When the country found out that the Marysville-Pilchuck High School shooter in Washington state seemed to be an otherwise normal kid, some pundits and politicians were baffled. Jaylen Fryberg, the 15-year-old gunman who on October 28 killed three people and himself, was described by friends and peers as well-liked and popular. The week before the shooting, he was named the school's freshman homecoming prince.
"[T]his youngster does not fit the stereotype," Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) told CNN. "Again, he seems to have been somebody who was popular, got along well, was doing well in school, well in athletics, and so forth."
But Dave Cullen, author of Columbine, the definitive book on the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, says those stereotypes were never true to begin with.
"Everybody knows who commits these kind of murders. They're outcasts, typically goth or other sorts of kids that dress funny and live on the fringes," Cullen said. "That's well known. It's also wrong."
Take, for example, a few of the school shootings in the past couple decades. Fryberg was a popular kid, and, among some members of the Tulalip Tribe of which he was a member, he was considered a "golden boy" and a future tribal leader. After TJ Lane killed three students at Chardon High School in northeast Ohio, students said he was no outcast and a friend described him as "a very normal, just teenage boy." Sixteen-year-old Jeffrey Weise, referred to in various media reports as "goth," had a decent-sized group of friends when he killed nine people and himself in Minnesota in 2005.
When you examine the social and family lives of some of these teenagers, it quickly becomes clear that there is no one profile of a school shooter.
School shooters don't fit a single profile
When the FBI released its threat assessment report for school shooters in 2000, it issued a staunch warning, marked in bold and italics, in the introduction: "This model is not a 'profile' of the school shooter or a checklist of danger signs pointing to the next adolescent who will bring lethal violence to a school. Those things do not exist."
A popular misconception, conveyed by McDermott to CNN, is that the shooters are loners — they don't have many friends and they're bullied in school. The misconception largely comes from early reports about the Columbine shooters, who killed 13 people and themselves, that suggested the two perpetrators didn't have many friends, were bullied, and carried out the shootings against jocks as revenge killings.
"It's complete nonsense," Cullen said. Both shooters had a healthy circle of friends. Their social calendars, which were released to the public, were "packed." They went bowling every Friday, and they typically occupied four lanes — enough for 16 people.
There's also "no compelling evidence," Cullen explained, that the shooters were bullied more than anyone else or that bullying drove them to the shootings. "We have their journals and videos," Cullen said, adding that they "never mention bullying" directed at the shooters.
The people the Columbine shooters targeted also appeared to be random, not targets of a revenge killing. A bomb was supposed to indiscriminately kill hundreds of people in the cafeteria, but it never went off. When both shooters made it to the library, they sometimes shot people without even identifying them.
But Cullen clarified that the Columbine attackers don't represent all school shooters. Each case can greatly differ in all sorts of detail, from whom is targeted to the series of events that lead someone to carry out a shooting. "They come in different varieties," Cullen said.
A report from the Secret Service and Department of Education that looked at school shooters between 1974 and 2000, found that 34 percent of attackers were characterized as loners by themselves or others. The common traits, instead, were much more subtle.
School shooters do share some common traits
If there's anything that appears to link school shooters, it's problems with depression. The Secret Service and Department of Education report found that 78 percent had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts, and 61 percent had a documented history of feeling extremely depressed or desperate. Almost all — 98 percent — of school shooters had experienced or perceived some major loss prior to the attack.
In comparison, about 11 percent of all adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18, according to the National Comorbidity Survey. (Of course, out of millions of depressed students, less than a few dozen carry out a school shooting during a typical year. For perspective, it's about 100 times more likely for children to be murdered outside of school than at school. )
The two shooters at Columbine noted many of these thoughts of depression and suicide for years in their journals. One of them frequently cried out to God and explicitly asked why he was created to be so miserable, pathetic, and horrible.
Identifying depression could help save struggling students from themselves
The Secret Service and Department of Education report found that 34 percent of school shooters had ever received mental health evaluations, and 17 percent had been diagnosed with mental health or behavior disorders prior to the attack.
The best way to fix this, Cullen suggested, is to conduct regular screenings for depression — a tactic favored by some mental health experts and doctors. The initial screenings can be fairly simple forms handed out in classrooms, often spanning 10 or so questions that score children on different levels of reported symptoms of depression. The children who report serious problems could then be taken to more in-depth one-on-one sessions and evaluated further.
Identifying these children is important, not because they might shoot up their schools — statistically, that is highly unlikely — but "because they desperately need help," Cullen said.
"We'll see dramatic drops in suicides, school dropout rates, teen pregnancies, drug and alcohol abuse, and car crashes," he added. "Somewhere mixed in there, you will also save a tiny number of kids from themselves who are destined to go on and become school shooters."