Nature vs. Nurture: What causes some teens to become killers?

When violence erupts at school at the hands of a student, the questions come immediately.

Why did this happen? Could somebody have prevented this? Were there signs everybody missed?

Are these students the product of their environment, the victim of outside influences?

Or were they born to be violent?

There’s no easy answer, psychologists say.

“The idea that there’s a profile of a school shooter—that’s absolutely a myth,” said Dr. Amanda Nickerson, director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University of Buffalo.

In Focus | Why are many teen killers obsessed with the Columbine High School massacre? Friday at 6.

While school shooters are mostly male, and almost always spend a significant amount of time planning their attack, the similarities stop there, Nickerson said.

Some exhibit patterns of aggressive or hostile behaviors, some have undiagnosed mental health issues such as depression and some are the victims of bullying at school or have struggles at home, she said.

“They come at all levels,” Nickerson said.  

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began studying school-related violent deaths in 1992.

According to the CDC’s most recent School-Associated Violent Death Study, which looked at trends in school violence from 1992 to 2010, homicide is the second leading cause of death among youth ages five to 18. Between 1 and 2 percent of these deaths happen on school grounds, or on the way to or from school, the CDC says.

Most incidents occur during transition times at school—before or after the school day, or during lunch—and they’re more likely to occur at the start of a semester.

On the first day of school in 2012, 15-year-old Robert Gladden opened fire in the cafeteria of Perry Hall High School, shooting one student .

The CDC study found school-related violent deaths peaked in 2006, when there were 63 such incidents. That number fell in the following years.

“It’s the number of multiple-victim events that appear to be going up,” said Dr. Kathryn Seifert, an Eastern Shore-based forensic psychologist and expert on teen violence and bullying.

But pinpointing why a teenager becomes violent is not cut-and-dried, she said.

“It’s not just one factor that makes the difference,” said Seifert, owner of Eastern Shore Psychological Services, which has offices in Talbot, Wicomico and Somerset counties. “It is the cumulative effect of many factors.”

Seifert said internal factors, such as temperament, can play a role.

But she believes more often, it’s more about nurture, not nature.

“One of the biggest factors is childhood abuse and neglect,” Seifert said.

If that happens to a child at a pivotal stage of his or her development, it can interfere with the child’s ability to handle problems appropriately when he or she gets older.

“Some may get treatment, and they may be just fine,” Seifert said.

But not everybody is so lucky.

“If we take the list of risk factors and start working on them, then we can reduce the risk of that a child would act out in a violent way,” she said.

Some of those risk factors include family problems, problems with community members, struggles in school and mental health issues, Seifert said. Often, it’s a combination of all of those things.

Seifert recommends multi-systemic therapy as a way to address multiple issues. Other times, evidence-based practice to address one risk factor—such as family therapy to target family strife—is effective.

“Often—not always—issues are reflected in some way in the family,” Seifert said.

Warning signs of potential violence can surface in a child as early as three years old, if the child’s only adult role models act aggressively, Seifert said.  

She estimates that roughly 5 percent of children have problems that might lead them to become violent.

“Probably not more than half of a percent will end up shooting somebody,” Seifert said. “But when you have children beating up other children, that’s a concern, too.”

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