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School shooters do not fit into a specific profile, professor says

Supporters hold up signs during the March for our Lives protest at Pan American Courts on March 24.

The Magnet Tribune: Kayla Gonzalez

Supporters hold up signs during the March for our Lives protest at Pan American Courts on March 24.

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Despite the popular perception of school shooters responding to bullying, a local university professor explains there is no way to create a specific profile of shooters.

Alexis Harper, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Texas A&M International University, teaches classes in Criminology, media and crime, and related subjects.

Harper explained why some people don’t ask for help or tell others their problems.

“There is a typical scenario that sort of assumes that the shooter is a student lashing out because of bullying or something of that nature,” Harper said. “We can’t just assume their motivation. In general, asking for help might make people feel helpless; they want to feel like they can handle it on their own. Like our physiological research and social science research tells us that people want to control their own lives without seeming weak, and sometimes asking for help can be humiliating.”

She said schools are places that offer plenty of targets.

“Schools are pretty common space for students and they know it’s a space where they can predictably harm people. They know it’s a place where they go every day, where there are people that they can target. They’re aware of their familiar surroundings,” Harper said. “Then they know that their targets are available, that people will be there during a predictable time of day. In general, it’s a suitable target for them.

There have been many school shootings over the years. Three, for example, is the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado (1999), 13 victims; the Sandy Hook Elementary (2012) in Newton, Connecticut shooting, 26 victims; and the Virginia Tech (2007) shooting had 32 victims.

She said school shooters don’t fit a specific profile.

“It’s really difficult to put these people into any kind of category. We know that some of them have different things in common in their background, maybe like nature or environmental issues, upbringing that maybe they didn’t have good parental supervision or they grew up in a single parent family household or have some kind of neuropsychological (issues) where they didn’t develop socially or whatever the case may be,” she said. “Or (they may be) victims of domestic violence, even.”

Harper explained that trying to profile people is difficult.

(Shooters) know that their targets are available, that people will be there during a predictable time of day. In general, it’s a suitable target for them.”

— Alexis Harper

“The reality is that there’s not really a pattern that has been identified in the background that people have in common, and it’s really difficult to profile people because we’re sort of committing what is called an ecological fallacy,” Harper said. “It’s like saying just because you have this risk factor you’re unavoidably going to become a criminal, and that’s an incorrect and unfair assumption.”

The term “school shootings” is not easily described, she said.

“It’s really important to consider how you define school shootings. Many news articles are saying that they are averaging more than one school shooting a day per year but this includes shootings that are things like an accidental discharge of a weapon or things that are unrelated to the school and the students themselves happened to be near school property,” she said. “So based on these kinds of things, it’s difficult to count the numbers of school shootings that compare to the incidents. You know, while no students should feel unsafe on campuses incidents like Columbine, Virginia Tech, and the Stoneman Douglas shootings most recently in Parkland, Florida are very rare.”

Harper said surveys taken at TAMIU show students feel safe on campus.

“I think parents, in general, are always concerned about what goes on with their children. I think TAMIU is a very safe campus. Students here don’t have concerns about others type of crime either because there’s been a variety of campus crime surveys that have assessed students’ perception at risk of different crimes, and the students say that they feel safe,” she said. “The public has a variety of concerns that are perhaps perpetuated by the media that schools are unsafe but in fact, schools are the safest environment for children.”

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School shooters do not fit into a specific profile, professor says