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“Avoiding Weird Loner Types”: The Problem with Profiling

“Avoiding Weird Loner Types”: The Problem with Profiling

“I was bullied at school; socially awkward with no friends and people thought I was the type to carry out a school shooting,” claimed one YouTube user commenting on a school shooting related video. YouTube contributors also mapped out patterns, correctly noting that school shooters tend to be Caucasian males. Notably, users picked up on the narcissistic tendencies of school shooters: feeling persecuted and a sense of injustice and desiring revenge for a ‘perceived wrong.’ A lot of threads centred on being wary of and avoiding ‘quiet’ and ‘weird’ loner types. This suggests school shootings are understood in terms of how potential perpetrators are expected to act, i.e. ‘profiling’ someone’s potential to commit violence in the long-term. The practice of ‘profiling’ involves putting together a list of characteristics of a ‘criminal type’ and was first developed by the FBI to allow them to narrow their suspect list and alert the public to warning signs.
There have been some attempts to develop a profile of a ‘school shooter’ type. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) (2000) and the Safe School Initiative (SSI) (2002) reports, using a number of school shooting case studies, focused on commonalities existing amongst perpetrators. Attackers were found to share a number of characteristics: 59% of shooters in the sample had a history of weapon usage, whilst 44% were ‘fascinated’ with weapons; suffering from loss (academic, romantic, family) of some kind affected 98% of attackers; 61% of attackers suffered from depression; 78% had attempted suicide or had suicidal thoughts. A number of ‘school shooter’ personality traits and behaviours were thereafter put in a complied list: alienation, cruelty to animals, disliking popular students, manipulation, and dehumanisation of others.
The FBI and SSI reports, however, both came to the conclusion that an accurate and reliable school shooter ‘profile,’ allowing for potential future perpetrators to be identified, is non-existent. A violent tendency towards others, for instance, is a characteristic most people would generally associate with a school shooter; however, only 31% of incidents in the SSI report did so prior to the shooting. A difficulty in putting together is a profile pointed out by theorist Cornell (2013) is ascertaining the parameters for ‘dangerous’ and ‘non-dangerous.’
The main problem with using a ‘checklist’ of warning signs is they can result in provincial interpretations of crime. A possible negative consequence of this is ‘short-sightedness,’ i.e. threats out with the profile being overlooked. Potential threats that slip under the radar because they do not meet certain conditions of the profile are known as ‘false negatives.’ For example, in the SSI report all case studies were carried out by males, so that could be construed as a ‘defining characteristic’ of a school shooter and hence result in a threat from a female being disregarded. As he theorist Cornell (2013) pointed out, violence could be situational where a student behaves ‘normally’ in class but violently in the hallway; possibly meaning they are never flagged up as a potential threat. An alternative difficulty with profiling is that it could unfairly label ‘false positives’: like the opening quote above, this refers to people who are wrongly stigmatised or even accused because they fit the profile.
Based on the descriptions provided by others, only a handful of school shooters fit the stereotypical ‘disturbed loner’ profile, such as the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook perpetrators. The Northern Illinois University shooter was said by others to be ‘fairly normal’; the Fort Gibson, Oklahoma gunman had many friends and was on the honour roll; the Conyers, Georgia attacker was a Boy Scout who attended church; the Erfurt, Germany perpetrator was described as ‘calm’ and ‘reasonable’ and was popular with other students; the Red Lake shooter was described by some of his peers as a ‘cool guy.’ What can be taken from this discussion is that there is no way to accurately predict future school shooters using a ‘profile’ of warning characteristics.

[Analyses of news media coverage, the FBI and SSI reports, and YouTube comments formed the findings here. Profiling and threat assessment studies were utilised to assess the results. Future blogs will build upon this one by discussing the alternative approach of threat assessment.]