The myth of the school shooter profile

So far, the media has been pretty responsible in avoiding myth-creation in the Virginia murders--they've come a long way since Columbine. But it's been frustrating to watch one major myth continue: that there a profile exists of the typical school shooter. What's worse, the cornerstone of this myth--that the shooters are all loners--is also wrong.

The most heinous example came on The CBS Evening News, where Wyatt Andrews' piece perpetuating the myth was built around the very study that debunked it. Wyatt began by saying that Cho Seung-Hui "fits almost to a tee, a U.S. Secret Service profile of the typical school shooter."

That's funny. The central idea of the Secret Service study was that no such profile exists--and it says so, explicitly and unequivocally, right in the overview:  "There is no accurate or useful 'profile' of students who engaged in targeted school violence" (which is how they define school shooters--p. 11). How much clearer could they get?

In case you missed it in the overview, the exact quote is repeated as the very first line of the "Characterizing the Attacker Section" on p. 19. And just to be absolutely sure, the explanation then begins by restating it this way: "Although all of the attackers in this study were boys, there is no set of traits that described all or even most of the attackers."

Wyatt's next point was that "most school attacks, the report said, come from loners with some kind of grievance." His point was repeated on-screen with a graphic that said "Most attacks: loners with grievance." Actually, the said that most are not loners.

No, seriously. I don't know what report Wyatt was reading, but the one he cited has a little section on the attackers social relationships on p. 20, where it says "The largest group of attackers for whom this information was available appeared to socialize with mainstream students or were considered mainstream students themselves (41 percent, n=17).

Later in that section it specifically addresses loners: "One-third of attackers had been characterized by others as 'loners,' or felt themselves to be loners (34 percent, n=14). One-third--meaning two-thirds did not. So most school shooters are not loners, outnumbering those who are two-to-one--yet Wyatt insists the report made the opposite conclusion.

I stared at the screen speechless. How he could so dramatically misrepresent the main findings of the report was beyond me.

He was correct on the point that the study found 71 percent of the attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others prior to the incident.

The loner myth has been going on all day. CNN was talking about it all morning--how these shooters all turn out to be outcasts and loners. No, what actually happens is that the media got the loner/outcast narrative down years ago, and always jumps to that conclusion, so the repetition convinces them that it's true. In the Virginia case it's looking like it was true--however, in Columbine, and two-thirds of the other cases, it was a wild misconception.

The larger point is that the media does the public a major disservice by trying to convince us that there is such a thing a particular profile that these shooters fit. They try to fit all these ghastly events into a single personality type that we can be afraid of, but it's just not so.

The other major study of school shooters was conducted by the FBI, and it came to exactly the same conclusion--and warned of the dangers of this behavior by the press. One of the first major points in its introduction was:

"One response to the pressure for action may be an effort to identify the next shooter by developing a `profile' of the typical school shooter. This may sound like a reasonable preventive measure, but in practice, trying to draw up a catalogue or `checklist' of warning signs to detect a potential school can be shortsighted, even dangerous" (p. 2).

So really, stop already.


The study cited by CBS above is online here (It was actually a joint study by the Secret Service and Department of Education. It studied all 37 cases of school shooters between 1974 and 2000, using a very reasonable definition of school shooter.)

The FBI report is here

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    When will your book (5.00 / 2) (#1)
    by CA JAY on Wed Apr 18, 2007 at 12:57:42 PM EST
    come out in 2007? What do the parents of the Columbine killers think of your work? TIA!

    next year (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by davecullen on Wed Apr 18, 2007 at 03:21:12 PM EST
    it's looking like the book will be pushed back to next year, because i'm still working on it. dutton has given me and extension. thanks for asking.

    the harris family has never spoken to the press, so i don't know about them. the klebolds have only spoken to the press once, and it was to david brooks of the NY Times complaining about my work--or specifically, his column devoted to summarizing it. (He fully credited me--he was great about that, btw.) They are still clinging to the idea that it was "a toxic atmospher in the school" that made their son do it. Hmmmmm.

    Loners .. (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by the nana jackson on Wed Apr 18, 2007 at 04:30:40 PM EST
    School loners are NOT a menace .. I should know .. I was one .. I was a loner because I was the timid law-abiding one .. and it seemed everyone else was NOT .. I didn't go to the neighborhood movie theater and sneak in .. I didn't "five-finger-discount" candy-bars from neighborhood stores (or liquor in later years) .. don't put down the loners, please

    Why doesn't this happen in other countries... (none / 0) (#4)
    by Ernesto Del Mundo on Thu Apr 19, 2007 at 11:59:14 AM EST
    with the frequency it happens here?

    Highly interesting question. (none / 0) (#5)
    by ThrowingGallStones on Tue Apr 24, 2007 at 10:58:37 PM EST
    Some people insist that it is due to the ready access we have to guns in the US, and our culture that "glorifies" violence. I am not conviced that that particular simplistic answer is the most likely--certainly not the ONLY likely explanation.

    I share your curiosity though.


    Nice Piece (none / 0) (#6)
    by squeaky on Sun Jul 08, 2007 at 12:21:21 PM EST
    More of that please. Sadly the competition is stiff. Answers, even if off the wall, sell, as they pander to the public's fear. Nice to see that you are more interested in dispelling myths than creating them.

    I guess one can be gregarious (none / 0) (#7)
    by jondee on Sun Jul 08, 2007 at 12:32:34 PM EST
    and almost completely lacking in empathy of any depth. Come to think of it, isnt that kind of the ideal of the "driven, highly competitive, team player" that's so in demand in some quarters?