MFS Blog

How to Identify a School Shooter: A Psychologist's Perspective

By Drs. John and Pamela McCaskill

How to Identify a School Shooter: A Psychologist's Perspective - MFS Blog - McCaskill Family Services - school_for__blog_post


With the recent tragic school shooting in our home state of Michigan, people are asking us, “How will I know if a student is at risk for being an active school shooter?”

We wish we had a simple checklist that we all could follow, but this is not a “one size fits all” scenario.  However, psychologists and the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reviewed and studied school shooting cases to date. There does seem to be some common variables that may help us all to be more aware and informed as we work together to prevent this from happening again.

In a review of actual school shootings, data tells us that the shooter is more likely to be a current, male student with no specific targets in mind (in most cases). Although many researchers believe there is no definitive profile, the following are things we look for as clinical psychologists to identify those who may be at greater risk and in need of more immediate support or intensive intervention.

Top 10 Characteristics of Students at Higher Risk for School Shootings:

  1. Expression of anger and revenge, often via social media/drawings.
  2. Dysfunctional family situations; lack of healthy (actively involved/aware/responsive) parental oversight.
  3. More socially isolated; no friends, peers see them as “different”.
  4. Actual or perceived bullying by peers (teasing, social rejection).
  5. Feel like they are treated unfairly by teachers/administration.
  6. At times, seem to live in a world of fantasy; fascination with violence/death/weapons/explosives.
  7. Lack of developmentally/socially appropriate remorse, ethics, morals. 
  8. Communicating plans, desires, intent to harm others.
  9. History of aggressive, violent acts (sometimes cruelty to animals).
  10. Legitimate struggles/needs (including mental illness) not validated or addressed.

One of these characteristics, in and of itself, may not be cause for concern. However, if you are at all worried about a student or someone you know, you can call (anonymously) the school’s counseling department to report your care and concern. No one needs to take on this burden of determining risk all by themselves;  there are systems and protocols in place if concerns are brought to the awareness of school personnel, authorities, qualified mental health professionals and/or Child Protective Services.


An easy way to report any concerns is through State of Michigan reporting site. These reports are sent directly to the school and local police so the appropriate people can follow up: 





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