A Theoretical Explanation for the Increase in School Shootings



Relevant insights by the experts from American Military University


A Theoretical Explanation for the Increase in School Shootings

By Dr. Michael Pittaro, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

On February 14, Nikolas Cruz, a former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, walked onto school grounds and proceeded to randomly gun down students and teachers in one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history. Sadly, this story is a familiar one. It has once again ignited a series of national debates, particularly in reference to gun control and mental illness, and rightfully so. Why has there been such a surge in mass school shootings since Columbine in 1999?

There is no single answer to the cause of mass school shootings, but it goes much deeper and further than issues of gun control and mental illness. As a criminologist, I have several theoretical explanations that may shed some light on the topic by focusing on the shooters themselves.

Ever since the mass school shooting at Columbine High School, we can safely surmise that the typical American school shooter is likely to be a Caucasian adolescent male from a middle-class community who attends or attended a suburban high school. Further, the shooter is likely to be a loner, an outcast, and is described by teachers and peers as being socially awkward with a limited number of friends.

Reports also indicate that the majority of school shooters were victims of bullying. Bullying continues to be a pervasive social problem among adolescents and includes both verbal and physical provocation in schools, as well as cyberbullying. Many of the shooters were ridiculed, belittled, demeaned, or even ostracized to the point where it might be assumed revenge or retaliation became a strong motivating force for their actions.

Based on this information, Hirschi’s (1969) Social Control Theory can be used as a reliable and valid psychosocial explanation for school shootings, specifically in understanding the risk factors associated with someone who might resort to such violence.

Applying Social Control Theory to School Shootings

Unlike most criminological theories that explain why people engage in mass shootings and other crimes, Hirschi’s theory explains why people obey rules and remain law-abiding. Social control theories primarily focus on how external environmental and institutional factors influence how we conform to society’s rules and expectations.

Hirschi’s theory consists of four main “social bonds”. When one or more of the following social bonds are weakened, or severed altogether, individuals are more susceptible to crime and deviance.


Attachment is expressed as compassion and empathy toward friends, family, coworkers, and even acquaintances like classmates. School shooters lack attachment. They harbor and internalize anger, frustration, and disappointment that can stem from being bullied by their peers, whether real or perceived. These antagonistic emotions grow in the days, weeks, or months leading up to the attack. While some school shooters have targeted specific people, many of them, like Cruz, have fired indiscriminately. The random direction of these shooters’ aim suggests that they have no regard for human life and have rationalized their actions. This is very similar to the cognitive restructuring process that terrorists use to justify the killing of innocent lives.



Commitment pertains to the time and energy an individual spends pursuing a specific social goal or activity, such as obtaining a college degree or pursuing a particular position within their desired profession. Most people know that engaging in crime will likely jeopardize their career ambitions and educational goals; therefore, they conform to society’s norms and expectations. However, many school shooters adopt a mindset where they do not foresee a future beyond a shooting event. That is why many of them display a kill or be-killed attitude and are willing to take their own life by suicide or suicide by cop.


Individuals who are engrossed in conventional and fulfilling social activities often do not have the time or interest in engaging in unlawful activities. One of the main reasons parents want their children involved in athletics, extra- curricular activities, or any other socially appropriate activity is that it keeps them out of trouble and gives them a sense of belonging to a team, club, or social organization. Individuals who commit school shootings are often described as loners or outcasts, meaning they do not feel like a meaningful part of any group or community.


The fourth and final bond is when an individual believes in the social rules, expectations, and laws of society as taught to them by parents, family members, and friends as well as educational and religious institutions. The stronger one’s moral beliefs in the social norms, the less likely they are to participate in delinquent or criminal activities. Criminal offenders either disregard society’s shared beliefs or rationalize their own deviant behavior. For example, the belief that killing is wrong is reinforced by parents, education and religion; however, a shooter will disregard what he/she has been taught or rationalize their behavior so they can go through with the mass shooting.

Weak Social Bonds Lead to School Shootings

In order to fully understand and appreciate the paradigm and applicability of Hirschi’s theory, it is important to recognize the historical context from which he wrote Causes of Delinquency (1969). In the 1960s, Hirschi observed a loss of social control over individuals and an accompanying rise in crime, particularly among adolescents. Social institutions such as organized religion, the family, educational institutions, and political institutions were not as prominent in the life of adolescents. As a result, these individuals started to challenge conventional social norms and expectations. Hirschi blamed this on the breakdown of the aforementioned social institutions, particularly the breakdown of the family due to increasing rates of divorce and single-parent households.

Fast forward to present day and this shift in family structure has continued. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 34 percent of children today are living with an unmarried parent—up from just 9 percent in 1960, and 19 percent in 1980. In most cases, these unmarried parents are single. I feel strongly that individuals who carry out school shootings can lack both resiliency and coping skills due to the breakdown of family structures, as well as reduced value placed on religious and educational institutions. These social institutions are important for molding and shaping individuals and instilling compassion, empathy, and respect for the law and those in authoritative positions.

More importantly, family members, friends, religious leaders, and teachers provide guidance to young people about how to adapt to—and cope with—rejection, disappointment, and frustration. Learning how to be resilient is important for adolescents. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as the process of adapting in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, and other significant sources of stress and how we “learn” to “bounce back” from difficult experiences.

Being resilient does not suggest that an individual does not experience challenges or distress. Rather, it emphasizes how one processes thoughts, behaviors, and actions when confronted with stress. One of the primary ways to build resilience is having a support system of family and friends. This support system is built on compassion and trust, and it provides individuals with unconditional encouragement and reassurance. People need to have a strong foundation of positive self-image and self-confidence to overcome low and challenging moments. While there are many factors that lead to school shootings, all children need to be taught how to manage stress in a healthy way to control their negative impulsive behaviors that often lead to self-destructive outcomes.

Ten Strategies to Build Resilience

The American Psychological Association outlined 10 strategies to build resilience:

  1. Make connections. Individuals need to build positive relationships with family members, friends and others whom can provide support. Being active in civic groups, faith-based organizations, or other local groups provides social support. It can also be beneficial to help others in their times of need.
  2. Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable. Highly stressful events happen to everyone, but what counts is how one interprets and responds to them. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be better. Note any subtle ways in which you might already feel somewhat better as you deal with difficult situations. These are your coping mechanisms and can be consciously applied when you face future challenges.
  3. Accept that change is a part of living. As you get older, certain goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations. When you accept that some circumstances cannot be changed, it allows you to focus on other circumstances that you can influence.
  4. Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly — even if it seems like a small accomplishment — that enables you to move toward those goals. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?”
  5. Take decisive actions. Rather than detach completely from problems and stresses or wish they would just go away, take decisive actions to improve the situation as best you can. Avoidance is not the answer.
  6. Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often learn something about themselves and grow in some respect as a result of struggling with loss, rejection, or disappointment. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardship report later they have stronger relationships, a greater sense of strength even while feeling vulnerable, an increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality, and a heightened appreciation for life. As you’re going through a hardship, remember that there may be benefits in the long run.
  7. Nurture a positive view of yourself. Have confidence in your ability to solve problems and trust in your instincts. Believing in yourself in a positive way helps build your overall resilience.
  8. Keep things in perspective. Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion.
  9. Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.
  10. Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.

Teaching children and adolescents how to apply these strategies can help them build their resiliency so that when stressful situations happen—which they inevitably will—they have the ability to get through it in the most positive and beneficial way possible. The more equipped people are to cope with stress and adversity, the less chance they will turn to dangerous and impulsive actions, including school shootings.

school shootingsAbout the Author: Dr. Michael Pittaro is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice with American Military University and an Adjunct Professor at East Stroudsburg University. Dr. Pittaro is a criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of institutional and non-institutional settings. Before pursuing a career in higher education, Dr. Pittaro worked in corrections administration; has served as the Executive Director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility and as Executive Director of a drug and alcohol prevention agency. Dr. Pittaro has been teaching at the university level (online and on-campus) for the past 15 years while also serving internationally as an author, editor, presenter, and subject matter expert. Dr. Pittaro holds a BS in Criminal Justice; an MPA in Public Administration; and a Ph.D. in criminal justice.

Safety and security can be accomplished if we all learn to READ


 Law Enforcement Today


Safety and security can be accomplished if we all learn to READ

The recent school shooting in Florida at Parkland High School that left 17 dead and many others injured along with past active shooter situations in our educational facilities over the recent weeks, months and years must be addressed.

These events have generated a substantial amount of public outcry and major concerns to school officials and administrators nationwide. These officials and administrators are searching for information on the best evidence-based practices that are needed to create and maintain a safe and secure school environment.

The main purpose of educational facilities is to educate and provide a safe and secure environment for students and faculty members. Because of recent tragic events, we must move rapidly to educate and train the boots-on-the-ground educational community to be prepared to act in a manner that provides for safety and security, in a critical situation, until first responders arrive on the scene.

The first responders and law enforcement agencies provide outstanding service regarding emergency response to active shooter situations, however, an active shooter situation, which unfolds and ends extremely fast, is unique to other emergency situations because of the time span of the event.

Police response time has drastically improved over the years. However, the focus has to be narrowed to situational awareness and threat assessment. Teachers, students, and support staff must be trained in best practice methods to be able to identify, recognize and address all emergency situations.

Active shooter training, drills, and exercises will provide the knowledge and ability to evaluate, assess, address, and readdress any deficiencies in the emergency plan. It is extremely important to keep the emergency plan current by updating as necessary with the latest best practices.

More importantly, we need to look at the proactive approach to reduce these events before they occur in the first place. We (I) have created an acronym for all educational facilities as well as every person in their communities to assist them in pinpointing and reducing any possible threat in their homes, place of business, public events or any large group gathering.

The acronym READ incorporates word association along with memory recall training and awareness techniques that should be available to all school personnel to mitigate any possible threat of violence before they can unfold. Awareness is proactive, being aware of your surroundings at all times.

READ will assist you in being more attentive to your surroundings. Recognize, Evaluate, Address, and Deter, can reduce and help to stop these events before they can occur.

R: Recognize

If your natural senses are heightened, or you get that gut feeling, your senses are telling you something is wrong, alert someone immediately. Some examples of your senses are your eyes or sight, if you see something that does not feel or look right to you, say something to someone of authority. Another sense is hearing, if you hear something from friends, social media, even rumors, tell someone as soon as possible.

We have all had that strange feeling in our stomach about someone or something this should never be ignored. If it does not feel right to you, tell a teacher, a guidance counselor, a security guard, your resource officer, your principal or your parents and more importantly, law enforcement. There is an old saying “better safe, than sorry.” Take the right steps before something happens.

The process leading up to violence is just as evident as an act. A violent statement or statements, small acts or telltale signs of behavior are ways to recognize a possible escalation of a violent event or episode. The behavior may be the culmination of long-developing social and economic problems, family or school conflicts, social or academic failures, or clashes with authority and are all identifiable traits that are recognizable.

EEvaluate or elevation.

Evaluate or the evaluation process needs to be conducted by professionals to assess if the subject is a danger to himself/herself or others. The assessment starts as soon as the first incident has been reported. The first incident, statement, act, action or concern you may have or others may have along with any personal intuition is very important and must be reported to the proper authority for further evaluation immediately. This will assure that proper action is taken to prevent an incident. Evaluation is imperative because it will be the catalyst for addressing the

A: Address

Address the issue, no matter how big or small. Trained personnel in different areas of the assessment process will not only start a written dialogue they will also take the steps necessary to notify all agencies involved to be on alert and to coordinate efforts to prepare for and prevent an incident. In order to effectively address situation, agency personnel, institutions and all authorities involved need to have a plan in place that utilizes the best practices known at that time. By coordinating efforts, it is possible to stop or mitigate any incident before it can come to fruition. Each agency should and will have a contingency plan in place.

D: Deter

Deter the violence from ever happening in the first place.

The R is Recognized by you or me and the E is Evaluated and A is Addressed by the proper personnel or agency. If these steps are followed there is a great possibility that the incident will be Deterred.

If our educational community learns to READ the signs, schools will once again deliver on the promise of a safe and secure environment for our children.


Downs, Scott. “Active Shooter in Educational Facility.” Journal of Emergency Management, vol. 13, no. 4, 2015, pp. 303–326., doi:10.5055/jem.2015.0244

Fein, Robert A., et al. “Threat Assessment: An Approach To Prevent
Targeted Violence.” PsycEXTRA Dataset, doi:10.1037/e517592006-001.

“Threat Assessment for School Administrators & Crisis Teams,” National Association of School Psychologists

Scott Downs is currently an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Briarcliffe College that has been published in the Journal of Emergency Management, as a content expert on Active Shooters Situations. He is a summa cum laude graduate of Saint Joseph’s College and holds a Master’s Degree from the Long Island University- Homeland Security Management Institute that was designated by Congress after 9-11. Scott being a former 4th generation law enforcement officer and former Director of Operations of a national security company combines his educational and real world experience to actively serve both the public and private sectors, as safety and security consultant and instructor. He can be reached at scottdowns@optimum.net.

The Social Bomb Theory: We Created These Monsters


The Social Bomb Theory: We Created These Monsters

We assume most people are inherently good. But while that cliché is out there, the boldness of some to gun down police officers and children seems to diminish its truth.

Two things are evident from these very different scene types.

With each law enforcement death, the nation should be alarmed as a piece of our security and public safety is challenged. When peacekeepers are murdered, it should shock your conscience every time. Not only does the violence set an ominous tone for our civility and social health, the acts obviously disregard human life. It seems the suspects do it effortlessly, like taking a human life is no different than a misdemeanor such as petty theft or an act of vandalism.

Children are innocents. When they are treated as targets, the shootings send a clear message about our social health as well. It cuts deeper into our wounds. Although it resounds of unfathomable actions, it paints a clear picture of a severe national problem we should be addressing: families.

Suspect typologies give us insight into social problems…

Most often the school shooters are younger and may or may not have attended the establishment they attacked. It is easier to peg this on mental illness, which in some cases the suspects are disconnected combined with a mental illness. However, in many cases, they are not or have never been diagnosed. They might lack coping skills and never seemed to overcome adversity without someone taking care of it or resorting to violent outbursts. The act of violence against a student and faculty population is planned and premeditated.

 Cop killers function in dysfunction whether it is in a criminal underworld and/or turmoil on the home front. They feel wronged. Life and people are unfair. They might kill on impulse or through an orchestrated ambush. They may or may not have a mental illness. They might be trying to escape apprehension at the time of a police contact which creates a desperate situation. It may not surprise you that they probably defy authority on a regular basis or have negative perceptions of police. Most often they have a criminal past and many police contacts.

So, are those persons who ambush police and murder children disconnected or are they driven by hate? Is it both?

These are two very different suspectologies, but they have something in common: some sort of disconnection and evil. We must recognize that evil does exist in many forms, some easily recognizable and some hidden. There are also various extents of each. These are mean people but not just mean- they have a serious malfunction.

Disconnection comes from several things. There is no “one and done” explanation. There are many forms of disconnection where some are displayed outward and some are internalized. The disconnection we see in school shooters is far more extreme.

I could propose a far-out theory that disconnected persons live in their head and have become estranged with everything and everyone around them. Compound this theory with social alienation pointing a finger back at them. They become isolated even if they have family and friends.

How did this happen? It was partly their choice and the choice of those inside their influence circle. Factors could include but are not limited to: home life, lack of social skills, interpersonal interactions (somewhat negatively impacting the individual), technology and internet contexts, exposure to various violent images on television, video games, and media content formed desensitized emotions.

Think about it, some of this cognitive disconnection happens to cops with repetitive exposure to human misery. What saves most cops? They sacrifice a piece of themselves for others, but they have a strong social network to keep them grounded. They also formed good coping skills as an adolescent.

This is absent in disconnected youth where intervention is weakly attempted but usually results in further isolation by punishments such as suspensions and expelling actions. I am not saying those actions are not necessary, but there is no aftercare or treatment.

 Additionally, many of the mass shooters appear to be very mentally immature, cognitively delayed. They never quite fit in. They are socially awkward. These individuals may or may not have been bullied or had been a bully.

Police officers could have told you about this social freight train nightmare which was brewing 20 years ago. Yet, our observations have been dismissed because we are just cops. What do we know, right?

Society is just reaping these “rewards” from the past snowball effects of broken families and bad parenting, plus a shift in lessening authority in schools. Now, not one, but all of those important variables are powerless.

There is a change of tone in America.

Why should there be a rise to a special awareness about police deaths and school shootings although they are two different tragedies? Should we disregard all other homicides as business as usual? No.

But there is a change of tone. The social changes signal intramural reflections of our country. A soldier’s death is not recognized as front page news unless it was lumped in with some political hot point or a mass casualty. Even then, circumstances might shove it down from the headline. I hear people say, “Well, it’s expected. It’s a risk of the job.” The same is heard of law enforcement officers killed.

This is what is wrong with things. We have all become desensitized.

This violence and the lackadaisical efforts to fix it should set a national tone of fear in many citizens. A majority of fixes are in our homes where we are terrible at being parents and guardians. No one likes to do any self-reflection on a national problem and see themselves as a catalyst for a growing social decline.

Our kids should never have to barricade themselves in a building and fight for their lives when they are supposed to be getting an education. But here we are. We have let things slide too far and our nation is at risk for further destruction. Never mind worrying about foreign threats- we are imploding ourselves.

School shootings bring an even more alarming perspective to light about our youth and future forecast. These homicidal acts crush my soul. Perhaps some of that comes from being a parent, but even if I was not one, it would have profound effects on me.

The street-level war is evident by police deaths…

My position on LEO deaths comes from the thought that when we challenge law enforcement to the point of murderous actions, we have lost our civil order and the moral train is chugging toward bankruptcy. Maybe it is already at the bottom. Police are peacekeepers intended to shield us from evil and protect our public safety. The suspects are desperate. Using extreme perceptions, the ambushes and attacks on cops resemble actions occurring within a failed state. The street level has turned into a very different place.

I really do not know how to address the issue of LEO deaths without rage and sadness. Although I do not personally know them, the emotion I feel when I see a notification on either type of incident is personal.

Some social media posts cheer the officer losses which really makes my blood boil. These usually consist of Facebook profiles manned by criminals and anti-government types. But, they are the exception to the rule of law and such heathen displays should not be surprising.

However, on the flip side, many law-abiding people are remiss about the state of aggression being observed. I do not mean we should stop living and carry all people’s burdens. However, do you take a moment to reflect on the meaning of a law enforcement death stemming from civilian hostility and belligerence? Why doesn’t it bother you?

Perhaps these law-abiding individuals are too distant from the incident. Is it because of the common perspective that police have dangerous jobs and know what they are getting into, so they are expendable? I think this is a somewhat popular perception, although I think it is a twisted view of reality. If we have come to this point where enforcement officials are disposable, we have lost much of our souls.

As a country based on democracy with law and order, should we be gauging for a revolution? The police are not your enemy. They are here to keep the peace. Law enforcement officers stand against evil, so you do not have to.

There should be a movement across this country to bring us together to position ourselves against those who bring disorder. Yet, we give it a pass. In fact, I have heard words from some who say, “Individuals have a right to be angry, to rise up against the government and our local law enforcement. Then maybe we will have change.” I am sure many of us have heard someone say, “They know what they are getting into. Police deaths are expected in that line of work.”

This stance pretty much sends my mind down the crazy train. So, what I am hearing from the likes of these folks is that they favor a civil war. In fact, these are not individuals who take up arms for social change or who are killing our police. They are just Joe Blow Citizens who seem fed up with whatever politics got them upset that day.

Who would defend these murderers? Most of these suspects are criminals who have no moral compass and regularly engage in criminal activity. It is perplexing to try to comprehend some of the logic out there.

We created these monsters.

That’s right. I said it. Before you push the blame on something or someone else, look in the mirror.

When students are murdered on school grounds, we rally as a nation against these disasters, but it is short lived. Soon, we go back to feeling comfortable in our lives and no positive action took place to reverse the underlying issues. Social media blitzes fill up our news feed of things people want to see the change which makes them feel good. Yet, we have not formulated a plan to take action where it matters. Nor have they thought out reasonable implementation of their ideas or how it will be enforced. People dismiss the simple “right now” fix where it can make a difference right now: our homes.

What we do not want to admit is that our youth are a reflection of us. Our lawlessness is a measure of how far we have let things slide with tolerance and lack of intervention, treatment, or action.

These school slayings should send a message to us that we need to get our house in order.

 And similarly, I do not think we should pass over these police deaths as dutiful expectations.

The Social Bomb Theory

We need to circle the wagons and take a hard look at our own communities.

Let’s put it into a perspective we might all be able to relate to The Social Bomb Theory. These human ingredients – evil and disconnection – are going to build in our communities if the world continues on the same line. In fact, I would propose it would increase exponentially as technology advances and we get busier.

Technology is produced at such a rapid pace that it runs over us like a freight train. But we can control some elements at the nurturing level and with an enforcement action after the fact.

The old tried and true will continue if we stay on this slippery path without taking a hard-line look at this issue. You can guarantee these homicides will escalate. Police officers will die. Children and innocents will perish in unspeakable acts. These suspects will continue to fester in our broken society.

These are “social bombs” waiting to ignite if we do not act now.

A certain respect for humanity, morals, our Constitution, rights of others, and the basic civility and regard to laws of the land are deteriorating right before our eyes. Instead of upholding order, there is a move to engage it at the street level. Police deaths are nothing to file as a duty. It is a signal of social decay.

When our youth cannot cope and feel they have been wronged, they take extreme measures of revenge. Righteousness is not even a thought when someone guns down a school full of innocents.

Do not poo-poo how important a person’s home life is to their future self.

Schools are a second important ecosystem where institutional influences impact our youth. Our environments shape us into the individuals we become. It is so clear there is a deterioration of nuclear family values and lack of stable function in our country. Who could argue otherwise?

We can teach back our values. Participation is key. We must participate at home and our community. Furthermore, we should heed the warning signs of those dangerous and on the brink of self-destruction.

Social failure is a dangerous threat to our daily enjoyment of life. Yours and mine. It is here we could make a difference and shift our national well-being. We must start with ourselves. We can always do better.



Kathryn Loving is a former peace officer with the Casper Police Department, Casper, Wyoming. She held special assignments such as detective, hostage negotiator, and patrol field training officer. She, DCI Special Agent Matt Waldock, and District Attorney Mike Blonigen brought to justice the first bodiless homicide conviction in the state of Wyoming in 2006 stemming from a 1990 cold case. Her proudest accomplishments were investigating crimes against children and bringing their predators to justice. Kathryn currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Public Administration with an emphasis on Criminal Justice and Criminology. Her research specialty is on police stress and burnout with a focus on best practices in police work.