On the last track, we discussed five aspects of weak or mixed signals that can interfere with the ability to identify children at risk within the school system. These five aspects are, masters of disguise, fragmentation, ‘just laugh it off’, perceived overreactions, and the perception that teachers cannot do anything. Questions concerning breaking the confidentiality boundary to uphold the Tarasoff mandate "to protect" were also posed.
On this track, we will discuss six cultural scripts that influence a shooter’s decision to commit a violent act. These six scripts are, changing social status through performance, independence from adults, living with it, running away or suicide, violent fantasies, and threats.
How in fact do socially marginal, psychologically depressed youths, like the shooters we have so far discussed, manage the pressures the experience? Certainly youth like Michael Carneal suffer from low social status, difficult social interactions, social marginality, and weak claims to a masculine identity, as evidence in Michael’s case by the newspaper article accusing him of being gay. As you know, one of the problem solving strategies available to these troubled youths is the employment of cultural scripts.
Analyses of shooters like Michael have revealed that these troubled youth locked into a pattern of escalating , more radical, and still unsuccessful scripts.
6 Cultural Scripts
Script # 1 - Changing Social Status Through Performance
A first of these cultural scripts for coping with marginality and social pressure is by changing social position through performance. Michael’s use of this script was conveyed in his attempts to be the class clown, by setting off stink bombs and imitating cartoon characters. However, as you know, acting the class clown is often not a successful method through which a marginalized student can gain acceptance, attention, and relief from teasing.
In Michael’s case, his desperate and wild attempts at being the class clown in fact opened him up to more social marginalization. As you know, social marginalization refers to a student being pushed by other students into the position of an unpopular social outsider in the outer margins of social acceptance.
Script # 2 - Independence from Adults
I have frequently been asked why students like Michael do not ask advice from adults on how to improved their social position. In terms of the second cultural script for coping with social marginalization, this is because the script of asking for help flies in the face of the script of adolescence and masculinity, which emphasize independence from adults. In the beginning, Michael did in fact confide in his mother, but as he got older he became aware of the social stigma attached to those who were ‘weak’ enough to go to an adult, especially a mother, for advice.
Script # 3 - Living with it
In addition to changing social status through performance and independence from adults, a third, and commonly employed cultural script is ‘just living with it’. Certainly both Michael and Mitchell Johnson employed this script. However, as you know, this script is not necessarily a practical strategy. Both Michael and Mitchell became trapped in downwards spirals, trying to laugh off or ignore increasingly harsh teasing. In the end, both boys desperately looked for an exit from a cultural script which did not bring them either peace of mind or improved social status.
Script # 4 - Running Away or Suicide
At this point, a fourth cultural script for dealing with social marginalization and pain is suicide or running away. Michael and Mitchell both displayed suicidal tendencies. However, these are perceived, especially by boys, as weak options. Evidence suggests that school shooters are looking for status-winning, manhood enhancing departures.
By leaving police no choice but shoot, a troubled youth can, in his or her mind, effectively commit suicide ‘by cop’, achieving the desired end while holding to a code of strength or masculinity. This point of view is summed up in the words of Bethel, Alaska school shooter Evan Ramsey, who indicated his initial intention was merely to scare people and then kill himself. Ramsey ended up not kill himself and stated later he ultimately decided he wanted to "go out with a bang".
Script # 5 - Violent Fantasies
A fifth cultural script, closely related to the decision that suicide and running away are ‘weak’ options is that of violent fantasy. Michael Carneal soon began to fantasize about violent steps he could take to improve his status. In his fantasy world, Michael could for a change not be the weakling unable to fight back, but the man who caused others to quake in their boots.
Mitchell and his partner Andrew Golden apparently fantasized together for months about how violent actions could change the way they were perceived in the school social system. However, Michael and other shooters soon found that no amount of this fantasizing could change or alleviate what seemed to them an unbearable reality of marginalization and bullying.
Script # 6 - Threats
In addition to changing social status through performance, independence from adults, living with it, running away or suicide, and violent fantasies, the sixth cultural scripted enacted by Michael and other shooters is often threats. In trying to establish themselves as people to be respected, men capable doing big things if he was pushed, Mitchell Johnson and Andrew told a large number of people about their plans in an attempt to redefine themselves through their threats.
Had this been successful, this may have obliviated the perceived "need" for the shootings. However, the boys were not taken seriously. Mitchell and Andrew found themselves under enormous pressure to follow through on their threats. This was largely motivated by the cultural script of masculinity that dictates that failing to follow through is a sign of weakness and ‘being a wimp’, which could further erode already tenuous social position.
In Michael Carneal’s case, the morning of the shooting, several individuals Michael had boasted to of his plans to do ‘something big’ gathered at the prayer circle. When it appeared briefly that Michael would not carry out his threats, they appeared to lose interest, which frustrated Michael and appears to have strengthened his resolve to carry out his threat.
Reflecting on the Tarasoff "duty to warn" case, how do you feel these cultural scripts interact with the duty to protect? Should an awareness of these social scripts be included in a risk assessment analysis of a troubled youth?
Ellen, 16, was close friends with her cousin, Billy, age 14. Billy had had difficulty adjusting to high school, and was not very popular. Ellen stated, "Last week during gym, Billy put blue dye in Mark’s hair gel. Mark’s really popular, and I guess Billy was trying to be funny. But Mark is blonde, and when he spiked his hair after his shower he looked awful. Billy told me his whole plan backfired… now Mark and his buddies are out to get him.
"I told Billy he was an idiot for trying a stunt like that… that’s no way to get popular! But Billy got real mad… he got all worked up and said some scary things! I don’t think I handled it real well when Billy told me what he did. What should I have said to get him to talk to me without getting mad?"
Technique: Active Listening Without Words
I suggested Ellen might try using the "Active Listening without Words" technique. I stated, "If you are unsure what to say to Billy, a sympathetic sounds, words, or gesture might help him think better and feel better. This will show Billy you are listening and understanding, but give him time to think things through and tell you how he’s really feeling."
Think of your Ellen. Would Active Listening without Words be useful for him or her?
On this track, we have discussed six cultural scripts that influence a shooter’s decision to commit a violent act. These six scripts are, changing social status through performance, independence from adults, living with it, running away or suicide, violent fantasies, and threats.
On the next track, we will discuss three factors that may prevent children from reporting threats from another student to adults. These three factors are violent language and the presumption of innocence, the adolescent code, and perceptual frames.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Markey, P. M., Ivory, J. D., Slotter, E. B., Oliver, M. B., & Maglalang, O. (2019). He does not look like video games made him do it: Racial stereotypes and school shootings. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Advance online publication.
Raitanen, J., & Oksanen, A. (2019). Deep interest in school shootings and online radicalization. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 6(3-4), 159–172.
Vieselmeyer, J., Holguin, J., & Mezulis, A. (2017). The role of resilience and gratitude in posttraumatic stress and growth following a campus shooting. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 9(1), 62–69.
What are six cultural scripts that influence a shooter’s decision to commit a violent act?
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