Why we miss school shooting warning signs
Students who witnessed Monday's school shooting told CNN that the suspect was student T.J. Lane.
February 28th, 2012
09:30 AM ET

Why we miss school shooting warning signs

Editor's Note: Katherine Newman is the James B. Knapp Dean of the Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University and the co-author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings.

By Katherine Newman - Special to CNN

Why would a "quiet kid" whom no one really notices erupt into murderous violence? My research team studied the rash of school shootings that erupted in the late 1990's and arrived at some conclusions that may prove useful in understanding what happened at Chardon High School on Monday.

Initial reports suggest the shooter was a "loner'" but were quickly followed by claims that he had friends. The community was taken by surprise, but we learn the shooter texted at least one person about his intentions. These swirling contradictions are completely consistent with the findings in our book, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings.

High school shooters are rarely loners. They are "failed joiners." The difference is important. A loner absents himself from social contact and withdraws from the world around him. Shooters are engaged, but not successful. They reach out to cliques, only to be rebuffed. Their daily social experience is of rejection and frustration, not isolation.

After repeated attempts to gain entry into social groups, all of which fail miserably, they hit on a "last act" that works. They start threatening dramatic action. They hint that they are going to do something that will make them notorious and they are not secretive about these warnings. That starts to generate the attention they have been aching for all along.

They know shooting people is wrong and are ambivalent about their plans. But they convince themselves that the last thing they can afford is to default on an announced plan to shoot up their school when it yields the notoriety that is the key to social acceptance, albeit for macabre reasons.

We are likely to discover that more than one kid heard warnings and did not come forward. Why? Why does the best source of information we have about an attack stay silent?

First, those warnings are rarely clear. Murky statements like ,"You'll see who lives or dies on Monday!" are not easy to decode, especially when the source is a boy known for attention seeking stunts and strange statements. Second, in the light of this "noise" adolescents who are supposed to be distancing themselves from grown ups are loathe to be tagged as tattle tales, a social risk of its own, when they aren't sure what they really know.

Finally, adults who have their reservations about the behavior of a marginal kid in their community, do not come forward to the boy's parents for fear of rupturing long standing social ties of their own. They avoid rather than confront.

The result is a surplus of information that something terrible is going to happen that never filters into the hands of someone who can act preemptively. In the shootings we studied, a number of kids stayed away from school because they were scared. And while parents and teachers were stunned to learn the identity of the assailant, the kids know before anyone is arrested. They have heard the warnings.

Boys who fail at sports, girls, and the other harsh tests of masculinity, are particularly vulnerable to the social and psychological marginality that produces both rage and a desperate desire to be included. When they turn an eye toward popular culture, they find plenty of support for the notion that an admirable, muscle bound, anti-hero, shoots people and lives to rule the day.

It is no accident that marginal boys seize on this "solution," especially if they live too far away from an urban setting (without a driver's license) to transport them to a social world where they might find a niche. Failing to find acceptance where they live, coming to feel permanently stuck with the identity of a loser, they try to shoot their way into a reputation that is more acceptable, dangerous and powerful.

School shootings are social pathologies with a lot of moving parts, but should not be understood as the act of a normal kid caught in the daily traffic of high school ostracism. Millions of boys feel rejected; only a tiny handful shoot their way out of this dilemma. But the mentally ill kid who is undiagnosed - and pushed over the edge that his teenage brethren well recognize - is thankfully rare. It just doesn't feel that way to a suffering community, a family that has lost a child, and the witnesses who are forever marked by a tragedy like this one.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Katherine Newman.

Post by:
Topics: Youth

soundoff (37 Responses)
  1. Harold

    Lack of supervision.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:44 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      also lack of love and care. In rural areas social life revolves around the family, school, work place and the small community. If some one fails to be part of these units, he will be dubbed as unsociable and he will be on his own. No doubt the enviroment makes a person, other factors like character and mental condition could also be crucial, whether he/she runs amok.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:55 am | Reply
    • Pat

      Because the nra wants us to.................

      February 29, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Reply
  2. Hahahahahaha

    Warning sign #1 – Kid comes to school wearing an NRA hat and carrying a gun. Hahahahahaha

    February 28, 2012 at 10:26 am | Reply
    • USMC Forever

      Is this supposed to be some kind of laughing matter or what? Yesterday two high school students were killed with two others wounded in Ohio. Don't you even care?

      February 28, 2012 at 11:05 am | Reply
      • Hey

        What's your solution? More guns? Less schools? Parents working 3 jobs instead of 1? No affordable health care?

        February 28, 2012 at 11:10 am |
      • Hahahahahahaha

        As if anyone posting here will make any difference!!! The rich will "buy" the rule makers and the poor will be thrown the scraps. So lighten up!!!! The Illuminati rule!!!!! Hahahahahahahaha

        February 28, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • narba

      Glad you can laugh at someone else's expense and some young innocent person's death. Bad is bad whether we are number 1 or number 5,000,0000. One life lost to this is one life too many.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Reply
      • Hahahahahahaha

        How do you know they were innocent? Hahahahahahaha

        February 28, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • alumette

      You know that "hahahaha" is really annoying and stupid. Are you one of these freaks who will pull a trigger and kill innocent people ? I can smell a "trigger" here.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Reply
    • DP

      Warning sign #2 – Lack of empathy for others

      December 15, 2012 at 6:35 am | Reply
  3. DoggSho

    @Jim, Wrong, criminals (or say I terrorist) have always obtained both legal and illegal explosives through thievery, over the counter, compromised and or corrupted officials; thus, it's the immoral character and or the root of the problem(s) that needs to be held in check, because if not then when you strip all guns away, those same maligned characters will resort to using vehicles, bats, knives, acids, and or simply their bare hands. To disarm the law abiding citizens -on the inverse, is to pro-arm criminals who are gonna obtain firearms illegally anyway

    February 28, 2012 at 10:28 am | Reply

    Katherine Newman, I agree with what you wrote, 'last action'. But, I disagree with being a loner could cause the person to go out and shoot.

    Let us stick with your first point, 'last action'. The last action or final decision is normal in Human nature and even Animals they use it as a defense.

    Individually, the last action could be used either legally or Physically, depend on the person's state of Mind and decision made. I seen similar situations in my High school year. But, the shooting has been aimed specifically, to the Teacher who did caused the problem and never stopped discussing it and embarrassing the Adult Student, until the last action has been taken against him by the shooter.

    In group, it always happen. Each group they level themselves, gangsters. So, one gang group attacks another, either in School or wherever the heat passion aroused. Sometimes, the killings are enormous.

    As a nation, last action is always taken after the consultation of the people of such Country. So, last action is a normal thing in everyone's life.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:49 am | Reply
  5. George Patton

    This is quite understandable. Rejection is always a very painful experience which at times tends to lead to anger and inner rage particularly at those from whom one feels rejected by the person or group of people they tried to join. As long as life in America is life in America, this is bound to continue.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:01 am | Reply
  6. Wolfgang Halbig

    Do you see how every one from the police department to the school superintendent talk about what a great response time they had and how they trained for such an event?

    If that was what you call a School Lockdown then this school district has serious concerns for the future.

    School Safety or Safety has a definition that all school boards and school superintendents must do. It is what do we do on a daily basis to reduce the safety risks to as low as possible.

    School Security are the tools that school boards and school superintendents adopt in order to keep those safety risks to as low as possible. There is not one school district that can promise a parent that his child will be 100% percent safe from harm. There are NO gurantees.

    Someday those who are really interested in looking for school safety solutions will change the way they have been brainwashed by the United States Department of Education Safe and Drug Free Schools.

    Does anybody not see what is happening that could have or should have been prevented.

    Now the experts from colleges who have not worked in our public schools since who knows are going to tell the school district about school shootings.

    Please let's start a true discussion about school safety and how to reduce to safety risks on a daily bases so others will not get seriously injured or killed.


    February 28, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Reply
  7. george

    Welcome to the world of metal detectors at every public school, rural America.


    February 28, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Reply
    • alumette

      Exactly. I cannot believe it has not yet been installed, in every school .

      February 28, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Reply
  8. Nostradamus

    Re: School shooting warning:
    Psychologically, by nature, everyone who has Pyramid shaped faces are more likely to commit crimes than others. So, Mrs. Newman, do you want all Circle shape face Asians to arrest all Europeans?

    February 28, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  9. Rob

    In most cases, there are warning signs, but students do not know how to report them or afraid to "snitch". There are companies out there, like D.C.-based Safe School Technologies, (www.safeschooltech .com) that allow students to report bullying and threats anonymously using their smartphones or computers that can help prevent these incidents from occuring. More schools need to adopt this life saving technology.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  10. alumette

    What is new ? kids with time on their hands, poor supervision, lack of vision and of course, availability of guns.....either in their homes or easily acquired by friends or family. This problem will never be solved. Our country is the seed of this sort of behavior.....angry kids who think killing is a high as they have "nothing to lose". Not fixable in my opinion. We can only brace ourselves for more as it becomes the "norm".

    February 28, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  11. alumette

    O yeah...the ultimate...what about the metal detectors ? too expensive they say....really ? Hard to believe there are no detectors....everywhere.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Reply
  12. Steve

    This is not rocket science. Psychological profile as 'failed joiner' would mean nothing without access to guns. Adults do it to the kids with our counter-intutive behavior. The Europeans (they have had a few shootings, too, but only a few) laugh at our silly gun policies. The thousands of murders in Mexico are done with guns from Texas. I am not confused about why this happens. We don't need a group of smart psychologists to determine the root cause of this activity. Sorry our lawmakers choose to look the other way.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  13. alumette

    Anyone who thinks these kids can be fixed is likely delusional. It can be picked-up by observant people but parents are oblivious to their kids behavior. Unless you catch the kid with a cache of guns and ammunitions, lies can go a long way. These little psychopaths have lied all their lives. They formed a "family" with their peer and will stop at nothing to look good. The only defense we have are metal detectors ....and good fortune smiling at us when they show up in our faces and we have no place to run.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Reply
  14. les

    This kid looks like that kid from the movie 'Deliverance', he doesn't look quite right. Where did he get the gun and ammunition?

    February 28, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Reply
  15. Mathinaz

    Warning signs are important to see, but HOW is anyone supposed to "act preemptively"? What does that look like? What should they do?

    March 1, 2012 at 12:41 am | Reply
  16. Rose

    They have taken God out of the schools so what do you expect, when the children don't have any respect for anyone. Not even themselves.

    December 14, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  17. Paul

    Problem with a metal detector is: How is that going to stop a gun? They should upgrade the metal detectors to the point where, if it does go off than the proper procedure would be a "bullet proof" chamber closes up around them and they are forced to empty everything metal that they have on a tray. Place the equivalent of the TSA in schools.

    December 14, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Reply

      did you just say "how does a metal detector stop a gun"? okay, just checking....

      December 14, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  18. Sarah

    it has nothing to do with God , it has to do with parents, how they raise there kids and the school to be harsh on bullying. I think we all shoud be in this togther.

    December 14, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  19. Daremonai

    'loners' tend to get the blame because people already do not like them, or more importantly, do not identify with them. People get really bent out of shape when something tragic happens and they can see even a piece of themselves in the attacker.. so people who are 'unlike' others get a lot of focus, because they are safe for the egos of others.

    December 14, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Reply
  20. Bruno Bernanrd

    We just have to face it : our current culture is a culture of death. Our society shoud seriously think about the hidden message we give when we declare that certain categories of people can be killed. The only succesful response to these kind of tragedy is to promote culture of Life, considering every human life sacred.

    December 14, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Reply

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.