A Multi-Layered Approach to Understanding School Shootings in US

A Group of Change Response to Societal Events

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein.

19 children and their 2 elementary school teachers were killed in Uvalde, TX on Tuesday. This is the second deadliest school shooting on record after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting ( Nyt, May 24, 2022). According to World population review

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, United States is the first among the other nations around the world in school shootings with a number 288 between the years 2009-2022. By definition, school shooting is an attack that involves the use of firearms that takes place at an educational institution. A lot of school shootings were listed under mass shootings because of the considerable number of individuals, students, staff and many others being killed or injured (World Population Review). Of course, this is a striking difference as compared to other world countries. As great as this nation might be in terms of economy and growth, this level of aggression and violence happening quite frequently is something that needs immediate attention, most importantly, action.

            As psychologists, whatever our area concentration might be, we always prefer to look at presenting problems as “symptoms” not as an end in themselves. Therefore, as with most of the problems we have in this world including but not limited to “climate change,” “war,” “famine,” “infectious and other types of diseases such as Covid,” “fires and earthquakes and their aftermaths,” “economic downturns” … and so on, we treat this type of “violence and terror” as a symptom. A symptom of something deeper, more complex, and even more intricate to understand therefore to solve.

            Sometimes if there is a problem of this nature, be it in an individual’s life, or in an institutions’ daily operations’ or in a society’s daily functioning, it might be more functional and even beneficial to view it at multi-levels. That is why sometimes we call this a multi-disciplinary approach to problems and to their solutions.

            Why does a shooting happen? If it is recurring like this, especially in such a high number in a nation as compared to others, we need to look at it by considering this multi-layered perspective.

            Let’s start with the individual level approach which is at the root of clinical psychology and sometimes also developmental psychology. And in this blog, I am not going to explain anything, but rather, as all scientists do, will ask some questions which could still be helpful for us to think deeper on the problem.

At the individual level, when a young person does something like this, that affects the lives of so many, we may ask the following questions:

  • What is the mental state related issues if there are any? Any genetic problematic dispositions or genetically identified problems?
  • Any issues in terms of developmental history? (Including developmental stages in the past, current developmental stage related issues…etc.)
  • What is the individual’s personal history with the community?
  • What is the individual’s personal history with his/her immediate family?
  • Any issues with the individual’s experience in schools including elementary, middle school, and high school?
  • Any issues with social/educational environment in schools? (As an example, was the student excluded for some reason, any history of being marginalized, retention, suspension…etc.?)
  • Any addiction/behavior/conduct problems in general?
  • What are the experiences of the others (significant and peripheral circles) in his/her life? What do they report about the individual?

At the familial level, (which might be the topics for clinical/family/social psychology/social work) meaning the parents, grandparents or other close relatives concerned, below could be some of the questions to be asked:

  • What is the parental history with the individual? (Any family breakups, any history of violence/abuse in the family…etc.)
  • What is the current family living situation? (including income, relocation issues, any mental health issues with any family members…etc.)
  • Is the individual feeling part of his or her family? Is the family including the individual as part of themselves? (physically/psychologically or both)
  • What is the problem-solving style by the family culture? (through healthy or unhealthy ways/through dysfunctional styles such as verbal aggression…etc.)
  • How do family members treat the individual in a daily life? (Love/respect/hate/disrespect/inclusion/exclusion…etc.)

Now, let’s look at some questions at the institutional level (areas of school psychology, forensic psychology, organizational psychology, criminal justice, social work) including schools, community centers, churches, police departments, public facilities…etc.

  • Individual’s school history at all levels of education (academic performance, behavioral problems, relationship with peers/teachers/school staff)
  • How was the individual treated in and by schools/teachers/related management? (exclusion/inclusion/punishment/recognition/rewards…etc.)
  • What is the community-level interaction with the individual? (any activity/membership involvement/any problems in participation in any of these…etc.).
  • Any criminal records? (Any police intervention, any search warrant history, any complaints to the police department about the individual’s questionable act…etc.)

At the societal level, which includes the overall culture in one’s residential community as well as one’s state (highly a topic for cultural psychology, social psychology/ sociology/ anthropology/ economy/social anthropology/social work), and finally the nation (including country of origin if that also applies), we may ask the following:

  • What is the overall society’s treatment of the individual (exclusion/inclusion/marginalize/criminalize/medicalize)? In other words, was the individual treated as a potential criminal, a potential patient, or an alien and generally treated accordingly?
  • What is the society’s approach/treatment to the individual’s original culture and/or nation including all others that belong to the same culture? Is the individual being treated somewhat differently than the natives? Is he or she feeling somewhat excluded/even unnecessary/foreign or sometimes feeling even weird/or being ignored based on his or her color/ethnicity/race/language/appearance or any other personal factor that has a potential relevance to those above?
  • At a broader level, how do people treat one another in the society in which the individual lives? Is there a sense of community where people help each other no matter what? Are they invested in others’ problems? Do they relate to one another on a regular basis? If they relate, how is it in terms of closeness, support, and exchange of resources?
  • In that society/culture, how do people approach problems as a whole? Do they see someone’s problems as completely one’s own vs. do they see it something with which they could also help? In other words, do the people see each other’s problems important and do they own at least a piece of it?
  • Does the society treat problems something to be prevented therefore, when they see or witness an issue, even minor, do they feel the responsibility of letting important authorities know or do they see it completely unpreventable therefore neither theirs nor related institutions’ early interventions would be rather insignificant?
  • What is the nation’s approach to preventing violence of any kind in the forms of certain legislatures and mandates? (such as gun control, security measures taken place especially concerning communities/institutions at risk, rewards/mandates around efforts to prevent violent violence at the public level…etc.)
  • Is the culture one which represents connectedness/wholeness/interdependence/oneness or a culture of separation that is demonstrated in the form of certain human values, practices, assumptions such that:
    • People are not really interested in others and others’ lives beyond what interests them at the personal level (work/professional/close proximity in living/health/personal needs of any sort…etc.)
    • People see each other as completely “the other entity/being,” mostly complete strangers that most of the time require one to adopt protective practices such as staying away, maintain minimum interaction, physically and psychologically maintaining good distance…etc.
    • People see other humans as potential threats of any sort (including but not limited to violence, theft, robbery, abuse, physical disease, cause of discomfort and even distraction from one’s personal life/goals)
    • The interactions and all types of human contact are rigidly structured so that there are highly strict boundaries around being neighbors, being school mates, being students, being colleagues, being friends, and even being family members.
    • For the sake of protecting and maintaining societal rules and legal systems, relationships thus related flexibilities in approach are never considered in any type of circumstance no matter how heartfelt the issue might be.
    • For the sake of professionalism and maintaining its strict standards there are never re-considerations of any type of even minor deviations from the norm, no matter how bad the situation might call for it.

As we could see, a multi-layered approach to seemingly a rather complex but a repeating problem concerning a nation requires us to ask many questions that could call for participation of many parties at many different layers of existence. Depending on our level of analysis, our problem definition changes therefore our ways to solutions.

America may not be the most diverse countries in the world but looking at even the origins of the mainly Non-Hispanic White (57.8% according to 2020 Census) population, there are countries of origin being very much diverse no matter how far you go back in generations. What it all means is that treating diverse cultures, managing them, and understanding them accordingly, and most importantly, creating individual/familial/institutional/societal/political/national structures/policies/norms around inclusiveness/interdependence/connectedness seems to be top priority still. However. overlooking the role of culture that simply could be the glue which holds it altogether would be a fatal mistake knowing that it is through the culture that we have a way of living, meaning, and treating.

As Edgar Schein succinctly says in a one sentence definition, culture is a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration. Those shared assumptions could be so deeply ingrained that many times render a highly multi-level approach to change therefore healing/peace/happiness/non-violence/healthy co-existence no matter how diverse the makeup is.