Forensic Forum Offers Three Perspectives on School Shooters

By Paige  Myers-Ackerman
Staff Writer

This article was originally published in Issue 4, Fiftieth Year of The Minstrel (October 22, 2015). Click here to view the entire issue.

The Masters of Arts in Criminal Justice program hosted a panel on school shootings as part of the Forensic Forum series on Thursday, Oct. 8. The panel, entitled “Preparation and Protection: Active Shooter Incident Response,” consisted of three experts: Dr. Peter Langman, Dr. Diana Sorrentino and Jeffrey Tomlinson. The professional experiences of each panel member provided three different perspectives on school shootings.

Langman, a specialist on the psychology of school shooters, is the author of the book School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators, which covers 48 cases. Langman began his portion of the panel discussion by saying, “We really cannot talk about school shooters as if they’re all the same.”

Langman emphasized that each shooter acts differently and commits the crime for different reasons.

“When you put 48 school shooters together, it’s hard to find something that they all have in common,” Langman said.

Langman explained that psychological differences create three categories of shooters: psychopathic, psychotic and traumatized. Age also leads shooters to act differently and for different reasons, a point illustrated in Langman’s book that covers shooters ranging in age from 11 to 62.

Langman also addressed common misconceptions about shooters, such as: bullying leads to shootings, all shooters are suicidal and violent movies or video games inspire violent acts. To stress the inaccuracy of stereotypes and misconceptions about perpetrators, Langman concluded, “We cannot make blanket statements about school shooters.”

The second speaker on the panel was Sorrentino, a licensed executive protection agent and director of security and intelligence operations with Lehigh Valley Paladin, LLC. Sorrentino spoke about preventing shootings in the workplace, which for many people is a school.

Photo by JC Falcon.
Photo by JC Falcon.

To prevent shootings, Sorrentino said that people must report warning signs that indicate potential acts of violence. Warning signs are often displayed through behavioral changes. Sorrentino stressed the

importance of evaluating an individual’s personal life when he or she exhibits behavioral changes. If the person has strong inhibitors, he or she is less likely to commit an act of violence. However, if the person’s inhibitors are currently weakening, the personal factors causing behavioral changes must be acknowledged. Sorrentino said that when workplaces do not address the personal challenges causing an individual’s behavioral changes and instead resort to immediately firing the employee, the workplace is at risk for a potential act of violence.

Sorrentino also spoke about the recurring problem of warning signs being noticed but remaining unreported. Sorrentino said that a reporting system is crucial and that all employees must know how to report warning signs through the system.

Sorrentino said people should not hesitate to issue a report due to fear of being labeled a “tattletale.” On the contrary, Sorrentino said that by reporting a concern, “You’re going to be a hero.”

Third on the panel was Tomlinson, who teaches in DeSales’ undergraduate and masters in criminal justice programs. He served as a special agent in the FBI for 20 years and was the director of safety for the Hatboto-Horsham School District in Montgomery County, Pa. Tomlinson began his discussion by asking attendees to consider a question about the occurrence of school shootings: “Do I know what to do if it happens to me?”

Tomlinson said that to answer this question, schools must prepare for acts of violence to occur. Tomlinson said that the key to preparation is knowing what to do “in that first zero to five minutes when an incident occurs” while police officers are not yet on the scene.

Tomlinson offered several preparation suggestions. He recommended running lockdown drills regularly, saying each drill should not simply be for the sake of practicing, but for uncovering flaws and making improvements within the system. Allowing police officers to attend drills is also beneficial because the officers observe the system from a different perspective and become familiarized with the school’s campus. In fact, Tomlinson said that a crucial part of preparing for school shootings is establishing good relationships and communication between school administration and public safety.

Other preparation tips for lockdowns include designating responsibilities across administrators and establishing a system for reporting missing people, injuries or dangers. Nonverbal communication is also effective during lockdowns, such as placing red signs in doors to inform individuals who have not received notification about the incident that they should not enter the building.

Tomlinson emphasized the importance of all people planning for the occurrence of school shootings by concluding, “[Preparing is a] responsibility for all of us, not just police departments. It’s for all of us. As a faculty member, as a staff member, as a student, as a parent, everyone has a role and responsibility.”

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