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Stopping school shootings before they start

Behavioral experts weigh in on the importance of relationships

A student (right) hugs a man after a school shooting at East High School in Denver. Associated Press/Photo by David Zalubowski

Stopping school shootings before they start

Aaron Stark was almost a school shooter.

Growing up, he didn’t have reliable access to clean clothes or functioning household utilities. His family made near-constant moves between states like Oregon and Colorado, running away from legal problems. In his brief stays at over 40 different schools, Stark found it nearly impossible to build relationships, and he was bullied for his weight and body odor.

When a school counselor or child services began to ask too many questions, his family would move again. Things were worse at home. Years of abuse—particularly from his mother—pushed him to embrace the belief that he was a monster beyond redemption, beyond desirability. One day while driving home from a failed attempt to reach out to social services, Stark’s mother offered to buy him the razor blades herself.

Something inside Stark snapped. “I felt like a walking bomb ready to explode,” he told me.

He wanted to punish his parents for creating him. Stark narrowed down an attack site—either a school cafeteria or a mall food court. He made plans to buy a firearm and said goodbye to the people around him.

But that bomb inside him never went off.

Today, some 25 years later, Stark is a gas station manager, keynote speaker, father, and husband. He still carries the scars of that dark period but also a unique understanding of the mindset that can lead someone to become a school shooter. He says the decision to pull a trigger is the last link in a long line of events that have gone horribly wrong.

While the national conversation often focuses on gun rights and gun control in the aftermath of a shooting, behavioral and emotional health red flags can play in identifying people at risk of committing violence. Much of the work needed to prevent school shootings has to happen on a relational level, long before police or policy makers get involved.

Brian Van Brunt, an expert in behavioral intervention, threat assessment, and mental illness, has worked with dozens of schools to help teachers identify students at serious risk of harming themselves or others. He said that most school shooters—and those like Stark who came close to becoming one—share similar backgrounds.

“The list is pretty short. It’s suicide, depression, and hopelessness,” Van Brunt said. “Nearly every single mass casualty attack that we’ve seen in the U.S. has a high level of [these three elements] attached to it.”

According to The Violence Project, 15 mass shootings with four or more victims have taken place at K-12 schools in the United States since 1966, culminating in 146 deaths and 201 injuries. The median age of the attackers was 18. Twelve of them had existing relationships with the place of their attack. None of them were reported to hold jobs. Eleven had an identifiable mental illness, and seven had expressed a desire to commit suicide. All but one communicated their intent to do harm prior to their attack. Seven developed noticeable isolationist tendencies. Four experienced sexual abuse. And thirteen displayed an obsession with firearms.

Van Brunt said none of those behaviors necessarily outline a threat on its own. But when a few of them start to layer on each other, they can create a more troubling picture—especially in the absence of counterbalancing “protective” factors like strong friendships or a supportive family.

Before he killed 26 students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, Adam Lanza, 20, displayed many of those risk factors. He became obsessed with mass murders, blacked out the windows of his bedroom, exhibited social disabilities, malnourished himself to the point of organ damage, and would only communicate with his mother through email. Nikolas Cruz, 19, wrote violent stories on the internet, threatened to kill himself, and only interacted with people online. In 2018, he killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

While the signs can vary by shooter, Rachel Andrews said that isolation is a particularly powerful indicator, one that can drive students toward online communities with an attraction to violent tendencies. As a mental health and wellness counselor at Redondo Union High School in Redondo Beach, Calif., she looks for struggling students and helps them develop positive connections.

“We know that in cases where students are homicidal, they’re suicidal first,” Andrews said. “They feel like they have no agency, no control.”

She encourages schools and parents to tell students which red flags to look for and to inquire about and report abnormal behavior.

“If you have your student body trained on how to recognize the signs for depression and suicide, you can get to those kids before that pain becomes anger, before that sadness turns to rage,” Andrews said.

Van Brunt emphasized that these children, despite struggling with incredibly dark thoughts, are still people—not monsters. In a report he co-authored for the International Alliance for Care and Threat Teams, Van Brunt explained that treating a child as an alien can decrease the likelihood of reaching them with help and increase their feelings of isolation.

“If I am feeling the same things other attackers are, and they are monsters, then I am a monster,” the report explained.

Inversely, the label can make it harder for those around a student to identify dangerous behavior. “Well, only evil monsters do this. Kyle isn’t an evil monster, so he must be joking,” the report continued.

Dr. Karl Benzio has testified before state legislatures, Congress, and the White House about behavioral health, physician-assisted suicide, and more. As a Christian psychiatrist, he believes no one is ever “too far gone”—something the church needs to remember when looking at something as dark and daunting as school shootings and the people who carry them out.

“In order for us to make a wrong decision, we have a lie or deception stored in our [mind] that makes the logical option seem illogical,” he said. “So when we’re looking for how a person got this way, we need to understand what’s going on … we need to help individual people do that.”

For Stark, the help came from a friend who offered him small gestures of care in his darkest moment. He invited Stark into his home, watched a movie with him, and offered him a shower. Those acts, Stark said, stopped a would-be killer in his tracks.

“You can arm all the teachers, you can put bars on all the doors and you can have the same effect you can get from one afternoon hanging out with a kid and asking ‘How are you doing?’ and having a pizza,” Stark said. “The one thing that saved me was someone looking at me like I was a person when I felt absolutely inhuman.”

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD politics reporter based in Washington, D.C. He’s a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and has a degree in political journalism from Patrick Henry College.


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