SAN DIEGO —School shooters don’t operate on impulse, they are planners — and that planning time could permit an intervention that might prevent tragedy, said nationally renowned forensic psychiatrist Philip Resnick, MD, professor of psychiatry at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. 

Hundreds of attendees at Psych Congress 2019 packed a ballroom to attend a late day master class dissecting the psychology of mass murder — specifically school shooters. 

School shootings are occurring at a rate of once a month, Resnick said, and there are similarities among the perpetrators:

  • All are boys.
  • Most are enrolled in the school that they target.
  • Revenge is the universal motive — and the target of that revenge is a teacher, not fellow students.

Another common thread is that the shooting is planned. “They plan for 2 days to a year… Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, planned for 2 years,” he explained. 

That planning period could make intervention possible, which is why identifying the potential risk is so important. 

And, although parents rarely know that their sons are planning mass murder, “80% of the time, other students know, and in some cases, they are encouraging the shooter. In one case 24 other students knew… in another case, a shooter told friends that he planned to bring a gun to school to show how tough he was, but they told him, ‘that won’t work, you should use the gun, shoot it, to show how tough you are.’” 

Resnick explained that he is often asked by reporters to describe the profile of a school shooter, “but there is no profile. We need to focus on behavior, not on a profile. For example, two-thirds of school shooters are from tw0-parent families, two-thirds have no prior records, no school problems. In rare cases, astute teachers will identify them. 

“The Virginia Tech shooter was always writing essays about killing people. Other students were so spooked by this that they stopped coming to class, so the professor went to his department head and asked to have Seung-Hui Cho (the shooter) removed from the class. The department chair thought the professor may have been exaggerating and he ended up tutoring Cho.” 

In the case of Cho, the error, Resnick said, was the failure to recognize that Cho was posing a threat, which is “not the same as making a threat, but posing a threat should not be ignored.” 

Assuming that the threat is recognized, that is the opportunity for mental health professionals to intervene. 

“The family needs to be interviewed,” Resnick said. “There is a possibility of them being aware of the danger, although not likely. Other students should also be interviewed, but that must be done very discretely, because if other learn of the suspicion, the child will be stigmatized.” 

It is especially important to conduct a complete search of cyberspace — phones, computers, email, texts, search history. 

Common behaviors among shooters are feelings of desperation, attempted suicide, feelings of rejection, and belief that they are being bullied — Resnick noted that 75% of shooters reported being bullied, “but that is not always supported by the facts. These are often people who self-isolate and imagine slights when there are none.” 

The U.S. Attorney’s office reached out to Resnick to assess Ted Kaczynski, the s0-called Unabomber, and Resnick cited his experience with Kaczynski to make a point about revenge, and the tendency to magnify slights. He reviewed 22-thousand pages of information as part of that assessment, including a 150-page diary. 

“Kaczynski had an IQ of 167, he skipped two grades in school, and he entered Harvard when he was 15. When he was at Harvard, he went to a dining hall for lunch and he sat at a table by himself. A group of students — male and female — was at another table and they discussed an upcoming dance. A girl was asked about her date for the dance and she said, ‘I’m going with Ted.’ One of the male students pointed at Kaczynski and asked, ‘Are you going with him?’ The girl replied, ‘Are you crazy?” and she named another Ted. In the diary, Kaczynski wrote that he decided then — right at that moment, when he was 15 — that he was going to get revenge against those students and everyone else.” 

Finally, Resnick gave the audience detailed instructions for what they should do if they learn that a potential school shooter has access to a gun. “First you need to remember to ask about guns in the home,” he wrote. “If there are guns in the home, you should not rely on the interviewee to remove them. You must reach out to the parents to ask them to remove the guns — and you must document that you have done that.” 


Written by Peggy Peck, Editor-in-Chief, BreakingMED, is a service of @Point of Care, LLC, which provides daily medical news reports curated to serve the unique needs of busy physicians and other healthcare professionals.