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School shootings: It's hard to spot the warning signs. Prevention steps can help


We want to start today with a conversation that may be tough to hear but also important to listen to. It's inspired by last week's deadly shooting at a high school in Oxford Township, Mich. That was the 29th school shooting in the U.S. this year. That's according to Education Week. The suspect, a 15-year-old, is being charged as an adult for the deaths of four of his fellow students at the high school. Six other students and a teacher were also injured.

The decision to charge him as an adult was unusual given the suspect's age. The decision to charge his parents with involuntary manslaughter was also unusual. Certain other aspects of the case, however, reflect an all-too-common pattern in school shootings, a pattern of alarming behavior by a suspect before the shooting ever happens and a pattern of opportunities missed to intervene and possibly prevent the tragic outcome.

So why is it so hard to know when to intervene? And why so many shootings? Jillian Peterson has spent years seeking answers to just those questions. She is a co-founder of The Violence Project, a nonprofit research center dedicated to analyzing the life histories of mass shooters. Jillian Peterson, thanks for joining us today.

JILLIAN PETERSON: Thanks so much for having me.

FOLKENFLIK: We mentioned there have been 29 school shootings this year. The year's not quite concluded. Is that a lot?

PETERSON: It is a lot. We have also been tracking school shootings and also threats of school shootings. And both are at absolute record highs this year compared to other years.

FOLKENFLIK: At The Violence Project, you've worked up a detailed database of the life histories of 180 mass shooters and the patterns that connect their behavior, their past, their backgrounds. Walk me through what's a sadly typical path to such violence.

PETERSON: Yeah. The thing about the Oxford shooting is that the circumstances of this case are so similar to what we've uncovered over and over and over again. It tends to be a 15- or 16-year-old white male student of the school. Oftentimes, they have a significant trauma history. They are in a noticeable crisis. So their behavior is changing, and it's being noticed by people around them. Often, they're actively suicidal. And they leak their plans. They tell other people. They post about it on social media. They write about it as a cry for help, in this case, a literal cry for help. He wrote, help me.

FOLKENFLIK: Right. The boy drew pictures of a gun. He sort of foreshadowed the idea of violence would occur and wrote, help me.

PETERSON: Yes. And we see that again and again.

FOLKENFLIK: It suggests that there are signs school officials, counselors, other adults can look for to identify students who may be hitting those crisis points. What might some of those signs be?

PETERSON: Our research shows that a crisis is really a change in behavior from baseline. So it's just the student acting differently than they normally do and then any sort of fascination with school shootings, with past shootings, with violence, any sort of leakage about threatening violence towards themselves or others. But really, that crisis is a noticeable change in behavior. And it's always easier after the fact to identify that. But what we advocate for is teams and systems in schools so it doesn't fall on any one person's shoulders to be the one to evaluate how serious this is. But you want a crisis response team with mental health professionals, teachers, administrators, law enforcement, people who can say, OK, how serious is this, and how quickly do we need to intervene and with what?

FOLKENFLIK: Why is it so difficult for us to register and catch warning signs in the moment and do something with it?

PETERSON: It's such a hard question. Schools are strapped for resources. They're strapped for time. They don't have necessarily school-based mental health professionals who can jump right in and do an assessment. So part of this is really building the systems and giving schools the resources that they need to adequately investigate these. A lot of times, it ends up being law enforcement that looks into it. Is it an immediate threat or not? And if it's not, there's kind of - that's it.

FOLKENFLIK: And so instead, what you encourage is what?

PETERSON: So things like suicide prevention, having everybody in the school trained in suicide prevention and crisis intervention, having school-based mental health right there, easily accessible, having relationships with community providers but really having the time and space and people whose job it is to dig into these threats, to do the assessments, and to really deeply understand what's going on with the student who's saying that, why they're saying it and what they need, and then have continued follow-up.

FOLKENFLIK: You also said that a consistent part of the pattern was the availability of guns. How do you think about that as you approach it in your research?

PETERSON: Yeah. That is absolutely a key component because the majority of school shooters, the majority of school mass shooters, the guns they're bringing to the scene they've taken from their family and friends because they're not secured. I mean, in this case, it's even more egregious, where they actually bought him and handed him the gun. But gun laws, things like universal background checks and assault weapon bans and the laws that we tend to talk about after mass shootings, they're less relevant when it comes to school shootings because these are kids not buying guns. These are kids taking guns from their family members. And in many ways, that's an easier problem to solve. Requiring safe storage is something we can do without needing major acts of Congress.

FOLKENFLIK: We should note in the Oxford Township School shooting that the parents of the accused shooter have pleaded not guilty in the charges of involuntary manslaughter.

We've been listening to the voice of Jillian Peterson. She's co-founder of The Violence Project and associate professor of criminal justice at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. Jillian Peterson is also the co-author of the book "The Violence Project: How To Stop A Mass Shooting Epidemic" that came out earlier this fall.

Professor Peterson, thanks so much for joining us.

PETERSON: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.