Dismissing False Narratives of School Shootings

Hayley C. Stefan

In his 2013 essay, "Guns," veteran horror fiction writer Stephen King tackled the real fear of mass shootings in US schools. "Guns" enumerates public reaction to school shootings in 22 steps, from the initial “Breaking News” reports to final attempts at gun regulation in victims’ names. Media compare perpetrators, weapons, and events, eventually returning to but never answering the repeated question, “How could we have prevented this?” While politicians reach stalemates trying to regulate gun violence legally, the public uses the growing history of previous shootings to make a case for mental illness as a cause. But, as numerous studies indicate, mental distress and violence are not directly linked, and adolescents who report mental distress—nearly one-quarter of all adolescents in the United States—are overwhelmingly unlikely to be violent. Rather than thinking of all mass shooters as mentally ill, we should analyze what has led us to pathologize so many of our children as potential school shooters and think differently about how to protect them and ourselves from gun violence in the United States.

King offers legal suggestions to stem the tide of mass shootings—he’s a proponent of background checks and bans on assault weapons and high capacity magazines—and his concerns, while still controversial for many, cross political aisles. Even President Trump—who famously bragged he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still get elected—supported additional funding for measures to prevent gun violence in his proposed 2018 budget blueprint “America First.” The budget specifically earmarks funds “to provide accurate and timely response for firearms purchase background checks” and to “address . . . gun-related deaths.” Yet, despite the agreement that federal and state funds should be directed toward measures such as background checks, US lawmakers and citizens diverge on how best to prevent deaths related to gun violence without restricting gun ownership or access.

Absent a collectively agreed upon solution to preventing gun violence, parents and schools turn to means within their control to non-juridically regulate gun violence. We follow King’s 14th step of rehearsing our knowledge of previous shootings and what he calls “the superstars of America’s unbalanced and disaffected.” We pull upon the journals of the Columbine killers, whose notes were released by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office in 2006. They refer to moments of being bullied or feeling outcast before murdering 13 and injuring 21 on April 20, 1999. We point to the mental distress of Seung-Hui Cho, in what New York Times reporters Shaila Dewan and Marc Santora described as an “imbalance graphically on display in vengeful videos and a manifesto sent to NBC News,” before Cho killed 32 and injured 17 at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. We trace patterns—violent writing, depressive or reclusive behavior, obsessive infatuation with others—and we identify the paradigmatic school shooter: he (as King notes, mass school shooters are almost always male) is mentally distressed, angry, depressed, and sexually predatory.

Using this model, we educate our children on interpersonal communication, the importance of consent in all areas of life, and ask them about their emotions. Together, these create a blueprint to prevent students and children from reaching these states. This blueprint also encourages us to draw out, identify, hospitalize, or castigate those whose behaviors, upbringing, or social performativity veer too close to the school shooter identity. We tend to focus these characteristics into a model where mental illness or distress motivates violence, criminalizing mentally distressed students as possible future perpetrators of school shootings.

Teachers across the United States, ranging from early childhood educators to college professors, are trained in how to respond to what many colleges and universities call “students in distress.” In its “Essentials of School Threat Assessment” report, the state of Colorado, which has suffered mass shootings both at Columbine in 1999 and at the Century 16 Movie Theater in Aurora in 2012, argues that schools should assemble threat assessment teams including faculty, local police, and mental health professionals to monitor and respond to possibilities of violence. Upon observing warnings of potential violence, the team gathers information about the student involved ranging from “Any evidence of radicalization” to “Perceptions of being treated unfairly.” At the postsecondary level, staff and instructors at New York University, the University of California-Irvine, and other locations are described as having an “important” or “unique position to help identify and help students who are in distress.” Faculty and staff at NYU, for example, are told to email students after two “unexplained absences” or missed assignments and to talk with the student or contact the school’s Wellness Exchange if said student pursues “dangerous activities,” has a “loss of interest in schoolwork,” or makes “references to death or suicide in conversation, jokes or writings.” Some of these signs are easier to identify than others. Ominous student writing may be easier to monitor for college instructors than lack of interest or non-attendance. In our post-9/11 “See Something, Say Something” environment, the fear of tragedies like school shootings is compounded by the possibility that instructors, parents, or neighbors have “missed something.”

However, even in cases where schools and universities have implemented regular training and security protocols, such as locked entrances, metal detectors, or armed guards, violence still occurs. The December 13, 2013, shooting at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado, is a heartbreaking reminder of this. According to the Littleton Public School District’s Interrogatory Responses and the Arapahoe County Sherriff’s Office Summary Report, teachers and staff observed displays of bullying and threateningly violent behavior over the year and months leading to the event. These concerns were documented, and the student was unofficially suspended and removed from positions in extracurricular groups. The student’s mother had him psychologically assessed at a local facility where he was not recommended for in-patient treatment. The school psychologist worked with the staff, mother, and student to outline plans for future counseling and, deeming the student a “low-level threat,” allowed the student to return to classes. Not even two months later, he entered the school around lunch with a pump-action shotgun, shooting upon entering and yelling for a specific teacher with whom he had a history of grievances. He fatally wounded a classmate, threw a Molotov cocktail, and eventually committed suicide in the library.

The faculty, staff, and mother seemed to follow the suggestions made by the state—swiftly reporting and documenting concerns, having the student evaluated by multiple medical professionals, and removing the student from school. At least one student reported prior concerns to staff. Yet, the Littleton Public School District’s and Sherriff’s Office’s reports indicate that months of planning went into the attack, which the student meticulously recorded in a planner. As such evidence came out, some, including parents of victims of other school shootings, asked the student’s mother to account for her son or to speak about how she would have acted differently in hindsight. The suggestion of blame against the student’s mother follows a pattern of gendered assumptions about caretaking that Michael S. Melendez, Bronwen Lichtenstein, and Matthew J. Dolliver see as a trend affecting mothers of school shooters. In their 2016 article in the journal Deviant Behavior, they analyzed responses directed toward the mothers of Dylan Klebold and 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza, who murdered his mother Nancy Lanza beforehand. They found that while families of criminals often are framed as culpable because they “should have known” their relative would commit violence, mothers are much more likely to be singled out. Melendez, Lichtenstein, and Dolliver attribute this familial and maternal blaming to aggrandized ideological assumptions about motherhood and morality.

This link between parenting and child violence, however, is fictitious. Being an excellent parent or having heightened parental oversight does not guarantee that your child will not commit violence, and horrible or neglectful parenting is an equally fallible marker. In their Report on the Arapahoe High School Shooting: Lessons Learned on Information Sharing, Threat Assessment, and Systems Integrity, Sarah Goodrum and William Woodward argue that these narrowed claims of culpability ignore larger societal or structural influences and issues. Psychologist Laurence Steinburg affirms this, stating in an interview with The Denver Post’s Eric Gorski after the Arapahoe High School shooting that “good parenting cannot prevent violence or isolated mass shootings” because “there are just too many false positives.”

Yet, while there are patterns, school shootings are bursts of violence meant to disrupt. By their nature, they resist our attempts to read them scientifically. Nevertheless, we do gain much from these studies. As Goodrum and Woodward’s report demonstrates, we learn to increase securitization at our schools. We educate our children on how to avoid and react to violence, and we admit, though reluctantly, that children are aware of the pains of the world. Many of our children enter school having known violence already, whether through guns, discrimination, poverty, or hunger.

But despite what we learn from these reports about how to prevent gun violence in schools, it is perhaps time to admit that the changes we can make on our own are not enough. Armed guards and staff limit, but do not absolutely prevent gun violence (as many have debated in the past, referring to the armed guards at Columbine and Virginia Tech who undoubtedly protected many students, but whose presence did not prevent the attacks). Mental and emotional distress are not equivalent to violence, and assuming they always are constitutes profiling. If we attribute violent motivations to each student already experiencing distress, we not only risk further alienating a large percentage of students but also ignoring the other issues contributing to their distress.

Those in the education sector are encouraged to apply limited psychological knowledge gleaned from departmental meetings and institutional webpages to effectively police their students’ mental and emotional states. Some may have previous studies or personal experience that can help students; however, most in the education field are insufficiently trained to help a distressed student. We run the risks of misidentifying students and exacerbating an already stressful situation for the student and our classroom environments. While paying attention to student distress and acts of interpersonal violence are important, reading cases of school shooting tragedies as hinging upon demonstrations of mental illness or disability risks criminalizes students who experience distress.

Notably, however, experiencing distress or being a mental health service user does not preempt violent acts, nor is either a precondition for committing them. Jeffrey W. Swanson and Alan R. Felthous note in a 2015 article in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law that most individuals diagnosed with major mood and anxiety disorders “are never violent toward others, and most violent individuals do not suffer from these major mental disorders.” And there are many students who experience distress. The National Institute of Mental Health reported that in 2015 “an estimated 3 million adolescents” representing “12.5% of the US population aged 12 to 17” experienced at least one major depressive episode. They further report that 25.1 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds have reported an anxiety disorder, while 14 percent reported mood disorders. These trends continue for college-aged students, as shown by annual increases in the need for mental health services across US colleges and universities, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health. This data, while representing other areas of concern for our students, still does not offer insight into how to prevent school shootings.

Swanson and Felthous disabuse the possibility that mental or emotional distress tells us enough about a student to consider them a “threat,” writing that “the major risk factors for violence—being young, male, disadvantaged, and misusing substances, for example—are largely non-specific, which means that these risk factors are shared by many more people who are not violent than who are.” Given the information on mood and anxiety disorders affecting adolescents and children today, ostracizing so many students based on their mental and emotional distress is both impractical and illogical. In fact, as Margaret Price posits in her 2011 monograph Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, our moves to pathologize school shootings may tell us more about our societal fears than acts of violence themselves.

In assuming that students and others who use deadly weapons on school grounds are motivated by mental distress alone, we use a rhetoric of distress and violence that absolves us and diagnoses tragedies like school shootings as solely caused by an individual case of uncontrollable, unexplainable madness. This false sense of security that marks mental distress as a moral deficiency hinders us from looking at what else contributes to violence. As Price says, by recycling this narrative we “locate madness within the individual killers, marking the ‘crazy,’ ‘troubled’ aspects of their personalities, and hence reify ‘our’ (the putatively normal readers and creators of such representations) status as normates.” We consign violence to extreme individual mental or emotional experience and ignore at our continued peril the intersecting factors that contribute to mental distress (e.g., structural racial oppression, discrimination, poverty, and lack of access to education and healthcare). We dismiss larger questions about how violence is framed within the United States as a normative response to grievances. Ultimately, we blame the individual shooters, or in the case of their deaths, their mothers, and we “fix” any potential “gaps” along the illogical (non)linear narrative we imagine tracking this student’s way toward committing a school shooting.

Following the October 1, 2017, mass shooting in Las Vegas, politicians debated how to respond legislatively to the 489 wounded and 58 killed at the Route 91 Harvest Festival. As if on cue, reports began immediately pathologizing the Las Vegas shooter and looking for holes in the festival’s security plans.

The initial response surrounds the sale of bump fire systems, or “bump stocks,” which increase the rate of fire used by the shooter. Three days after the massacre, Representative David N. Cicilline (D-RI) introduced H.R. 3947 proposing the ban of bump stocks and other accessories that increase the rate of fire; by October 8 this bill had 164 cosponsors, all Democrats. The National Rifle Association released a statement on October 5 stating that such accessories “should be subject to additional regulations,” and President Trump along with other Republican officials have reported they will consider such bans in the future. Nevertheless, support for the ban is not unanimous, as the opposition of regulation on bump stocks by lobby groups such as the Gun Owners of America and the tepid support of Rep. Cicilline’s bill make clear. These proposed bans may follow historical tradition: no bill or resolution geared toward gun control or gun-violence prevention has passed or been introduced with significant bipartisan support since the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban (which expired in 2004).

Almost resignedly, I can’t help thinking about the final “steps” in Stephen King’s outline of school shootings:

Twenty-first, any bills to change existing gun laws, including those that make it possible for almost anyone in America to purchase a high-capacity assault weapon, quietly disappear into the legislative swamp.

Twenty-second, it happens again and the whole thing starts over.

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Hayley C. Stefan

Hayley C. Stefan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Connecticut. Her research explores disability, human rights, and memory in twentieth- and twenty-first-century multiethnic US literature and culture.