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For those of us in the emergency management and public safety fields, it is easy to put together a mental image of a school shooter.  Most of us have been riveted to news coverage following mass shootings and seen enough television and movies that we could easily put together a list of telltale signs for a school shooter. We naturally assume that the profile of an active shooter is a male. But what other characteristics indicate a potential school shooter?

We assume that he has failing grades and poor academic performance. We give credence to interviews describing him as a “loner” with no friends. We also assume the shooter had a history of mental illness, how else could he be capable of such atrocities? We commonly dwell on the parents and families of the school shooter–what type of environment could have produced a school shooter? Obviously, school shooters must come from broken families, with absentee or abusive parents, don’t they?

Furthermore, what makes a shooter act?  Why today instead of yesterday?  Why not tomorrow? We assume that school shooters just snap. If there was any forewarning—wouldn’t someone have noticed? Surely parents, family or teachers would have noticed something and  prevented him from carrying out his plot. Logically, we assume, the only way a school shooter could possibly plan his attack would be if he carried out his planning in secret.

All of these assumptions form what most of us have developed as the profile or stereotype of an active shooter in schools. But how accurate are our assumptions?  How close to the mark have we gotten and are we looking for the wrong indicators? Shockingly, research by the United States Secret Service and the US Department of Education contradicts the majority of our aforementioned assumptions. The US Secret Service researched all incidents of school shootings between 1974 and 2000 and reached some astonishing conclusions.

For example, most school shooters have good grades. Research shows that only about 5% of school shooters receive failing grades. That means the vast majority of school shooters do well in school.


Many news reports following a school shooting label the shooter as a loner who had no friends, but most of the interviews focus on people or other students who admittedly had little social interaction with the shooter. After the shooting at Columbine High School, news media explained that the shooters were loners–even though both shooters were very social, having a core group of friends and  dates for prom. The study by the Secret Service also challenged the “loner” stereotype. Only one-third of school shooters could be identified as a “loner”. This means that two out of three school shooters appear to have and maintain typical social interactions.

Additionally, less than 20% of school shooters have been diagnosed with a mental health or behavior disorder prior to the shooting. This statistic is one of the most troubling. Especially with the dark stigma surrounding mental illness, most of us assume school shooters have been problematic students with a history of mental illness. According to research by the Council of School Attorneys after the shooting in Columbine, CO, “…approximately 18% of children and adolescents have a mental health disorder, and that approximately 5% are severely emotionally disturbed. The odds are, therefore, that every classroom in every school has at least one student with a mental health disorder.” Given that the number of school shootings is far less than the number of students diagnosed with mental health issues and  most school shooters are not diagnosed with an illness or disorder at the time of the attack, is the diagnosis of mental health issues an accurate indicator for predisposition as a school shooter? Conversely, and more importantly, does the absence of a diagnosed mental health disorder in an individual truly contraindicate the predilection for initiating a school shooting?

Although much blame is associated with “broken” or dysfunctional families, the US Secret Service discovered that most school shooters come from two-parent families. Perhaps most shocking, however, is the conclusion that school shooters do not simply “snap.” As the report concludes, 93% of school shooters planned their attack. Even more shocking is that the vast majority of school shooters share their plans with others prior to the attack.

In over 80% of school shootings, the attacker told at least one person. In close to 60% of school shootings, the attacker told more than one person! At one school shooting, at least twenty four students knew about the attack before it occurred. Most importantly, however, is the statistic that over 90% of school shooters exhibit warning signs prior to the shooting that go either ignored or underreported. While the stereotype seems to tell us that school shooters prepare for their attack in secret, the facts support the conclusion that school shooters share their plans and intent with others.

In essence, school shooters do not cleanly fit the stereotype many of us have developed for them. Based on their horrific actions, we assume that school shooters must severely differ from other students.

In many ways, it is actually possible that our collective stereotype of a school shooter may actually work against us. If we assume that school shooters are academic failures who plan in secret, have few friends and come for broken homes, we are relying upon a flawed set of indicators. Unfortunately, even when other warning signs are evident, are we less likely to act or report those fears because the individual may fail to meet our perception of a school shooter?  Surely they are just kidding, or going through a phase, or acting out, aren’t they?

As emergency management and public safety professionals, it is more important than ever to be well-trained in identifying the actual characteristics of a school shooter–rather than relying on unfounded assumptions, stereotypes and Hollywood portrayals. While the data supplied by the Secret Service is informative, perhaps its biggest value is opening our eyes to the fact that school shooters defy traditional depictions and some of our own deeply held assumptions.  It is not enough to simply be familiar with the warning signs of a school shooter, but we must use this research to expand our sensitivities and awareness of potential school shooter  to alter and improve the culture of preparedness in relation to society’s most defenseless members: our schoolchildren.

Todd Jasper is the Associate Director of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division of MSA, Inc. and Jason Geneau is the Deputy Director for Planning and Implementation in the Disaster Management & Homeland Security Services Division of Tetra Tech, Inc.