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School shooters tend to go down a ‘fatal grievance pathway,’ WVU researcher says

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Jeff Daniels, a counseling professor at West Virginia University, says many mass killers go down a “fatal grievance pathway.” (WVU Photo)

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Many mass killings are rooted in some sort of grievance — real or imagined unfair treatment — a West Virginia University expert said in the aftermath of the Texas elementary school shootings that left more than 20 dead.

Jeff Daniels, a professor of counseling, helped develop a model that focuses on detectable behaviors of school and workplace violence perpetrators based on research in an upcoming book. Daniels, who studies school violence, hostage crises and police ambushes, said the model aims to identify people “going down what we call the fatal grievance pathway.”

For this particular research, Daniels analyzed 37 mass killings throughout the world and 25 averted school shootings.

Quotes and Comments:

“A majority of mass shootings are grievance-based. For example, in the workplace, someone can be passed over for a promotion and they feel it’s unfair. They try to resolve it, but it doesn’t work out. This festers. At some point, the person experiences a crisis, such as a divorce or health problem. They no longer have the ability to cope and develop a fatal grievance and fantasize how to resolve this, which could be taking out the people they feel wronged by.” 

“We can go back to Columbine. The two shooters felt very disrespected. They were upset that the state wrestling champion got to park in a handicapped spot without getting a ticket. Another example is Anders Breivik, a Norwegian, who went to an island that hosted a youth camp (and killed 69 people). He left a manifesto and was upset with the ‘Muslimization’ of Europe. He had white supremacist ideologies, which also played a factor, but claims he was beat up by Muslims. He held that grievance and it festered.”

On mental illness and other narratives

“Mental illness is a secondary issue. It’s not predictive. Less than 1% of those with mental illness will engage in violent activity. It’s even less for those who become mass killers. A child’s background and family environment are also not predictive. How many kids go to school with less-than-ideal families? They don’t become school shooters.”

On detecting behaviors

“There are detectable behaviors, such as saying you’re going to take a gun to school, surveilling the place of attack or stockpiling weapons. These are now imminent threats. Collecting guns can be a baseline behavior. But if you start collecting guns and ammunition or knives and you haven’t done that before, that’s off baseline. If that’s accompanied by a kid’s grades tanking, that’s a pattern of moving off baseline we need to investigate. Parents have to know what their kids are involved in and teachers and school personnel must know too.”

On active shooter trainings and prevention

“There’s no nationally mandated training for active shooters. Many school districts choose to do it because it can be helpful to understand what to do in a crisis situation. In tactical awareness, there are phrases called ‘left of bang’ and ‘right of bang.’ Left is before an attack. Right is after an attack. I’m not aware of much training in the schools that’s ‘left of bang.’ Not every school district can afford a threat assessment team that’s fully trained, but we can train teachers, administrators and counselors about preventing a crisis and how to handle it. The shooter in Texas had signs that people should have picked up on. The same with the Parkland shooter in Florida. How to take an understanding of what to look for and what to do is the direction my research has to take in the future.”

Additional Resources:

WVU expert studies 'averted school shootings'

Unbound (WVU Magazine)

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