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Exploring the connections between bullying and school shootings

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The high school in Perry, Iowa, is reopening this week after a deadly shooting there earlier this month. A student shot five other students and three staff members before taking his own life. One student died that day, the school's principal 10 days later. There's still no confirmed motive, but classmates told the Associated Press that the attacker had been bullied since elementary school. Now, it got me wondering if there's a connection between bullying and school shootings. These tragedies often revive the debate around gun control. But what part does bullying play? Can a teen get pushed to such a dark place that it results in violence?

In a few minutes, we're going to ask a couple of experts about that. But first, I went to Sandy Spring Friends School in Maryland, between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, to ask these questions. Students walked to and from buildings scattered throughout a tree-filled campus. In one of the newest buildings, seven high schoolers met me in a cozy, glass-lined conference room. And a warning - some of what they had to say includes mentions of suicide.

DIEGO: From, like, elementary school all the way until the end of middle school, I was bullied a lot, and that's why I'm just thankful every day that I'm in here in this community and I'm safe from that.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Diego (ph), who's 17. Most of the students either had similar experiences or knew someone who had been bullied. Here's 18-year-old Austin (ph).

AUSTIN: I was bullied my entirety of when I was at my previous Friends school and just sort of feeling helpless, feeling like even if you have people you can go to, feeling as if you can't go to them because there's, like, such shame.

MARTÍNEZ: We're not using the students' last names because in the school's Quaker tradition, students and staff only go by their first names. Now, for Austin, the bullying pushed him to a dark corner.

AUSTIN: It felt like I was empty. I had thoughts of suicide and had to go to an intensive outpatient program for the entirety of basically 10th grade, and it was heartbreaking because I'm like, I'm a kid. I should be able to live - like, feel good about myself.

MARTÍNEZ: Many studies of school shootings have found that bullying plays a prominent role. A look at 41 different shootings by the National Threat Assessment Center, part of the Secret Service, found that the majority of attackers had experienced persistent bullying. And while Austin doesn't condone it...

AUSTIN: I definitely have an understanding of how if someone can be so close to wanting to hurt themselves, that that can easily be turned into being so frustrated, so tired of the behavior that they're getting from maybe the people bullying them, or even just, like, the world. And I could understand, even if it's not acceptable, of how those feelings and those thoughts could lead to someone doing something as terrible as that.

MARTÍNEZ: Greta (ph), who's 16, says the cycle of pain is easy to track.

GRETA: I mean, it's a pretty common saying, hurt people hurt people. And I think it's really unfortunate that violence ever feels like an acceptable response to when somebody's hurt. I think it's becoming normalized more and more as school violence continues to happen and action continues to not be taken.

MARTÍNEZ: Janan (ph), also 16, thinks isolation is part of the problem.

JANAN: When you internalize your emotions and you don't tell anyone, you don't go to anybody, these emotions only build up in you, and at a certain point, it's like pouring water into a container. Eventually, it's all going to spill over and it's going to flood.

MARTÍNEZ: As I was talking to these teens, I was imagining bullying the way I experienced it in high school. A kid said something mean or insulting, or if I was really unlucky that day, I'd feel their fist somewhere on my body. All that still happens today. But Bryce (ph), who's 15, brought up an added layer unique to children of the smartphone era that makes terrible things feel normal.

BRYCE: Just looking at social media, people watch fight videos for fun, or when they see something happening, the first thing they do is, oh, I should record this, send it to the group chat later for a laugh.

MARTÍNEZ: Why do you think we're there, where a video of someone - a kid, a teenager - getting abused or bullied is social media currency?

BRYCE: That's a really hard question. I feel that humans are already, in America specifically, just totally desensitized to violence 'cause it's in our games. It's just like, oh, there's a school shooting. Oh, I heard about this other one last week, oh, and this other one the month before, like it's a casual occurrence.

MARTÍNEZ: Tiffany Evans is the school's dean of student life and knows exactly what Bryce is talking about.

TIFFANY EVANS: I think we want to make sure that students feel safe, but we're fighting a battle of social media, where it's glorified to be someone who hurt someone else, who says something rude. And so we're here at school, and they're with us, and we're telling them to do the right things, and this is our culture. But the social media platforms are allowing and supportive of those things. So it's really hard for us - right? - as adults to provide consistency for students.

MARTÍNEZ: The students and staff of Sandy Spring Friends School had. All kinds of ideas for ways to stem bullying and to try to help someone that feels so damaged by it, they might feel that lashing out violently is their only option. Joel Gunzburg is the assistant head of the lower school but for years was the school's counselor.

JOEL GUNZBURG: You have to know your kid. I mean, you have to know - like, this is where it becomes so important for teachers, administrators, counselors. You know who your student is. So why are they acting so different?

MARTÍNEZ: Communication, reaching out, looking for where there are a lack of mental health resources - all of these are part of the answer, Gunzburg says. But the student we heard from first, Diego - Diego might have hit on the one thing all of us can do better.

DIEGO: We just have to be kinder to each other. That's all there is to it.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. That was our visit to Sandy Spring Friends School in Montgomery County, Md. Listening in and joining us now are two experts in this field. Dr. Allison Paolini is an experienced school counselor. She's now the director of the school counseling program at Arkansas State University and has written about the link between school shootings and student mental health. And we also have with us Dr. Peter Langman, a psychologist who's consulted with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security about the motivations of attackers and has authored three books on the subject. Allison, let's start with you. What did you make of what some of the students had to say?

ALLISON PAOLINI: Really, really powerful. I think that a lot of them touched upon that, you know, a lot of these people are in so much pain, and they're lashing out in these very volatile ways - right? - but there's a reason as to why. And we know that bullying, specifically, has a monumentally negative impact on students.

MARTÍNEZ: Peter, anything that you heard from the students that stood out to you?

PETER LANGMAN: The importance of school climate, school culture can't be emphasized enough because, as I think it was Diego commented, you know, people just need to be kinder to each other.

MARTÍNEZ: Allison, is there enough support out there for students who might be suffering from bullying so badly - to the point where they're pushed to do something violent?

PAOLINI: Coming from a school counseling perspective, probably not. I can tell you that according to ASCA, the American School Counseling Association, the ratio of school counselors to students is supposed to be 250 to 1. Is that happening? No. When I was a school counselor at a very high-needs school, I had a caseload of probably over 500 students, and there was only one of me.

MARTÍNEZ: Peter, I mentioned how you've consulted with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security about the motivations of attackers. Is there a direct link or a line that can point to bullying, to a school shooting?

LANGMAN: Certainly there have been school shooters who have been severely bullied. Many, however, have not been bullied. And unfortunately, bullying is all too common. I've seen statistics that 70% or so of students experience peer harassment, but very, very few of them will commit a rampage attack, so it's hard to say there's a 1-to-1 connection. Bullying, like any other stressor, can increase the risk, but many other factors typically play into it. It could be academic struggles. It could be disciplinary actions at the school, an arrest in the community, romantic rejections and so on. So typically when we look into the cases, even when bullying is present, it's not the only stressor. It may be very important, but typically there's other things going on as well.

MARTÍNEZ: One last question for both of you. If there was the money and the will to get behind one thing to help a high schooler who is being pushed into this kind of dark corner and to try and get them out without something horrible happening, what would you want that one thing to be? Allison, let's start with you on that.

PAOLINI: Definitely having the mental health resources because I think, especially since the pandemic, there are so many students who are struggling with - whether it's something that's diagnosed or under diagnosed - we don't know whether or not they're receiving treatment. I think that counselors - school counselors, specifically - need to do more and to really address social-emotional learning. And I think a lot of these students would benefit, whether they're perpetrators of violence or victims or just students in general, right? I think that having these life skills - so being able to regulate your emotions, resolve conflict, mindfulness, communication and really expressing yourself rather than internalizing it, like a lot of the students had mentioned, if more schools focused more on preventative measures - right? - and were more proactive rather than reactive, I think we would see strides.

MARTÍNEZ: Peter, what about you? One thing we could focus on.

LANGMAN: My focus is violence prevention. And there's a growing trend for schools to have threat assessment teams. And the idea of threat assessment is identifying those students early, before they hurt anybody and getting the services they need so they can get back on track and live their lives and be, you know, successful, high-functioning members of our community. So I always want to make a plea for schools to have threat assessment teams, get them trained, know how to intervene effectively with, you know, wide range of students who may be facing a wide range of crises and get them out of crisis and back on track.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Dr. Peter Langman, psychologist and the author of three books on the motivations behind school shootings, and Dr. Allison Paolini, director of the school counseling program at Arkansas State University. My thanks to you both.

LANGMAN: Thank you.

PAOLINI: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCARS TO YOUR BEAUTIFUL")

ALESSIA CARA: (Singing) And you don't have to change a thing. The world could change its heart No scars to your beautiful. We're stars, and we're beautiful.

MARTÍNEZ: If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, you can call or text 988 - just those numbers, nothing else - 988 - and that gets you to the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCARS TO YOUR BEAUTIFUL")

CARA: (Singing) No scars to your beautiful. We're stars, and we're beautiful. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.