How You Can Help Prevent Another School Shooting

Experts list the signs to look for before notifying authorities.

In the wake of Monday's deadly shootings at Red Lake High School in Minnesota, one of the biggest questions being asked is how to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.

Unfortunately, violence is a major cause of concern for young people, with one in 12 high school students being threatened or injured with a weapon each year, according to the American Psychological Association, and homicide ranking as the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 24, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. But there are steps people can take to stop some violent outbursts before they occur, but only if students, teachers and authorities know what to be looking for.

First it should be said that any list of risk factors needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The rush to label certain behaviors can lead to overreaction and increased stigmatization. There is no one explanation for youth violence, and many different factors and behaviors can feed into an individual's decision to carry out such an act. In fact, most of the factors that can contribute to violence are those that many students face — this includes peer pressure, the need for attention, feelings of low self-worth, abuse or neglect during early childhood, and observing violence at home, in the community or in the media.

According to Dr. Russ Newman, executive director of the American Psychological Association's Practice Directorate, factors that may lead to violence can be seen in behaviors that occur over a long period of time as well as in other more urgent, short-term behaviors. Longer-term warning signs include having a history of aggressiveness, drug and alcohol issues, gang membership, fascination with weapons, and withdrawal or isolation over a period of time, said Newman, who added that having been a victim of bullying, experiencing poor school performance or discipline problems may also feed into a larger problem.

"There's a whole variety of signs that don't come together in the same way for every individual," he said. "Research has found that individuals that have a plan and announce that plan are more likely to carry it out. Some research has found that a large majority of individuals that have been engaged in violent activity had a plan and told other people or more than one person about it."

An FBI threat-assessment report prepared in 2000 dubbed the phenomenon "leakage" — the signaling of a possible impending violent act, whether it be conscious our unconscious actions that reveal plans, fantasies or thoughts of violence. A preoccupation with destruction in a student's writings and artwork, especially those focused around themes of hatred, weapons, prejudice and other destructive fascinations, may be harmless, or it may be a clue to an unhealthy obsessive behavior. The FBI's report cites a case in which a student soon to become violent was asked to bake something for a home economics class. He made a cake shaped like a gun.

Aside from announcement of a plan, the American Psychological Association's list of immediate warning signs includes a recurring loss of temper, frequent physical fighting, vandalism or property damage, use of drugs or alcohol, an increase in risk-taking behavior, animal abuse, and weapons possession.

Indeed, school shootings tend to be followed by intense debates over the prevalence of guns in the United States. A Surgeon General report on youth violence prepared in 2001 found that "from 1990 to 1995, the U.S. had the highest rate of firearm-related deaths among youths in the industrialized world. The rate for children below age 15 was five times higher than that of 25 other countries combined."

In Monday's rampage, the deadliest since Colorado's Columbine High School shootings in April 1999, the attacker stole his gun from his grandfather, a veteran policeman (see "FBI: Minnesota Shooter Acted Alone, Chose Victims At Random"). Jeff Weise, 16, was a quiet kid from a fractured home who had problems in school and was often picked on, those who knew him say. He also liked to draw skeletons and talked about death "all the time" (see "Minnesota High School Shooter Lived Troubled, Lonely Life").

Because there is no one single cause or warning sign, there is no single solution. What do you do if someone you know has displayed some of these warning signs? The most important thing to do is to ask for help.

"Go talk to somebody who you trust, an adult you trust and respect," Newman advised. "Don't try to make a decision yourself or try to intervene, but try to convey what is going on to an authority who can look into this further."

The American Psychological Association has more information on the warning signs of youth violence on their Web site.

If you ever see a student carrying a weapon or hear talk of plans for violence, you can anonymously call (866) SPEAK-UP toll free and the tip will be forwarded to the proper local authorities.