Langman explores the psychology of mass killers in schools, makes recommendations for prevention
Tuesday, March 05, 2013
That is the crux of Psychologist Dr. Peter Langman’s research, which he outlined in a comprehensive and wide-ranging presentation on Monday evening as part of Lesley’s Gun Series talks.
“There is nothing we can say apart from their being human beings who use guns, so whatever stereotypes we have in our minds, we need to get rid of those,” Langman urged the large audience gathered in the University Hall Amphitheater. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t some commonalities and some categories we can put them in to make sense of what we’re talking about. But if we only focus on the picked-on loners who kind of scurry down the sides of hallways, we’re going to miss the warning signs, because they don't usually look like that.”
Langman, a Lesley alumnus and leading expert on the psychology of school shooters and preventing school attacks, began specializing on the topic “out of necessity.” While doing his doctoral training at a psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents in 1999, he was charged with evaluating a boy as a potential school shooter just ten days after the Columbine massacre.
“You couldn't find much of anything on the topic,” recalled Langman. “People doing the research were focusing on what these kids have in common. What struck me is how different they were.”
Since that time, Langman explained, he has worked to conduct and compile the most comprehensive collection of information on the subject, and he maintains a website, www.schoolshooters.info. He has written a book, Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, has been interviewed widely around the world, and trains professionals in mental health, education, and law enforcement to identify potential school shooters. His recommendations and research have been cited in congressional testimony and were presented to President Obama by the head of the American Psychological Association in the wake of the December 2012 Connecticut school shootings.
Langman explained that the United States has more mass killings than any country, but a lower homicide rate than many countries. He also noted that, despite the perception, school shootings are extremely rare, and school is still one of the safest places for children to be.
“It may seem like an epidemic, because when they happen they’re so big, but it’s just not a statistically frequent event,” said Langman. “They are extraordinarily rare. And yet they happen, and they keep happening.”
In a rigorously academic presentation, Langman used PowerPoint slides to present his case study of 46 school shooters and illustrate a three-part typology he uses to classify the individuals: psychopathic, psychotic or traumatized. He welcomed questions from an engaged audience throughout the lecture. The group he studied is composed of three categories: secondary school shooters, who were secondary students at the time of the attacks or attacked secondary schools; college shooters, who were students, former students, staff or faculty; and aberrant adult shooters, who had no connections to the schools they attacked. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter, for example, would fall into that category.
“Psychotic shooters are not in touch with reality; they may have delusions or hallucinations and are not functioning well in reality,” Langman explained. “Psychopathic shooters are very in touch with reality, very well rooted, and have good social skills.… Traumatized shooters come from nightmare homes … and suffer chronic stress and trauma that builds up for them.”
Combing through the shooters’ journals, websites and blogs, school work, and testimony of those who knew them, Langman uses these three classifications to better understand each case, and to pinpoint missed warning signs and “leakage” of psychotic traits that can be used to prevent future massacres.
“With all the focus on bullying as the cause, people are ignoring the other causes,” Langman argued. “So there’s a lot that gets overlooked in the mainstream media.”
Langman advocates that faculty, staff and students be trained to recognize a variety of warning signs.
“Threat assessment, I think, is the key,” he said, “and students need to be part of the process. They need to know what to look for, and what to do if they find it. … There are more opportunities to intervene if people are picking up on the clues.”
Langman was the second speaker in Lesley’s Gun Series, which was launched following the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, to foster a conversation in the Lesley community and beyond, and to try to learn more about the use of guns, gun violence, and the politics and popular culture surrounding firearms in the United States.
In February, to inaugurate the series, Lesley welcomed Massachusetts’ most prominent gun control advocate, John Rosenthal, co-founder of Stop Handgun Violence, who addressed gun laws and firearms availability in the United States.
Next month, on April 1, the Gun Series continues with Harvard Professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore, who will lead a discussion on gun culture in America.
Langman earned his M.A. in counseling psychology from Lesley in 1989, and later won Lesley’s 2012 Sally K. Lendhardt Professional Leadership Alumni Award for his professional achievements and human service work. He holds a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Lehigh University.
His book, Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, was named an Outstanding Academic Title of 2009 by the American Library Association.
The book studies ten school shooters, including Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teens who killed 13 people and injured 24 others at Columbine High School in 1999, and Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech student who killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in 2007.
It also presents five adolescents who were hospitalized and evaluated by Dr. Langman because they were at risk for committing rampage school shootings. The five potential shooters are compared to the ten actual shooters, and Langman concludes the book with a chapter addressing the prevention of school shootings and the early identification of potential shooters.
To learn more about Langman’s research and to view resources, visit his website here.
See photos from Dr. Langman's talk at Lesley.
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