What have we learned from 30 years of school shootings?

By David Kirschner, Ph.D.
May 30, 2018 - Last updated: May 27, 2018

what have we learned from school shootingsIn May of 1988, a 30-year-old woman, Laurie Dann, walked into an elementary school in Winnetka, Ill., and opened fire with a handgun, killing an 8-year-old boy and wounding five other children before killing herself.

The Winnetka case was the first school shooting to receive national and international media attention. Since then there has been a virtual epidemic of similar cases.

The weapons have become infinitely more deadly, and the body count has mounted dramatically. But what have we learned? Dann had easy access to guns, as have all of the killers since then. And – similar to almost every school and mass shooter in the ensuing 30 years – she had a history of mental problems and was on psychotropic medication prior to and during the shootings.

Her psychiatrist, in fact, was sued by parents of the victims for prescribing an antidepressant drug that “promoted violent conduct and played a significant role in the events of May 20, 1988.” Side effects of the drug, Anafranil, include “worsening hostile, aggressive and suicidal thoughts.”

And so, Dann, as almost every other school and mass killer since then, had been in mental health treatment prior to the event, albeit with less than successful results.

To name just a few:

*Eric Harris, one of the Columbine High School shooters, was on prescribed psychotropic meds prior to the rampage.

*Kip Kinkel, who shot 27 students at his Oregon High School, was being treated with Ritalin and Prozac, along with superficial insurance-friendly “cost effective” psychotherapy.

*Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech shooter who killed 32 students and wounded 17, had also seen a psychiatrist and was prescribed anti-depressant medication prior to his violence.

*Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook, Conn., elementary school killer, had medical records the state’s attorney general has not released from concern that doing so could “…cause a lot of people to stop taking their medications.”

*Nikolas Cruz, 19, who has admitted to killing 17 pupils at the Parkland, Fla., high school, also had a long history of psychological problems and irrational behavior – but was allowed easy access to assault weapons.

And, like the others, Cruz also had access to mental health “treatment;” was diagnosed (very probably misdiagnosed) as ADHD and autistic at Henderson Mental Health Clinic in Broward County and prescribed Ritalin.

If there is a trial, Cruz’s school, medical, mental health and adoption records will be carefully studied and should provide invaluable information, helping at least, to explain the “why?” in this and similar school shooting cases.

As a forensic psychologist, I have tested/evaluated more than 30 teenage and young adult murderers, and almost all of them had been in some kind of “treatment,” usually short term and drug-oriented, before they killed. Many, like Nikolas Cruz, were incorrectly diagnosed, often as ADHD or “Autism Spectrum,” and put on amphetamine-based drugs such as Ritalin or Adderall.

Psychological problems, such as adoption-related issues of identity, rejection, abandonment, loss, rage – which seem likely in the Nikolas Cruz case – were never really explored or treated.

While not the sole root cause (specific motivation and triggering events are different in each case), the use/abuse of prescription medications is the most consistent common factor – aside from easy access to guns – in almost every case of school and mass killings.

These medications do not prevent, but instead contribute to homicide events by disinhibiting normal frontal lobe brain control mechanisms. Studies have reported a strong correlation between a person’s risk of homicide/suicide and use of these drugs, which may reduce anxiety or depression, but lessen/anesthetize frontal brain functions “needed for forethought, impulse control, and empathy.”

And so what have we learned after 30 years of an increasingly horrendous epidemic of school and other mass killings? (1) Powerful, assault weapons are still easily available; and (2) mental health treatment, based on drugs or short term, insurance-friendly psychotherapy is sadly ineffective with violent perpetrators, almost all of whom have been in “treatment” despite the never-ending arguments in Congress re: gun control vs. access to mental health care.

Almost every school shooter and mass killer has had “access” to mental health care; but the treatment received has been part of the problem, not the solution. And easy access to deadly assault weapons continues while politicians (influenced by gun, insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies) debate and debate.

So nothing has been learned and nothing has changed from Winnetka, Ill., to Parkland, Fla., from 1988 to 2018!

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David Kirschner, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst and forensic psychologist with a practice in Woodbury, Long Island, N.Y. He founded and directed for 25 years a community mental health center – the Nassau Center for Psychotherapy. He has been an expert witness in many high-profile murder cases. He may be contacted at his website: www.adoptionunchartedwaters.com or through his email at: dk21544808@aol.com.

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