also enhancing their sense of status that goes along with that.
And there is a phenomenon called the compensatory narcissist. Someone who feels hollow and inadequate on the inside compensates for that by creating this image of himself or herself as the exalted superior being. So even within the concept of psychopathic shooter, there is a wide range of how that could manifest.
The second category is called psychotic school shooter,and that is where the idea of mental illness really comes in. Psychotic means being out of touch of reality. And that could be a couple of different ways. One, they may have hallucinations and experiences that are not real, most commonly called auditory hallucinations, meaning people hearing voices talking to them. Another manifestation of psychosis is delusions, which are false beliefs. Most commonly among school shooters are paranoid delusions, but you also see a fair bit of delusions of grandeur. They even have delusions about who they are. They might not even believe they are human. They may think that they are an alien. They might not even know what they are, or who they are. So, profound identity issues. Not the ordinary identity issues of adolescents, but identity issues [of] not just who am I, but what am I? And they tend to be very aware that something is very wrong with them, and there is anguish with that. There is also envy, because they look around, and it seems to them that everybody else is normal, happy and successful, and they are the ones who are not. Envy can turn to hatred, and that hatred can turn into violence. So, these are people who are suffering psychotic symptoms, often have early onset schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder. And the result of that is anguish, depression, but along with that also rage. That’s where you can get the violence.
JR: So the feeling of knowing that there is something wrong and moving from anguish to rage to violence?
PL: Right, because it’s not fair, and it is an injustice. The idea of injustice is important both for the psychopathic and psychotic shooters, but for different reasons and in different ways. For the psychopathic shooters, there may be more specific injustice: “I got bad grades, the girl dumped me.” For the psychotic shooters, there it is an existential injustice: “Something is wrong with me that’s not wrong with other people. That’s not fair.” So, it’s a very deep sense of being a victim, a victim in the sense of, in this case, mental illness. You have the onset of schizophrenia. It’s not something that you want. It’s not something that you can control.
Then, the third category is called the traumatized school shooters. You know that psychopathic and psychotic come from stable intact middle-class families. Of course, no family is perfect. There is maybe a divorce, or maybe family issues, but nothing dramatic. When you look at the traumatized shooters, there is physical abuse and emotional abuse. At least one parent, sometimes both parents, have drug and alcohol problems. Often at least one parent, if not both parents, has a criminal history, sometimes to the point of incarceration. They often bounce around a lot because of their family instability. Their parents are no longer together and they bounce from one parent’s home to another, and neither one of them are stable, so they are in and out of grandparents’ homes, sometimes in and out of foster homes. If they are changing school districts, it means a constant disruption of their education, constant disruption of their friendships, constantly changing caregivers, so there is no stability in addition to the trauma of abuse. There is also sometimes sexual abuse, maybe in the home, maybe in the community, and maybe in one of the foster homes. So, it’s just one more trauma of overwhelming stress.
Now, it is important to take note: Most people who are psychopathic or psychotic or traumatized, do not commit school shootings or any other kind of violence.
So, even if [teachers] do have a psychopathic kid in class it doesn’t mean the kid is dangerous. Most people with mental illness are no more dangerous than anybody else. So, there have to be other factors.
Recognizing those different pathways or types of school shooters, I think, is fundamentally important to our understanding. But you have to look at other factors and patterns as well because most people in those categories don’t do this. So we have to ask, what are the contributing factors to the violence?
And that’s where I look at a whole range of things, one of which is body-related issues, a concept of damaged masculinity. You know, one of the Columbine shooters aspired to be a Marine, and his father and grandfather served in the military. It was a family tradition. This is what the life goal was for him, but he was born with a chest defect. He had surgery twice, right on the cusp of puberty. As you try to develop a healthy male identity, and your male role models served in a military, and you are damaged physically, what does that do to your sense of self? And that one case got me to look at other cases, and I have found two other school shooters with chest deformities and many others with body-related issues. It could be major illnesses in childhood, so they were sickly and weak, maybe didn’t develop like other kids did. A number of school shooters have been unusually short, below the 5th percentile in height, poor athletes, unusually thin and weak, not well coordinated or maybe some neurological issues. My primary focus is psychology. But once you start to look at the biology, you see all kinds of issues that may be at play into that sense of being damaged, feeling helpless, weak or powerless. That ties into the idea that you get a gun to feel powerful and that will help to elevate or enhance your senses of status or your sense of self-worth.
So, I looked at psychology, and I looked at biology, and then I looked at family patterns and social life, the external factors. Most school shooters have a history of academic issues or disciplinary issues. Within the school, there are issues in one or both domains. Some major issues, some not so major, but it’s one more stress. They usually have issues in romance or sexuality. You know, they cannot get a date. They cannot get a girlfriend. They had a recent breakup with their girlfriend. Again, very interesting in terms of sense of self as a male. There may be a series of things that happen in succession—maybe a run-in with the law, suspended at school, breakup with the girlfriend, all these stresses on top of being psychopathic, psychotic or traumatized. So, it’s not just who they are but what happens to them, that combination of their psychology, their life history, biological factors and life stressors. It’s a lot of things that come together to put someone on this path.
JR: From the school side, when we talk about threat assessments and having our faculty piece these types of things together, there is anxiety. How do you assess the threat, potential of a particular kid that might be edging toward the line?
PL: There are a lot of issues wrapped up in this: How do you do it, when do you do it, and who does it?
First of all, people have to be trained. They cannot do something that they are not trained to do. My recommendation is that pretty much everyone who works in a district ought to have a certain level of training about warning signs, reporting structure and how this all can work together. Usually, you would have a small group of people who would constitute the threat assessment team and would have significant training on warning signs and how to conduct the threat assessment, the dos and don’ts, what are you allowed to do legally, and so on.
Investigating a threat doesn’t have to mean calling the police. This could be as simple as inviting a student in and saying, “Can you tell me about what happened? I heard a student say you said such and such. Can you tell me what happened?” Depending on what you find out, you may want to do more, but it doesn’t have to be a disciplinary action and it doesn’t have to be a legal action. It can just be a conversation. I have had people end up in my office because school personnel didn’t have a conversation and just had a knee-jerk reaction and suspended a kid. They didn’t know how to do threat assessment so they only thought about getting him out of here.
There is no single answer. I provide training and talk about the kind of warning signs that we usually encounter. You can look at warning signs that show up in students’ assignments that they hand in. So, there's no simple answer to what would have to be in that assignment to trigger a threat assessment or the initial conversation. I tell teachers because of your career you might see thousands of papers and suddenly you are reading one, and you are feeling very anxious, it’s just rubbing you the wrong way. Pay attention to that.
One of the Columbine shooters handed in a short story to his English teacher a few weeks before the attack. It was a story of a young man watching someone else commit mass murder against a group of students. The narrator of the story wasn’t the killer, it was a bystander, observing the shooting. But, he wrote at the end how much he identified with and could understand the shooter. He described the shooter as 6-foot-4, left-handed and wearing a black trench coat. The student writing the story was 6-foot-4, left-handed and wearing a black trench coat. There was that intersection of fiction with reality. It may have been a short story but there is an element to it that set it apart. The teacher was very disturbed by it, then she talked to the student and his parents. And the student said, “The assignment was to write a piece of fiction. It's a piece of fiction.” Six weeks later, Columbine happens. So, you know, she was right to be disturbed by that.
JR: So the teacher connected some of the dots but didn’t continue to keep connecting the dots?
PL: Yes. that’s the phrase I use all of the time, connect the dots because that is the central piece. Maybe every single teacher of those two boys had a piece of evidence in some assignment or comments made in class, and if they connected the dots, if they had a way to centralize all that information things would have changed. “I got a safety concern. Has anyone else had one about this kid?” Or “I should mention that in my class, he wrote this.” That’s where you can see it’s the need for a threat assessment being justified. Maybe not from that one thing, but you start to have staff communicate with each other, and suddenly maybe what looks like a straightforward comment becomes a very clear indication of danger.
JR: It’s a difficult situation. With social media, if one student makes a “I want to shoot you” post, it goes viral for the district and everyone sees it. Once that happens, people don’t want to send their kids to school because of this perceived danger—real or not. For the school to say, “We need to talk to the student and family about that and not involve law,” they are gonna be involved. As long as it is out there in the public sphere, there are a lot of ways things spin out of our control.
PL: Sure. You know, two kids are kind of roughhousing and joking. One says, “Hey, I am gonna kill you if you do that to me one more time.” But an explicit threat on social media is a very different situation. Don’t hesitate to call the police whenever you need to regarding any threat. The police can get a search warrant to see if there are weapons in the home, confiscate the kid’s computer, etc. They can do all kinds of things that the school cannot.
JR: We're doing a lot around trauma-informed schools, and it’s really resonating with our teachers. They are learning about behaviors and why students act one way or the other and appropriate responses when necessitated. I think the next step for us would be doing more about the connecting-the-dots.
PL: I think schools all over the country for years have been focused on the emergency response. Everyone does lockdown drills, active shooter drills and testing of the emergency notification systems. Those things are important, but it's not prevention. All of that is what you do after there's an armed gunman in the building.
And I think schools all over the country are lagging behind in threat assessment, knowing the warning signs, and intervening before the armed gunman is in the building. Metal detectors are not prevention. We know through school shootings that even when there are armed guards and a metal detector, the shooter simply shoots the guard and walks through. Now, if you have a problem with a lot of gang activity and kids smuggling knives into school, a metal detector makes sense. But if you're only getting it to prevent a school shooting, it doesn't or it hasn't prevented that from happening.
JR: Working through these issues can cause anxiety. It brings you back to the most recent school shooting, and it feels substantial.
PL: Let’s talk about that because it is something that causes many reactions, most of which are not logical. When there's a major shooting, like Parkland, I think everyone's anxiety goes way up. The massive amount of media coverage is a major contributor of the anxiety we all experience. It skews our perception of danger. So, when I do my trainings, I have a section called “Prepare, Don't Panic.” And that's my message. Another important point to keep in mind when working through this is, the mass school shootings are extraordinarily rare events. And, in terms of homicide in America, school shootings constitute about one-tenth of one percent. So, you're far more likely to be killed anywhere but school. So, schools are really about the safest place our kids can be.
Statistically, more students are killed in school parking lot accidents than in school shootings, but it's one here and one there. So, they never make it to the mass media.
JR: The most dangerous time is school dropoff and pickup because parents are in a hurry. It's scary. I mean we work with the police, we do everything we can but people are in a hurry to get to work or they have to be the first one to pick their kid up after school. And many just don't pay attention, and that is a problem when you have kids cutting across and in-between buses and cars. I mean that is the most dangerous part of the day.
PL: When I do trainings, I tell people when you leave your car to walk into your school building, that you've just left the most dangerous place you will be all day to the safest place you will be all day. You are seven to ten times more likely to be hit by lightning than to be killed in the school shooting. So, if you don't go through your day living in fear of a lightning strike, you don’t need to live in fear of a school shooting. When the events do happen, they are absolutely terrifying, but they're also extremely rare.
Let me try to put this in perspective. Leaving aside gang violence in school or when one kid shoots one other kid, and focusing on rampage attacks, like Columbine and Parkland where some kid just wants to kill as many as possible. Again, those are extraordinarily rare. Let's say they happened once a month, which they don't. But let's just say you have one a month, so you have 12 a year. The United States has over 120,000 K-12 schools, so at the rate of 12 a year that means any one school is likely to have a rampage attack once every 10,000 years. And that's such a span of time. We can't even conceive of that.
I mean the pyramids only go back 4,000 years. So even if we said, all right, if we include smaller scale attacks, let's say there's one a week. So, there's you know four in a month instead of one in a month. For any particular school, the odds are that they can expect an attack once every 2,500 years. The odds of any one school having an attack in an entire lifetime is so small. That's why I teach people to prepare but don't panic. You have to be prepared because you don't know where it could happen next. It could happen here, especially if you're not prepared and you don't know the warning signs. But you don't have to live in fear day in and day out.
"Maybe the phenomenon of school shootings is kind of feeding on itself, because the more there are, the more copycats you get."
Dr. Peter Langman
JR: Is there a shift in the in the culture that you could point to?
PL: One factor is the impact of the media coverage. A lot of shooters set previous shooters as their role models. And some will explicitly say, “I want to go down in history, I want to be famous like so and so became famous.” And the only way they can do that in their minds is to get a gun and kill a lot of people. There's a whole copycat effect or contagion effect. Many shooters have set a previous shooter in this idea of fame-seeking, which ties into what I said earlier about enhancing your status. Maybe the phenomenon of school shootings is kind of feeding on itself, because the more there are, the more copycats you get.
JR: What do you think about the fighting back idea?
PL: There is a “Run, Hide, Fight” program; some people have taken issue with those terms. “Run” doesn't mean really run, it means escape the scene if possible. A bunch of people running and trying to get through the doorway is not efficient. It’s escape if possible. “Hide” means that if you can't get out of the building or the room, do your best to hide behind a desk or get into a closet. The “Fight” piece is, if you can't get out and you can't hide, that you should do what you can to defend yourself. And of course, it depends on the age of the students we are talking to.
There are a lot of other factors, and I can cite different shooters to show you the range of possibilities in how you might handle each scenario. If someone walks into a classroom with a gun, and they aren’t yet shooting, there's a good possibility that they won't shoot. There are cases where kids held a classroom hostage at gunpoint and then surrendered without firing a shot. They may have shot someone at home or elsewhere, but they come into that one room and they don't shoot anybody and end up surrendering. Now if people just started throwing things you might provoke someone into shooting.
In another case, they've done a lot of shooting, but then they seem like they're done and they've got a room full of people and then come back to reality. They're horror-struck at what they've done and they still have the gun but the attack is over and there are people still alive in the room. At that point, again, you don't want to provoke the person with the gun. If it seems like they are done, sit and see what happens. They may let people go and surrender. However, if someone says, “All right. Everybody line up with your face against the wall,” and the shooter just goes down the line shooting one by one in the back of the head and you're standing there—Why just stand there? People should just scatter, grab whatever they can, throw things, tackle them if that is possible. You know, it's really situation dependent.
The idea of disarming someone with a gun when you're unarmed, and they're actively shooting is not something that anyone should do. You don't get anywhere near them. Now in one case, the shooter stopped to reload, students piled on and held him down. Not while he was shooting, but when he stopped. Another case, the shooter shot a few people in the classroom and was holding them hostage. A teacher came in the room and the kid told the coach, “Put the end of my rifle barrel in your mouth.” At first the coach says, “No, I'm not going to do that,” and then he said, “Okay. I'll do that.” He put his hands on the barrel and ripped the gun out of the shooter’s hands. You have to be awfully cool and able to think on your feet in that situation. How often are you going to face that situation and be able to pull that off? So normally you would never try to disarm someone, but in that particular situation, that was brilliant.
JR: It is impossible to give any concrete directions because the situations vary. We’ve been training teachers the difference between the old model of lock down and wait. Now we teach them to lock down and consider their options. Can you get out that window? Are you on the first floor and able to evacuate?
What we've learned from our kids after Parkland last year, when we convened focus groups in the middle and high schools, was that they wanted to know that the teachers were thinking about what they will do and what type of plan they would use in different scenarios–they shared that it didn’t scare them but made them feel safer to discuss different options.
PL: Yes, to know that the adults in charge are thinking about it and considering how they would respond really helps the students to feel safer.
JR: One thing that I’ve wondering, is there any information that can be gleaned from the shooters who survive their own attacks and their state of mind leading up to and during the attack?
PL: Post-attack behavior is fascinating and critical to understanding what was going on in their minds. First of all, there are always the law enforcement interviews or interrogations post-attack. Then there's generally some sort of psychological or psychiatric evaluations that are done, which usually are not released to the public, but the results of them may be released. Sometimes there are media interviews at some point afterwards. One thing you have to keep in mind is, when they survive and are on trial and facing life in prison if not a death sentence, that they may be very likely to say things to create empathy. With certain types of shooters, you're going to see a lot of lying because they will change their story constantly, contradicting themselves, contradicting everything we know from every other source to paint themselves as the victim, innocent in some way.
So, you have to be very careful with what they say. Now, this is where the psychology comes in. The psychopathic shooters who survive often strike the police as almost inexplicably calm, nonchalant, may be smiling, may be glad with the media attention they're getting. They're just enjoying it. That is the most significant indication of a psychopathic personality because the response is so completely out of the normal range.
JR: So we could expect to see that same behavior before a shooting–that lack of emotion or feeling?
PL: That is a personality trait of the psychotic shooter. I mentioned the lack of empathy. They don't care that they just wounded or killed people because there's no empathy there. There's not a conscience really. It's all about the self, and the self not getting attention. Or it felt good to shoot people because it was fun, and they got to have the power of life and death.
Among the psychotic and traumatized shooters, you're much more likely to see that they just break down and sob; they feel incredible guilt and self-loathing. Some of them literally cannot live with what they have done and try to kill themselves in prison. They realize they have taken another life and have the feeling that they don't deserve to live. So, when it comes to the guilt—or the lack of it—is very telling in post-attack behaviors.
JR: Can you discuss the types of attacks that happen?
PL: I’ve looked at attacks as either random attacks against anyone in the vicinity or targeted attacks against specific people or groups of people. Sometimes you have elements of both. Those are called mixed attacks.
In the school shootings, we hear most about the large-scale random attacks: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Parkland. Each had no specific intended targets and the shooters were just going to kill as many people as they could.
In contrast, the targeted attacks tend to be smaller. Maybe there's three people on their list and once they kill those three people, they're done with the attack. So, they surrender, flee the scene or kill themselves.
The random attacks have no end point because the goal is to just kill as much as possible. So that's where you get the high fatalities. The random attacks tend to be planned more in advance. They are built over a long period of time. Again, going back to the idea of motivation, we can understand revenge is the driver. It may be morally repugnant to kill someone over a breakup, a bad grade, getting suspended, etc., but we can all understand the rationale of revenge as a motive. But for the large-scale attacks, where there is no specific target and there's no identifiable grievance, those are so much harder to understand.
For instance, we can look at Parkland and try to understand the motive and why did that happen? There were no intended victims. That's where we need to look at the dynamics of power, fame seeking, revenge against the world, lashing out against perceived injustices, but not against any one person, just in general, like ‘I got a raw deal in life so someone's going to pay for it.’
And sometimes you get mixed attacks. There's a case, a shooter killed his mother at home, sought out and killed his ex-girlfriend on the one-year anniversary of their breakup, and then opened fire to intended targets and random victims. It is worth noting that targets can be groups. Maybe it is not just one female that the shooter wants to kill–it might be a misogynistic attack against women in general. So, the shooter doesn't even know the women, but they're women and that’s what matters.
Other shooters make a point of seeking out young children. At Sandy Hook, the shooter was 20 years old. He chose to gun down 6 year olds. He had attended two institutions of higher education, and he could have gone there but he didn't. He made a deliberate choice to go after children. There are a number of other adults that have sought out and killed children. They decided to commit attacks in elementary schools, even if they're in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. So, then you have to wonder what's behind that type of attack?
So, the different types of attack raise these questions about motivation and why. Why that target? Why that school? Again, not all school shootings are the same because of these different factors.
"The expectations of masculinity in our culture and what some refer to as a toxic masculinity, this is taking those traits to an extreme."
Dr. Peter Langman
JR: Why boys?
PL: Males commit most violent crimes in the world, so it would be a surprise if the school shootings were any different. For this particular population and going back to what I said earlier about damaged masculinity, that is a big piece of it. The expectations of masculinity in our culture and what some refer to as a toxic masculinity, this is taking those traits to an extreme. The kids see a failure to live up to that ideal of masculinity as it's been portrayed. People have also looked at cultural scripts, whether it's a superhero movie or a video game. Often violence is portrayed as enhancing male status. The cultural script that exists is that men are supposed to be strong and violence is a way of enhancing their status. Females aren't raised with that script. In the last book that I wrote, I looked at 48 shooters, four of them were women. It does happen, which makes those cases of particular interest because they’re so unusual. But going back to the video game question or media violence in general, it can be books, it can be movies. It can be a video game.
JR: What are your thoughts on the impact of video games?
PL: Ninety-seven percent of teenage boys play video games, and virtually none of them commit school shootings. It's like being teased. Well, most kids are teased at some point, but teasing doesn't cause mass murder. Video games don't cause mass murder. However, there have been shooters who have been absolutely obsessed with video games. It's usually a specific one and that could serve as a rehearsal mechanism. It could also serve as a desensitization process.
One of the Columbine shooters was obsessed with the game Doom and even programmed his own levels of it. He said, “You know, what I can't do in real life I try to do in Doom.” What can you do in Doom that he can’t do in real life? Well, you can kill things, right? And he said, “When I go on my rampage, I'm just going to pretend that everyone I shoot is just a monster from Doom so I can kill them and not feel anything.” So, he even made that connection explicitly between a video game and what he was going to do. Did the video game make him do it? No. Would you have done it without the video game? Probably. But that might have been part of his process.
JR: I have one last question. How did you get into this?
PL: While doing my doctoral internship at Lehigh University in the counseling psychology program, academic year 1998-99, I was at KidsPeace, a psychiatric facility for children and adolescents in the Lehigh Valley. On April 20, 1999, the attack at Columbine High School happened, and just 10 days later on April 30, a 16-year-old boy with a hit list was admitted. He was perceived as a potential Columbine-type risk, and I was assigned the case to evaluate him. After that there was another potential school shooter and I got that case. And then more continued to come.
After my internship ended, I was hired at KidsPeace and was there for over 12 years. I was working with kids who were possible school shooters and that is how I got into this. All the kids who came through as potential school shooters have not committed school shootings or any major crime. That is the good news—if you catch it early you can get them through whatever crisis they're experiencing in adolescence. They can come out the other end. I can't swear that they've been model citizens, but they have not done what they were thinking about doing. They were able to turn things around because they got the support they needed.