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What are some of the risk factors that may lead an individual to commit school violence?

30 Oct 2017 1:20 PM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Gregory L. Walterhouse, Bowling Green State University, IPSA Member

There is no universally accepted definition of school violence. Black’s Law Dictionary defines violence as “the use of physical force usually accompanied by fury, vehemence, or outrage; especially physical force unlawfully exercised with the intent to harm.” Arrowood however advocates for an expanded definition to include any acts which might harm an individual physically, psychological or emotionally.

The Safe School Initiative Final Report found that there is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who engage in targeted school violence. And, psychologist James Garbarino of Loyola University says there is no single cause that is deterministic of criminal violence, but an accumulation of risk factors. There have been numerous studies conducted on the risk factors for individuals who have a potential to commit school violence. The purpose of this research is to synthesize the findings of these various studies in an attempt to draw an inference as to whether troubled family relationships are the genesis for these risk factors.

An overview of violence

A number of factors have been identified for individuals most at risk for committing violence. Studies have shown that males are more prone to violent behavior than females with 90 percent of deaths on school campuses the result of male perpetrators. And, shootings are frequently perpetrated by white males according to Muschert. Age is also a factor with PBS reporting the average age of school avengers being 16.  

Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General classifies violent behavior that begins before puberty as early trajectory and violent behavior that begins during adolescence as late trajectory. The report indicates that children who display violent behavior before the age of 13 typically commit a greater number of crimes, commit crime for a longer period of time, and commit more violent crimes. This is consistent with the developmental pathway reported by Verlinden, et. al. where progression from minor delinquent acts progress to more serious ones with serious interpersonal violent acts being the final set of behaviors.

The Surgeon General’s report identifies a number of risk factors for violent behavior. The most powerful early risk factors are involvement in general criminal offenses and abuse of drugs, alcohol and tobacco before the age of 12. Other individual risk factors that have smaller effects are psychological conditions including hyperactivity, low attention and impulsiveness though some researchers have questioned the effect of attention-deficit hyperactivity activity disorder on violent behavior. However, Verlinden, et. al. report that overall there appears to be a positive relationship between hyperactivity, concentration and attention problems, impulsivity and risk taking with violent behavior. 

Though the Surgeon General’s report indicates there are no strong risk factors from the family domain, low socio-economic status/poverty, and anti-social parents are moderate risk factors.  Other studies indicate family neglect or abuse may be a factor according to Muschert. And, lack of parental supervision and troubled family relationships have been found to be strong predictors of violence in children. This is not surprising as unsupervised children have a tendency to associate with deviant peers resulting in antisocial activities including violence and substance abuse. Verlinden et. al report that several studies have found a positive relationship between associations with a deviant peer group in adolescence and later violence. This is particularly relevant as some case studies reveal involvement by pairs of individuals.

Mass violence

According to Louis Schlesinger, professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice mass killers tend to be aggrieved, hurt, clinically depressed, socially isolated and paranoid. The paranoia is a special kind with the tendency to blame everyone else for their troubles and believe that life is unfair and the world is against them. This is consistent with a study reported by Muschert that perpetrator motivation for mass shootings is to exact revenge on the community with perpetrators equating their target schools as an attack on the community. In other words, according to Rocque, it is the statement made with violence and not exacting revenge on particular people.

As reported by Muschert, perpetrators are often the subject of bullying, romantic rejection and social marginalization. And, Rocque indicates mental illness is also a characteristic of school rampage shooters but these characteristics are similar to common characteristics of other violent juvenile offenders. Perpetrators are mostly male and feel victimized.

Studies indicate that perhaps most perpetrators of mass violence suffer from severe depression. In their study of nine incidents of multi-victim homicide, Verlinden et. al.  found that most subjects of their study had displayed uncontrolled anger, depression, threats of violence and blamed others for their problems. Though studies have revealed that mental illness is rarely recognized prior to shootings, Rocque reports that many are diagnosed after the fact. These diagnoses and findings are instructive.

Perpetrators are often suicidal. The Safe School Initiative Report examined 31 cases with 41 shooters and found that 75 percent of the perpetrators were suicidal.  The report also found that most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures, and many attackers felt bullied, persecuted or injured by others which is consistent with the findings of Professor Schlesinger. Davis reports that many school shooters underwent prior counseling for depression, impulsivity and anti-social behavior. In a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health researchers found that childhood abuse increased the lifetime risk for depression. Researchers also found that neglect, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the substantiated cases of child maltreatment, increased the risk for current depression. 

As reported by Cincinnati Children’s, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and prolonged stressful life events such as bullying and relationship issues are all risk factors for suicide.  The Center for Disease Control also report research findings that youth who are victims of bullying or who have bullied others are at the highest risk of anxiety, depression and thinking about suicide. Though many perpetrators of mass violence are suicidal, they often cannot bring themselves to commit suicide or desire to make a spectacle of the event. Anthony Preti has labeled this “suicide with hostile intent”.

Langman examined ten shooters and categorized the youths as traumatized (3), psychotic (5), and psychopathic (2). However, Langman states that most youths who are traumatized, psychotic or psychopathic do not commit murder. The three traumatized youth shooters all came from broken homes with parental substance abuse and criminal behavior. Broken homes have been identified as a risk factor for delinquency. They were all physically abused and two were sexually abused. Langman found two characteristics among the traumatized youth shooters that standout. First, all three had father figures who engaged in criminal behavior using firearms and second each had peer influence to commit the attack.

The five psychotic youth shooters all suffered from schizophrenia-spectrum disorder and all came from intact families with no history of abuse. None of the subjects had been prescribe anti-psychotic medication which has been identified as a risk factor. Among the psychotic subjects’ paranoia was the most common psychotic symptom. This correlates with the findings of Schlesinger. Langman also found that the psychotic subjects possessed some level of paranoid thinking including grandiose delusions, auditory hallucinations, and disorganized thoughts. The subjects also had higher functioning siblings making them feel like failures within their families. All of the psychotic shooters were the youngest siblings in their families and were misfits with obvious difference between themselves and their siblings, parents and teachers.

The two psychopathic youths were neither abused nor psychotic but exhibited narcissism, poor self-esteem, a lack of empathy and conscious as well as sadistic behavior. Verlinden reports that some studies have found a connection between narcissism, negative interpersonal feed-back and aggression.  Langman reports that sadism is not a typical trait of psychopaths. Of interest, both psychopathic youth shooters had a fascination with guns, lacked empathy and were successful in recruiting followers to join them in the attacks. Psychopathic shooters in general feel no emotional connection to other humans and are unable to feel guilt or remorse according to Rocque.


Several risk factors have been identified by researchers that are suggestive that an individual may commit violence including mass violence in schools. However, no accurate or useful profile or single cause has been discovered by current research. Many of the identified strong predicators do relate to troubled family relationships including neglect, abuse, broken homes, lack of parental supervision, anti-social parents (moderate risk) and other similar troubled family relationships.  

These risk factors in turn lead to other risk factors such as early trajectory consisting of violent or minor criminal behavior and substance abuse. Early trajectory most likely occurs as a result of parental neglect or a lack of parental supervision. Certain individuals may also feel inferior, persecuted or as misfits resulting from abuse and other troubled family relationships. When parental neglect is present attachment between parent and child does not develop. John Bowlby discovered through his research that a high proportion of juvenile thieves had “affectionless” characters which he believed resulted from maternal deprivation and separation and a failure to form normal attachments in childhood. This failure results in disorders of mood, behaviors and social relationships. Bowlby’s Attachment Theory may explain why many of those who commit violence often have feelings of isolation, persecution, being a misfit, lack empathy for others and are unable to feel guilt or remorse.

Researcher William Damon found that respect for rules and authority, learning to follow the social order, and developing the ability to feel empathy and guilt begins early with socialization by parents and is closely related to Attachment Theory. Neglectful and anti-social parents do not fill this need and may explain why many of those who commit violence have histories of anti-social and anti-authoritarian behavior. This may also explain those who exact revenge on the community instead of specific individuals.

Research has found that childhood abuse and neglect often lead to depression which is a condition from which many individuals who have committed school violence suffer. Depression is also closely associated with anxiety. Other research has found that depression, anxiety, substance abuse and prolonged stressful life events such as bullying and troubled relationships are all risk factors for suicide a condition found in many who have committed school violence.

Ultimately these factors can lead to an identity crisis for these individuals. Erik Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development tells us that young adults who have identity crisis tend to be isolated, afraid to have relationships with others and see others as dangerous. This could explain the feelings of rejection, marginalization, inferiority and paranoia that many of those who commit violence experience. According to Marcia these individuals are in a state of identity moratorium which is an acute state of crisis where he or she is exploring and actively searching for values to eventually call his or her own.

So, where do these individuals turn? In some cases to peers, evidenced by some acts of violence having been committed by pairs of individuals. Erikson’s Theory of Identity Crises tells us that identity confusion can lead to unhealthy and dangerous lifestyles and susceptibility to negative peer pressures. Lev Vygotsky also advocated that children learn from interaction with peers, though Vygotsky’s research focused on positive peer learning a reasonable inference can be drawn that bad behavior can be learned or reinforced by negative peer influence.

In conclusion, evidence strongly supports the hypothesis that predictors of violent behavior have their origin in troubled family relationships beginning in infancy into adolescence. These troubled relationships consisting of neglect, abuse, and lack of supervision; may result in the failure of children to form attachment, identity and development of morals consistent with social norms; resulting in isolation, anxiety, depression, suicidal tendency and violent behavior. Future research is needed to determine the extent that troubled family relationships have on those who commit school violence.  

About the Author

Greg Walterhouse is a full time faculty member in the Fire Administration and Masters in Public Administration programs at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Management from Oakland University, a Master’s degree in Legal Studies from the University of Illinois and a Master’s degree in Management from Central Michigan University. Before joining BGSU he had over 35 years of experience in fire/rescue and emergency management with 18 years in upper management, including Manager of Emergency Services and Chief of the Rochester Hills (MI) Fire Department and Chief of the Mt. Pleasant (MI) Fire Department. Greg can be contacted at

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