The Danger of the Copycat

On March 5, 2001, a 15-year-old student began shooting randomly into the courtyard at Santana High School in Santee, California, killing two and injuring thirteen. Seventeen days later only three miles away, an 18-year-old drove up to Granite Hills High School, knelt down in the parking lot in military style, and began shooting into the building from outside. No one was killed, but five were wounded and the whole school was emotionally shaken. As the second shooting at a school in three weeks, this case has several considerations for us to analyze. Let’s look at three: 1) Should the shooter have been such a surprise? 2) Is this a copycat shooting? 3) Was the school’s reaction generally successful?

First, the shooter was a surprise. No one expected him to have violent tendencies. Is this because he just snapped? I would argue that the more likely scenario is that people were just oblivious, or they did not know what to look for. As evidence, I cite that he was described as a “good student” with “loner tendencies” and “emotional problems.” In addition, he was supposedly from a troubled home and was commonly seen walking in his neighborhood to escape the house. Almost any school would have seen this student as an at-risk student. There was no evidence of whether he was in counseling, but his violent actions should not have come as a surprise, nevertheless. I know this may sound pessimistic, but the psychology behind at-risk students backs up the hypothesis. There are, unfortunately, students that teachers and administrators should keep an eye on to identify risk factors.

Second, there is a major possibility that this was a copycat shooting. While there has been no research to say for sure, there is nothing to keep us from theorizing. Think about the evidence. This was the second shooting in three weeks, not just in San Diego, but in the same school district. Research shows that “media reports of suicides and homicides appear to subsequently increase the incidence of similar events in the community, apparently due to the coverage planting the seeds of ideation in at-risk individuals to commit similar acts.” An incident’s effects last about thirteen days. The shooting at Santana High School was a mere seventeen days before this shooting. Not enough evidence yet? Well, then consider that the incidences themselves were so similar. The Santana shooter started randomly spraying the courtyard of the high school in gunfire. He never went in the building. Neither did this shooter. He pulled up in his truck, knelt down in military style in the parking lot, and started spraying the building in gunfire. So, was the Granite Hills High School shooting a copycat of the Santana High School shooting? We may never know, but I am convinced.

Third, the school’s reaction in this case was successful. When the gunfire started, the Los Angeles Times reports that “students screamed, teachers yelled orders, and everyone dove under their desks.” The school went into lockdown, as faculty walked the halls evacuating classrooms one by one and moving the students to a nearby park to meet their parents. In this case, lockdown was successful. However, in some scenarios, lockdown is almost the worst possible reaction. Lockdown keeps targets still and allows them to freeze in fear. A shooter inside the building (this one was outside) would change the game. Let’s look at some of the positives in their reaction, though. They ran! Evacuating students to a nearby park was wise, and doing so in an orderly fashion was great, but normally impossible. Normal shooters are looking for chaos. They want people to have their natural freeze reaction, and it is important that we train our students so that they know how to respond without the unrealistic expectation that the principal can walk around and orderly evacuate the building. With the hide possibility, those classrooms closest to the shooter should shut and lock the door, cover the windows in the door, and either climb out a window or lay low. Lockdown is only a good idea in these classrooms. Others that are not near the shooter should run.

I cannot emphasize the idea of preparation enough. The body cannot go where the mind has never been.

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