Forensic psychologist discusses thoughts behind gun violence

The tragedy that befell Sandy Hook Elementary School — a rampage shooting by someone with no connection to the school — is virtually impossible to predict. What is very possible to predict is an internal threat.

That was the assessment of David Bernstein, a forensic psychologist who spoke Thursday morning, Jan. 10, at Wilton Library at the invitation of the Wilton Domestic Violence Task Force.

On the day of the presentation the Associated Press reported a high school shooting in the rural town of Taft, Calif. A 16-year-old student armed with a shotgun walked into class and shot one student, fired at another and missed, and then was talked into surrendering by a teacher and another staff member, according to news reports.

While a student’s odds of being hurt in school are “one in a million,” Dr. Bernstein said, when it comes to school shootings 95% are committed by students.

The biggest factor in shootings occurring in the first place, he said, is access to guns. That is a major finding in studies on mass shootings conducted over the years by the FBI, Department of Defense and Secret Service.

Now, perhaps more than ever, schools are under pressure to predict violent acts and prevent them. The most proactive step they can take is to look for red flags — behavior that may point to trouble ahead.

Taking a stand of zero tolerance is generally not effective, he said, because of people’s reluctance to point a finger at someone who could possibly be expelled or dismissed.

Better, he said, is to establish a central reporting system in which bits of information about a person exhibiting questionable behavior can be collected and assessed. (Central reporting is mandated by new state bullying regulations, he said.) A phone line, for people to relay information anonymously, could also be part of central reporting at very minimal cost.

Contrary to popular opinion, Dr. Bernstein said, shooters do not “just snap.” Considerable planning goes into a shooting spree.

Rampages are almost never influenced by illicit drugs.

The number of mass murders annually — about 20 — has not increased since Columbine in 1999. Mass murders are classified as four or more victims.

A matter of revenge

Dr. Bernstein, who is president of Forensic Consultants LLC in Norwalk, said the “pathway to violence” is predictable. It begins with thoughts and moves on to words, plans and action.

When dealing with a student on this pathway, Dr. Bernstein said, bullying can be a major factor. Teachers or parents may think a child is “over-sensitive,” he said, but what is important is not how outsiders see him but how he sees himself. “Parents must advocate for kids; otherwise they feel they have to advocate for themselves,” he said.

Red flag behaviors:

Thoughts and fantasy. A child has retaliatory fantasies.

Virtual practice behaviors. Dr. Bernstein gave the example of a 13-year-old who played the video game Black Ops, which had a character that looked like a student who was a bully in his school. When Dr. Bernstein asked the boy what he did to that character, the boy said, “I shoot him. It’s a release.” “Ninety-nine percent of kids can play violent video games and have no problem with it,” he said. For the remaining 1%, it can be a red flag.

Hypothetical planning. This is when they figure out how to carry out an action.

Research and planning. Children can go on the Internet and get all the information they need about guns. A child told Dr. Bernstein he found a website where he learned how to make a booby trap, which he did in his back yard. He told Dr. Bernstein “it made a satisfying bang.” The child also checked out his school on Google Earth, which gave him a basic schematic of the building so he could plan where to place a bomb.

Gathering materials. The 13-year-old who played Black Ops managed to collect 27 rounds of ammunition he kept in a plastic bag. Dr. Bernstein was sure the boy had tried to acquire a gun, although he did not admit it. He did ask the boy, “If you had a gun and one of these kids bullied you, what would you do?” The boy said, “Bang, bang … I’d shoot him.”

“The only thing that stopped this kid was access to a gun,” Dr. Bernstein said.

“All rampage killers feel justified,” he said. Eighty percent of targeted school shooters intend to kill themselves, he added.

Advice for parents

To parents, he said, “know your kid. Not who he used to be. Know who he is. Be very honest and take a real inventory. Ask yourself, Am I seeing my kids as they were or as they are?

He offered the following to watch out for:

Direct/specific threats. Comments such as “I hate John” or “I’m going to pay him back” could signal a problem. General threats such as “They’ll be sorry” should not be ignored.

Injustice collector. Is a child sensitive to criticism? How does the child handle disappointment? Does he or she dwell on slights, real or perceived?

Secretive about websites. Parents must monitor computer usage. For those parents who think they are checking their child’s Facebook page, be aware they may have more than one account under different names.

Fascination with weapons, military themes, war.

Interest in school shooters. Some may be perceived as heros. Students may collect data on shootings.

Dark-themed art, writing, poetry, video projects. Particularly dark themes, especially recurring themes, should be noted.

“In 80% of school shootings, at least one person had information about what the shooter was planning,” he said.

School building safety

Short of turning school buildings into armed fortresses, Dr. Bernstein said, there are steps school districts can take at varying costs.

Solid-core doors — three to four inches thick — will withstand gunfire. Likewise, level 4 ballistic glass on a door will stop a round from a shotgun or rifle, he said.

“It will increase security 10-fold,” he said.

Schools should have a code phrase known only to teachers and staff to alert them to a dangerous situation. Doors should then be locked. Another code would signal the event was over.

Finally, he said, have a threat assessment team in each school made up of an administrator, school resource officer, school psychologist, special education representative, and someone who knows about threat assessment.

“These are not frequent events,” he said, but if a threat is identified there needs to be a protocol in place.