A Psychologist Shares Common Warning Signs, Motives Among School Shooters

A psychologist discusses ways students who have carried out school shootings revealed their violent intentions prior to the shooting.
Published: November 1, 2021

While much research has been conducted by various experts and psychologists on why both students and adults carry out acts of violence, the main goal for those who are in charge of keeping students safe on K-12 and college campuses is to stop these acts before they occur. To do this, many have also studied the warning signs, including Dr. Peter Langman, an expert on the psychology of school shooters and other perpetrators of mass violence.

Dr. Langman conducts trainings on understanding the psychology of school shooters and identifying potential school shooters for professionals in mental health, education and law enforcement. He has also been hired by Homeland Security to train professionals in school safety.

Langman has also published several books on the topic. In his first two books, Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters and School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators, he focuses on the psychological dynamics of the perpetrators, their life histories, social stressors, and so on. His latest book, Warning Signs: Identifying School Shooters Before They Strike, is the culmination of his research into the many ways students reveal their violent intentions.

And while warning signs and motives can vary, there are commonalities often found among individuals who have carried out school shootings. Here’s what Dr. Langman had to say about the topic in an exclusive interview with Campus Safety.

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Q: What are some of the most common warning signs that someone will commit a school shooting?

A: Many students simply announce their attacks to their friends. Sometimes this is done as bragging, other times to warn their friends to stay away. Sometimes they tell friends about their plans in order to recruit them as partners in their attacks. In other cases, the perpetrators make direct threats to their intended victims. More subtle warning signs sometimes appear in homework assignments. Warning signs take many forms and can appear in conversation, journals, essays, school projects, social media, or videos posted online.

Q: Is there any one or two warning signs that seem to be present in all or most school shooters?

A: The most common type of warning sign seems to consist of the perpetrator talking to his friends about his attack. Sometimes this is an explicit announcement, whereas other times it may be a vague indication that something bad is going to happen. Either way, if students are taught to report these comments, more shootings can be prevented.

Q: What are the most commons motivations or justifications (real or imaginary) given by shooters?

A: Several themes are frequently cited as motivations or justifications for killing. These include revenge for real or perceived injustices, hatred based on envy of those who are more successful or have higher social status than the perpetrators, and a desire to make their mark on the world—to go down in history.

Q: Can you share something about your research for the book that may have surprised you?

A: Even though I knew that shooters often leave a long trail of warning signs—after all, that’s why I was writing the book—as I dug deeper and deeper into more and more incidents, the extent of the warning signs that were missed was at times startling and distressing. One of the heartbreaking aspects of doing this research is realizing how many lives could have been saved if only more had been done to educate people about preventing attacks.

Q: What is one takeaway you hope readers get from your latest book?

A: The essential message is that school shootings can be prevented. In fact, many potential attacks have been thwarted because people noticed warning signs and took appropriate action. The idea of “see something, say something” is a simple concept—we just need to do it. But first, we need to know what constitutes a warning sign.

At this summer’s Campus Safety Conference, Dr. Langman provided a bio-psycho-social analysis of school shooters. His presentation covered body-related issues and the concept of damaged masculinity, three psychological types of perpetrators, and the many social failures and influences that contribute to the motivation for violence.

While looking for warning signs for potential violence is an extremely important aspect of campus safety, there are other ways to help keep campuses safe, including through design. Join us Nov. 3-5 in Pittsburgh at the Campus Safety Conference at EDspaces. The Campus Safety Conference is co-locating with EDspaces this year to provide intensive learning and collaboration among security, public safety, emergency management, administration, facilities, business, and IT professionals responsible for creating safer learning environments for our K-12 districts and higher education campuses. 

Learn more about the event or register here.

All three of Dr. Langman’s books are available at multiple online booksellers, including the following:  

Bookshop | IndieBound | Alibris | Barnes & Noble | Amazon

Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series