The School Shooter

By Heck, William P. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The School Shooter


Heck, William P., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


One Community's Experience

In May 1998, the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) began researching 18 school shooting incidents to help identify relevant contributory and causal factors and to recommend procedures to school administrators and law enforcement agencies for threat assessment and intervention. In July 1999, the NCAVC sponsored a symposium on school shootings and threat assessment for the teachers and administrators from the 18 schools, along with a host of law enforcement, academic, and professional groups. [1]

Because of the rarity and uniqueness of school shooting incidents and the overall dynamics of adolescence, a usable profile of a "typical" school shooter simply does not exist. In fact, in its report, NCAVC concluded that "...when the incidence of any form of violence is very low and a very large number of people have identifiable risk factors, there is no reliable way to pick out from that large group the very few who will actually commit the violent act. At this time, there is no research that has identified traits and characteristics that can reliably distinguish school shooters from other students." [2]

The NCAVC study also implies that improper responses to isolated incidents can compound the harm that already has occurred and might even set the stage for additional victimization. Schools across the nation have adopted zero-tolerance policies hoping that they will lessen the chances that a violent incident will occur. However, while such policies might prove useful in some situations, school administrators must use them with discretion and common sense; otherwise, a net-widening effect may result, which can place additional strain on students, teachers, parents, law enforcement, and the juvenile justice system.

An analysis of one incident that occurred in a middle school in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, lends credence to NCAVC's cautions insofar as the shooter seemed the least likely candidate for carrying out such violence. Moreover, critics have questioned the feasibility and suitability of a blanket zero-tolerance response adopted by the school administration in the wake of the shooting.

The Incident

As a high school student prepared to leave for school, she expected to face the same morning routine of rushing her 13-year-old brother to get ready for school. Although he always slept in and was rarely ready on time, that morning his sister surprisingly found him waiting at the bottom of the stairs and anxious to get to the middle school where he attended the seventh grade. She dropped her brother off at his school near the courtyard where students gathered each morning before class. After she left, the young boy took a few steps toward the school, put his backpack on the ground, and reached inside the pack to retrieve a fully loaded, 9-millimeter, semiautomatic pistol. Then, he walked across the school grounds, calmly shooting at his classmates. He continued to walk and shoot until the pistol was empty, creating a 90-foot primary crime scene and leaving five students wounded.

After emptying the pistol, he walked toward a breezeway where he complied with a teacher's orders to put down the gun. Then, seemingly calm and emotionless, the boy said nothing as he waited for the police to arrive and place him into custody. Although the tragedy ended a few short minutes after he fired the first shot, it might have lasted much longer had he kept his back pack, which contained enough ammunition for several reloads.

The Law Enforcement Response

Within minutes of receiving the 911 call, the chief of the Fort Gibson Police Department, along with other officers, arrived at the school. A teacher directed the officers to the area where another teacher was standing with the young shooter. When the chief asked the boy if anyone else with guns was in the school, his response, "No, I'm alone," was one of the few statements he would make about the shooting. …

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