A school shooting expert told the governor’s commission Friday that future shootings are sometimes preventable because students often talk to others about their plans or leave clues on the Internet.
As the former chief research psychologist for 10 years at the U.S. Secret Service, Marisa Reddy Randazzo has studied 37 school shootings by 41 attackers that she summarized for the special commission.
All 41 attackers were males, and many of them felt bullied before their attacks. Many were extremely depressed to the point of considering or making suicide attempts. Many had easy access to weapons in their own homes or in those of relatives.
While the stereotype is that the shooters are males 14 to 17 who wear black clothing and listen to loud music, Randazzo says that description actually covers plenty of students who are not violent. She said there is no single profile of a school shooter, citing the study of incidents in 26 states that she co-authored with four other experts.
The most interesting speaker of the day was Randazzo, a threat assessment expert who has been studying threats for 17 years. She appeared via Skype and closed the door in her home while saying that her daughter doesn’t normally hear these types of grim details on school shootings, 37 incidents of targeted violence in schools by 41 attackers, and methods of prevention.
As managing partner of Sigma Threat Management Associates, Randazzo has researched violence extensively, including the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, and Secret Service assessments of threats to the President.
Among her major findings in a detailed study of school shootings was that the shooters – like in Newtown – had easy access to weapons from either their own home or a relative’s home.
Another major finding was that most shootings lasted less than five minutes – similar to the timeframe in Newtown that is believed to be about five minutes.
Another finding is that school attacks can be stopped because the shooter often talks about his plans in advance.
“We believe strongly that many school attacks can be prevented,” Randazzo said. “Because these are thought out in advance” and because the attackers often talk about the planned attack to their friends or online, some of the attacks can be stopped beforehand.
The school shooters are not necessarily loners, and some were among the most popular students in school, she said.
The profile of a school shooter, Randazzo said, is a young white male between the ages of 14 and 17 who wears black and likes to listen to loud music.
“We probably all know someone who fits that profile,” she said, adding that profiles are not always correct.
Regarding shooters in their early 20s, Randazzo said that most colleges fail to get any information from high schools about the students.
But a key similarity is that most of the cases were planned, often far in advance. And that planning allows other people to learn about the attacks and could potentially stop some of them.
“It’s different from most of the violence we see in society,” which is often impulsive violence, she said. “There are predictive models for impulsive violence.”
“We often hear no one could have seen this coming,” said Randazzo, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Williams College and master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton University. “Those are rarely the case – as we studied these 37 [school] attacks. … Instead of being impulsive, these are typically thought out in advance and planned out in advance. The planning for the attack at Columbine High School went on for well over a year and nearly two years. It’s often detectable.”
“They’re the end result of a logical progression of behavior,” she said.
“Then they move on to acquiring lethal means,” she said, referring to guns and pipe bombs in some cases.
Once a potential problem is identified, she said that the student could be directed to alternative schooling or home schooling.
She said she agrees with the message that was originally created by the New York City Transit Authority that “if you see something, say something.”
“When a teacher, when a parent, a staff member, a student, they are encouraged to go forward” and report a threat or concern, she said.
Randazzo’s study included talking to one of the school shooters in prison in Alaska and seeking answers on why the shooter resorted to violence. She told the following chilling story.
“He had been experiencing a fair amount of bullying in school for years,” Randazzo said of the school shooter in Alaska. “They put notes on his back. They would jam up his locker. … He went to his adoptive mother, who happened to be the superintendent of schools. … They initially addressed the three students who had been most involved [in the bullying]. … The bullying resumed shortly after that. The response at the time was: try to ignore it. The message was ignore it or solve the problem on your own.”
As a teen in Alaska, he believed that the way to solve the problem on his own was to bring a shotgun to school, Randazzo said. The student mentioned the situation to two friends, and he was told by his friends that he should not simply show the weapon but should fire the gun in school, Randazzo said.
“The target list at that point went from three to 14. They were really starting to add to the plan as well,” Randazzo said. “He had never used a weapon. He never loaded a weapon. … The night before, he wanted to keep a couple of his friends out of harm’s way.”
The boy then told a female friend that he would be bringing a gun to school the next day, and she responded by warning him against it and telling him that he would go to jail. That girl stayed home from school the next day.
Word spread quickly in Alaska about what the boy was going to do, and one student even brought a camera to take pictures of the shooting, Randazzo said. “The first thing he did was he told kids in the lobby ‘you better run,’ ” she said, before shooting at the ceiling at some points as he moved through the school.
“He shot and killed the principal at that point,” Randazzo said. “There was a lot of detailed information about what he was thinking of doing.”
Based on the case in Alaska and other cases, Randazzo said, “We believe strongly that prevention is possible.”
Another major finding of her study was that many of the shooters had suffered recent losses and major trauma, including a shooter whose mother was going through a divorce and told her child that she was considering committing suicide in front of her husband. Some of the shooters themselves thought about suicide or attempted suicide before going on a school shooting.
“We have legal tools to get them to an emergency psychological evaluation against their will” if a planned shooting is known in advance, she said.
“Some school shooters thought they could become famous in the process,” Randazzo said. “Some of them were neither a victim or a bully.”
Some of the chronic bullying could be characterized as “torment,” she said.
In another case, she said, “There were a group of students who were planning a school shooting in St. Louis.”
But police heard about the planning and moved quickly before it occurred.
“We know that students and peers may be critical” and might know in advance about the plans by their friends for violence, she said.
After focusing on guns for the past two months, the governor’s Sandy Hook Advisory Commission started tackling the difficult issue of mental health Friday with its first public hearing on the issue.
The 16-member commission has already made 42 recommendations on guns and school safety issues related to Adam Lanza’s shooting of 20 children and six female educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. While Lanza’s private medical records have not been released concerning any diagnosis, legislators believe that he was mentally disturbed.
Kim Pernerewski, the president of the Waterbury chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, said that teachers need to be aware of the issues facing their students.
“Are we missing the boat on teaching our teachers?” she asked. “They have a hard job out there.”
“I don’t want Newtown to happen again,” she said. “My God, what was in that kid’s mind? What happened? That poor father. What must he be going through now? Nobody wants to be that parent. … This is not just a gun issue. This goes deeper – much, much, much deeper. And trust me, I don’t like guns.”
The committee chairman, Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson, said that resolving mental health issues is not easy.
“There is no magic bullet solution,” he said.
The speakers Friday also included Louise C. Pyers, executive director of the nonprofit research group known as the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement, and Sgt. Christopher McKee from the Windsor Police Department’s crisis intervention team.
Statewide, there are 42 police departments that have crisis intervention teams, and another 30 departments are in the process of forming such teams in collaboration with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and NAMI of Connecticut. Those teams divert people with mental illness “to the services they need, rather than making an arrest,” Pyers said.
But Dr. Harold Schwartz, the vice president of behavioral health at Hartford Hospital and the psychiatrist-in-chief at the Institute of Living, said he was surprised that only 42 police departments had the program, adding that he will call West Hartford’s mayor to learn why his hometown police department is not on the list.
“Some department don’t understand what CIT is all about,” said Pyers, referring to crisis intervention teams. “Some think it is related to hostage negotiations. … They think, ‘We already have hostage negotiators, so we’re all set with that.’ ”
Pyers noted that the police officers themselves often need help because of the horrorific scenes they have witnessed. For both police officers and the victims’ families, the memories of Newtown will not go away soon.
“Every December 14, every birthday, Mother’s Day, they will be thinking about their children,” said Pyers, who has a family member with mental illness. ”This is not done in a year. … We know those families will need help, probably for the rest of their lives. And the police officers will, too.”
McKee said that police need to analyze particular situations “so we are not simply jumping to arrest.” Sometimes the person could be better served by a mobile crisis center, he said.
“You have some folks who are at the end of their rope and don’t know what to do” who can obtain help, McKee said.
“We’re all human beings, first and foremost,” said Officer Susan Brown, an 18-year veteran who serves on the crisis intervention team at the Windsor police department. “I don’t care who you are or how strong you think you are, nobody came out of that unaffected. … It will bother them for the rest of their lives. It bothers me. It happened on my birthday. I will remember that on my birthday every year. … We’re supposed to be tough. We’re supposed to be strong. But we’re human beings.”
Bowman added, “If you go to a psychiatrist, you might say it differently than you would say it to an officer. … Sometimes we can’t talk about those things at home.”
If an officer is calling in sick on a frequent basis, Bowman said, “They might be sick, or they might be hurting emotionally. … It also helps us maintain a healthy lifestyle. … Sometimes we do silly things that aren’t good for us – smoke. Years ago, every cop smoked. Now, we’re teaching cops to take care of themselves – mentally and physically.”
Bryan V. Gibb, a former classroom teacher in the California public schools who is now the director of public education for the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, appeared via Skype because he could not attend the hearing in Hartford. He talked about mental health first aid, which involves calming strategies if the person is in crisis or experiencing a panic attack at that moment. Nationwide, the group has more than 2,500 instructors, including some who have experienced mental illness themselves. New Mexico, Arizona, and Iowa are among the leaders in the field.
Connecticut has 24 instructors who have trained 1,441 people in mental health first-aid training courses, which have been held in Newington, Bethel, New Britain, Plainville, and others.
“Oftentimes, stigma can be a real barrier to treatment,” Gibb said.
When dealing with young people, he said that officials need to approach with open-ended questions in a nonjudgmental way, such as asking: “I can see you’re upset. Do you want to talk about it?”
“Individuals with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than the rest of the general population,” Gibb said.
Gibb quoted an actress who said, “Mental illness doesn’t separate us from the human race. It makes us part of the human race.”
Deron Drumm, the co-executive director of Advocacy Unlimited Inc., said that the mental health community is important in the overall picture in the same way that the NRA is invited to talk about gun issues.
“Our voice needs to be heard,” he said.
Earlier, Pernerewski said, “I can’t tell you the number of teachers who come up to me and want to talk to me privately, saying, ‘I have a family member. I have a friend. I have a student. I have a daughter.’ They’re dealing with an awful lot of guilt. They feel like they’ve done something wrong. … That’s the hardest thing to get across. It’s not your fault.”
She said there are numerous resources to obtain information about mental health, including The Children and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation.
“There are groups out there that can help you,” she said, adding that her son is involved in the mental health system.
“As a country and a state, we tend to talk about empathy,” she said. “We don’t empathize sometimes, and we forget about it later on. … We forget that there are people out there who hurt every single day. … That’s what it’s all about. It’s about empathizing with people.”
Dr. Ezra H. Griffith, a psychiatry professor and senior research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, asked about the insurance coverage problems with pediatric psychiatrists and other health professionals.
If the charge is $160 per visit, the psychiatrist often gets $60 because of the reduced reimbursement rates , Pernerewski said.
Griffith spoke later about colleges not getting information about students from the high schools.
“I have not been impressed that universities handle the information very well,” Griffith said. ”The deans of students just panic and do some pretty outrageous things. They exclude the person from the university. I don’t know if you know it, but that’s what they do.”
Regarding Randazzo’s presentation about threat assessment teams, Dr. Adrienne Bentman of the Institute of Living said, “I think this is an extraordinarily valuable presentation. Her description of the Alaskan school shooting … you can envision those as dramatic augmentations” of students not thinking thoroughly about what they are hearing in school and not reporting it.