From the CEO

Editor's note: Dewey G. Cornell, PhD, a school violence expert, wrote this month's "From the CEO" at the invitation of APA CEO Norman Anderson, PhD. Cornell is a clinical psychologist and professor of education in the Programs in Clinical and School Psychology of the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia.

I learned about the shootings at Virginia Tech when a BBC reporter called at noon that day to ask for my explanation of what happened that morning. Stunned by news of the mass killings, I told her apologetically that I had nothing to say, which quickly ended the interview.

But the calls from reporters kept coming, and as a forensic clinical psychologist and professor of education who had recently published a book on school violence, I could not easily beg off: I had to figure out what to say.

As psychologists, we are certain to face questions after a horrific event like a shooting that claimed 33 lives. Why did this happen, and what can we do to prevent a similar tragedy?

Motive and method

The first thing we should do is help others place this event in an appropriate context. Extreme, irrational acts of violence can give the false impression that violence is pervasive and schools are not safe; on the contrary, national crime data as well as victim studies show that there is far less violent crime inside schools and colleges than outside. Moreover, young people are committing less violent crime than they have in decades.

The term "school violence" is a sad misnomer, because it is not the location that is definitional. Mass killings can occur anywhere. Two of the worst shootings in recent U.S. history took place in restaurants (23 killed in Killeen, Texas, in 1991 and 21 killed in San Ysidro, Calif., in 1984)-yet no one spoke about "restaurant violence." More important than location are motive and method, essential features of any violent act.

What motive might underlie a shooting rampage? Although it is premature to draw conclusions about Seung-Hui Cho, we know that individuals who commit similar rampage shootings typically have serious mental disorders characterized by severe depression and paranoid thinking. They feel rejected and abused by others, they are disappointed in their academic or career aspirations, and they come to regard suicide and homicide as justified acts of revenge. These individuals typically do not "just snap"-their actions are often well planned over a period of months. This means that there may be opportunities to recognize their suffering and intervene.

In my experience studying school violence over the past 15 years, the most important preventive measure schools can take is to establish a bond of trust and communication with students and encourage them to seek help when someone makes a threat or engages in violent behavior. The FBI and Secret Service studies of school shootings found that these youth typically communicated their intentions well in advance. The Virginia Tech case notwithstanding, we have prevented shootings in many schools by learning about threats, investigating them and taking appropriate action-a process known as threat assessment.

Careful threat assessment can keep us from overreacting to students who engage in pranks or make rash statements they do not mean. In our research, we have found that school-based teams can conduct standardized threat assessments, quickly resolving transient threats and taking preventive action for substantive threats.

Finally, the more politically sensitive requirement for any violent crime is the method. According to the CDC's "National Vital Statistics Reports," every year more than 30,000 people die by firearms through suicide or homicide, which is the equivalent of the Virginia Tech death toll occurring two to three times every day.

Gun rights advocates say, "Guns do not kill people, people kill people." And gun-control advocates retort, "People with guns kill a lot more people than people without guns." Because one observation is concerned with motive and the other with method, both are limited. Clearly, we must be able to analyze this issue in a less contentious manner and find reasonable, constitutional ways to address both the motives and methods of homicidal violence.

Psychology's duty

The Virginia Tech shooting will stimulate renewed debate over inherent conflicts between civil liberty and public safety, in domains ranging from mental health treatment to firearms regulation.Psychologists can and should inform this debate through scientific study of crime and violence, mental disorder, bullying, and related topics. Yet, accompanying our impressive body of research on violence prediction, we need more attention to prevention. Many people recognized that Cho was a deeply disturbed man, and even if we could not have predicted his actions, how can we engage troubled individuals so as to prevent a violent act? More broadly, how can we create social conditions in our schools and colleges where people like Cho are helped more than feared?

Further Reading

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