On Monday morning, police officers shot and killed an eighth-grader named Jaime Gonzalez, in Brownsville, Texas. Details are still emerging but Gonzalez reportedly punched another student before brandishing a carbon-dioxide powered .177-caliber pellet gun which looked like a real pistol. The police were called, and when Gonzalez ignored their commands to drop the weapon, two officers fired. Events like this obviously evoke strong feelings, since a minor was involved and the violence occurred on school grounds. I’ve seen some criticism of the officers online, but until clear details emerge, there is probably little value in second guessing their actions. Had Gonzalez been brandishing a real gun and fired on other kids while police officers hesitated, they would undoubtedly come under even greater scrutiny.
There is perhaps more value in reflecting on what leads a person to such behavior. Again, we don’t yet know much about Gonzalez, but there are several points worth making about the phenomenon of shootings in schools. First, though horrifying, shootings and homicides on school campuses remain very rare. Like airplane crashes, they seem more frequent than they actually are because they’re startling and get so much attention in the news, a phenomenon psychologists call the availability heuristic. In fact, school homicides are at a record low. According to National Center for Education Statistics data, there were 34 homicides of youths on school campuses in 1993, but by 2009, that number had dropped to 15. Considering the millions of teenagers who go to thousands of schools in the United States, that’s a small number. That’s not to say every homicide isn’t a tragedy but rather to note that heartrending cases such as the one in Brownsville don’t represent a trend.
As for what provokes such events, it’s not yet clear in the current case, but in a review I did with colleagues Mark Coulson and Jane Barnett of over 40 school shooting incidents, in almost every instance the youth involved had history of mental-health problems, such as depression or psychosis. In Gonzalez’s case, even though he was in the eighth grade, he was actually 15 years old, suggesting that he might have also had academic problems, which tend to predict youth aggression. It’s also possible, although certainly speculation, that Gonzalez may have purposely provoked police officers to kill him, a phenomenon sometimes called “suicide by cop.” Suicide by cop typically occurs when an acutely distressed and agitated individual sees no way out of their predicament and, wishing to die, provokes officers to shoot. That’s not a typical youth suicide behavior, of course, and it may be that Gonzalez felt wronged by the school or his peers and wished for the stain of his death to be on them long-term. He did reportedly warn witnesses that when police arrived, he would use his weapon against them.
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There is a fairly distinct profile of school shooters, regardless of whether they’re adults or children. In fact, Jaime Gonzalez’s age, while likely to provoke an emotional reaction from the public, is also likely the least relevant detail to how police have to assess the risk presented by them. Most such perpetrators of school violence show a combination of anger, rage and antisocial traits, have chronic mental health problems and a tendency to view themselves as having been wronged by others. A 2002 report by the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education found that many perpetrators of shooting incidents at schools warned or bragged to others about their plans in advance.
In reality, though, these events are difficult to predict. I would argue that the best way to prevent future violence is to pay greater attention to mental health services for youth. Unfortunately they don’t come free, and Texas ranks 49th in the U.S. for mental health funding according to the Texas Medical Association. Other cash strapped states such as California have slashed social services to minors. If we don’t pay to reach out to those in the most need early on, we only pay down the road in funding prisons. But we can take some comfort in remembering such incidents are rare and declining in frequency, along with all violence in the U.S. So, too, we should offer our solace to the family of the deceased in Brownsville and the police officers placed in a horribly difficult circumstance.