Arapahoe High School – Sandy Hook Elementary – Columbine: The mere mention of these schools brings back horrific memories of the unthinkable: Children and teenagers shot and killed in places where they are supposed to be safe. Along with those memories is an ongoing question: What can be done to prevent this from happening again?
Anne Mitchell, a Boulder, Colo., attorney, contemplated that question as she followed news coverage of the December shooting at Arapahoe High School. By the next morning, she had a plan. Mitchell founded an organization – Preventing School Shootings. On the organization’s website, she defined her intentions.
“I woke up with the realization that the key to preventing school shootings is in the commonalities unique to school shooters, how they have so much in common that it should be possible to put together a profile of a youth who could be on the path to becoming a school shooter, and identifying them in time to intervene.”
Mitchell assembled a team of experts in the law, sociology, behavioral psychology, behavioral profiling and law enforcement. The group will analyze data from school shooting incidents, as well as conduct interviews with parents, teachers, classmates and others who interacted with previous school shooters.
“We are looking to determine the constellation of factors that would push a child to go down the school shooting path, so that schools can effect prevention through intervention,” Mitchell said in an email to The New Falcon Herald. “Put another way, if you can predict it, you can prevent it. One of the things that makes school shootings so scary is that they are so seemingly random. But we believe that they are predictable, once you know what to look for.”
Mitchell outlined what she said is unique to her organization. “To the best of our knowledge, we are the only organization that is focusing specifically on school shootings, and also the only organization that is coming at it from a purely prophylactic perspective.” She said the group will keep an open mind when it comes to factors like bullying, which could contribute to a youth’s decision to become a shooter. “We are not assuming that bullying is a factor or that it isn't. We are in the research and data gathering phase, so we are going to let the data inform us.”
Once common socio-academic factors are identified, Mitchell said her group will assemble a profile of children at risk for potentially becoming school shooters and will share that information with schools and other institutions. In an age of privacy concerns, Mitchell said, “Looking at factors for youth at risk is already something that school administrators, teachers and counselors do every day. They already use this sort of methodology for determining if a student is at risk with alcohol, drugs, joining a gang, etc. The people who work with these kids day in and day out, this is what they do – watching out for their students. They just need to know what to look for, and that's where we come in.
“We expect to find that these kids – the ones who turn into school shooters – generally felt very unheard. Unaffirmed. Marginalized. It's quite possible, perhaps even probable, that in some cases just having someone in the school pay attention to them in a positive way, and ‘take them seriously,’ would go a very long way to helping them and preventing that ultimate act.”
Retired FBI profiler Pete Klismet of Colorado Springs has a personal connection that prompted him to join Mitchell as a co-founder of the Preventing School Shootings organization. He was assigned to the FBI office in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1991 when a foreign student opened fire at the University of Iowa, killing five people and injuring one before turning the gun on himself. “When I first found out about it, I may have broken a speed limit or two getting there, because I knew my daughter was in class right about that time. That will make a shooting like this very personal,” Klismet wrote in an email to the NFH.
Klismet has conducted 20 years of research on school shooters. “That research and my background in profiling violent crimes, which these obviously are, should present the group with a well-grounded position on the reality of how this can and does occur,” he said. “We are now averaging 16 of these per year, almost double from a couple decades ago. It's not getting better, and someone needs to gain an understanding of what these kids are all about and what we might be able to do to prevent future (shootings).”
Mitchell said, “These school shooters are just kids themselves ... that is one of the things that makes this so heartbreaking. As we are trying to get across to people, nobody is born a school shooter – they are made. We aim to facilitate these kids getting intervention before they turn into school shooters.”
The Preventing School Shootings website is http://preventingschoolshootings.com.