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Part I: Understanding the Trauma of the School Shootings Epidemic—Why?

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support

Since the first widely publicized school shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, more than 233,000 students have been exposed to gun violence. The shooting that occurred yesterday in Santa Clarita, CA was the 7th since the start of the academic year only 3 months ago (Nakaji Monnier, Duan, Balingit, & Mettler, 2019). Last year, there were 82 school shootings, the highest number in nearly five decades (CDC, 2019). In addition to the tragedy of losing young, innocent lives, these shootings traumatize the students who go to a school where one occurs as well as other students across the nation who read or hear news of the events.

Why Do They Shoot?

There is no one factor that we can point to for an explanation of why students bring a gun to their school and shoot their classmates and/or teachers. Instead, a variety of factors—personality as well as family, school, and social dynamics—contribute to the likelihood of a student becoming a school shooter (O’Toole, n.d.). Youth are being diagnosed with anxiety and depression at higher rates than previously seen (CDC, 2019); however, we know that is not the impetus for most school shooters.

While a popular talking point in the media may be that school shooters always have a mental illness, that is not supported by any data. Vanderbilt University Psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl told PBS News, “Most of the research shows that people with mental illness are actually less likely than the general population to go on to shoot somebody else or to commit mass violence.” He said that the most common characteristics of school shooters—being male, white, and angry—would match hundreds of thousands of students (Akpan, 2019). However, according to an FBI profiling investigation (O’Toole, n.d.), there are common characteristics in school shooters that highlight warning signs educators can look for to intervene. These include:

  1. Threats of violent behavior

  2. Brooding about frustration or disappointment

  3. Fantasies of destruction or revenge (in conversations, drawings, etc.)

  4. Low tolerance for frustration

  5. Lack of resiliency

  6. Dehumanizing Others

  7. Access to Weapons

If schools recognize multiple signs in any student, they can make an effort to facilitate relationship building between that student and staff as well as other students. Implementing a bullying prevention program can provide structure for this process. Research shows that most school shooters felt victimized by other students, teachers, or administrators (Akpan, 2019).

How Can We Prevent School Shooters?

The FBI warns, however, that “when…a very large number of people have identifiable risk factors, there is no reliable way to pick out from that large group the very few who will actually commit the violent act” (O’Toole, n.d.). Because of that, they recommend that educators, community members, and families work together to ensure that all students have someone looking out for them so that no student reaches a point where they believe violence will solve their problems.

We have shown that if communities, schools, government, and other key players pull together to address the roots of violence, we can make America safer for our children. Communities around the country are proving that prevention and intervention strategies that help keep our young people out of trouble do work. It is, therefore, critical that we do all we can to identify young people who need our help, and then get them the help they need. Janet Reno, former Attorney General of the United States

Schools can do their part by implementing a variety of compassionate community building activities and programs that help prevent these tragedies. These programs include ones like Hillsboro-Deering High School’s Red Blanket Project, where teachers identified students with whom they had significant relationships. When the staff finished the activity, they realized that some students didn’t have a connection to a single adult in the building; some didn’t have anyone outside of the school either. Those students became a high priority for administration and staff at the school.

Sometimes, helping a student who has experienced a trauma feel safe in the school building starts with them feeling safe with one person.

School Culture and Shootings

The FBI also found that schools that experienced a shooting had some common characteristics (O’Toole, n.d.). These include:

  1. Tolerance for Bullying & Disrespectful Behavior. “Bullying is part of the school culture and school authorities seem oblivious to it, seldom or never intervening or doing so only selectively.”

  2. Inequitable Discipline. This can be real or perceived inequity.

  3. Inflexible Culture. Policies, patterns of behavior, and values do not change as society progresses.

  4. Pecking Order Among Students. Educators and students treat some students as more important than others.

  5. Code of Silence. Lack of trust between students and staff make students feel uncomfortable reporting peers’ troubling behavior.

  6. Unsupervised Computer Access. Students at-risk for perpetuating violence can access dangerous hate groups and instructions for bomb making with unfiltered internet access.

Schools wishing to prevent these events from occurring on their campuses can assess and improve their school culture, especially in the areas of compassion, inequity, and community. CEI is helping schools in New England do just that by using the School Culture Analytic Tool for Educators to identify growth areas and use our research-informed recommendations to improve those aspects of their school culture. Join the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative to access resources to help your school become a compassionate community. Part II will explain how to respond to school shootings.


Apkan, N. (2019, August 7). Why mental illness can’t predict mass shootings. Public Broadcasting Service News.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2019). Data and statistics on children’s mental health. CDC.

Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG) & National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC). (n.d.). The school shooter: A threat assessment perspective. Quantico, VA: Federal Bureau of Investigate (FBI) Academy.

Garcia-Navarro, L., Alvarez Boyd, S., & Diubek, J. (2019, November 10). Experts worry active shooter drills in schools could be traumatic for students. National Public Radio.

Nakaji Monnier, M., Duan, C., Balingit, M., & Mettler, K. (2019, November 14). Two dead, at least 4 injured in shooting at a Los Angeles-area high school; suspect in custody. The Washington Post.


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