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School Shootings Are Preventable. It Begins With Understanding Reputation

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Today's guest blog is co-authored by Professor Annemarie Carroll, University of Queensland, Laureate Professor John Hattie, University of Melbourne, and Professor Stephen Houghton, University of Western Australia

Since 2000, there have been more than 150 school shootings in the US, leading to 200 deaths.  The presence of guns, the publicity from each shooting, and the malaise and motives of the killers are all linked. Our research over the last 20 years, however, shows that there are further major underlying causes, and if we know and react to these, we can prevent many mass shootings.

So many adolescents have access to guns, are bullied, and want revenge, but do not resort to killing their peers and teachers. 

To prevent mass school shootings carried out by teenagers we need to understand the psyche of those who commit these murders. Common amongst these atrocities is the killer's desire to enhance their reputation. This yearning for peer recognition and enhanced status is a common cause of adolescent crime and general behaviour among the gifted, through to athletes, and class jokesters. For those who carry out mass school shootings, the visibility created by media coverage provides a vehicle through for them to obtain the notoriety they crave.

This was highlighted recently by acclaimed US Forensic Psychiatrist Park Dietz who warned that the media were creating anti-heroes. Front line police officers such as Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlan have also urged the media to avoid glorifying or sensationalising mass school shooters for fear of giving them credit for horrific acts of cowardice.

Our two decades of research clearly demonstrates the importance of reputation among peers to adolescents as a key underlying mechanism for their goals and behaviour. Traditionally, an immediate audience was essential to attain a reputation of choice. The act needed to be directly witnessed or communicated to others. However, the introduction and widespread use of social media now means that a physical audience is not essential. School shooters now gain instantaneous worldwide notoriety and in some instances, adulation and copycats.

Teenagers work to craft their desired image and the social media often allows people to present themselves in any way they wish. As Stephen Emler and Nicholas Reicher eloquently argued, "reputation is a consequence not a cause of action... people do not merely have reputations, they also seek to manage their reputations."

Mass Shootings are Preventable
Many mass shootings are preventable, provided we know and react to the early warning signs. School shooters often work alone or in pairs, building up sets of beliefs about themselves - as warriors, as protectors or as avengers of past wrongs. Rather than engage with a range of friends, they secret themselves in a closed world and seek relief in violent computer games, chat sites and online social networks. They often create and save manifestos on their computers, to be shared with the world after the event. They build a world where they have some control, and most important some recognition from peers for their beliefs.

Their high level planning is often unemotional, purposeful and lacks empathy for anyone in their way, and they perceive themselves as masculine and gutsy. In isolating themselves they are skilled at avoiding the attention of parents and teachers. In some cases, parents inadvertently provide resources by teaching them to shoot guns safely and for enjoyment or leaving them alone in their rooms to feed their belief system. Most school shooters come from families with legal guns.

They increasingly protect and safeguard their plans as the event comes closer, making it harder to detect. However they often hint or leak the shooting event in anticipation of their enhanced reputation. Eventually they execute the shooting in an attempt to show all of their peers that this reputation is deserved and should be recognised. In their barbarity they are screaming "See me, I am real, I am smart, I do have a manifesto, I am able to dominate and control others, and I should be respected.  See me, I have extensively planned for this occasion and you now know I am seriously worth paying attention to." 

In the End
We should pay more attention to adolescent peers who often see the warning signs. Young people often identity those capable of committing heinous violent crimes, and label them as "weird" or strange or not to be messed with.

Every teenager strives for a reputation so we (fellow students, parents, teachers) need to be aware of their attempts to enhance their status. We need to listen to them, ask about their friends, spend time with them, and learn how they wish to be esteemed. Around a third of all teenagers struggle to get the peer recognition that they seek, and this often leads to disengagement and the building of internal worlds to feed their Walter Mitty reputations. Adolescent school shooters rarely have a history of drug abuse, violence, crime or animal cruelty, but often have grievances against at least one of their targets, and aim for a very public rampage.

After a shooting takes place, the media must also take responsibility with their reporting to not glorify the shooter by giving kudos through names, photographs and continual coverage of the event - including the growing tally of injured or dead (particularly as the number helps de-personal the real people who have become victims). The media's current approach of reporting mass school shootings makes it clear that you can not only become a household name and receive a reputation as a mass murderer, but you can also achieve infamy through notoriety. This is feeding the next teenager searching for a reputation among his peers. 

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock. 

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