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NewsJul 19, 2021

Q&A with school shooting expert Dr. Peter Langman ’89

'Warning Signs' author delves into the psychology of school shooters and how attacks can be anticipated and prevented

Peter Langman on a stage with flag in background

Psychologist Peter Langman ’89 has focused his career on preventing school shootings through his research and training thousands of education professionals, law enforcement and mental health workers on the psychological dynamics of those who perpetrate mass violence.

As schools reopen to in-person instruction this fall, Dr. Langman's newest book, "Warning Signs: Identifying School Shooters Before They Strike," is a timely manual for anyone in or adjacent to schools.

Dr. Langman holds a master's degree in Counseling & Psychology from Lesley and won the university's 2012 Sally K. Lenhardt Professional Leadership Alumni Award for his leadership and human service work. For this Q&A, we asked him about the dangers of future attacks post-pandemic, what positive trends he's seeing in schools and why he chose this area of study.

Q: What drew you to a career in psychology? Did you always want to focus on young people?

A: I had a psychology class in high school that sparked my interest in the field, though at that time I did not have a particular direction in mind for a career. My focus on children came later, after my master’s degree.

Q: What prompted you to begin researching school shootings?

A: The indirect impetus for my research into school shooters began on April 20, 1999, with the attack at Columbine High School. At the time, I was doing my doctoral internship at a psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents. On April 30, 1999, just 10 days after the Columbine attack, a 16-year-old boy was admitted to the hospital because he was believed to be a potential school shooter. He was referred to me for a psychological evaluation.

He was the first of a steady trickle of potential school shooters who came into the hospital, so I began keeping files of the cases and studying the perpetrators of school shootings that occurred around the nation. This research culminated in my first book on the topic, "Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters" (2009). I continued to study the topic and published "School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators" (2015).

Q: How does “Warning Signs” differ from your previous books?

A: My two previous books focused primarily on the psychological dynamics of the perpetrators, with only one chapter in each addressing prevention. My new book is focused completely on preventing attacks. It does include, however, information on  psychological dynamics because a recognition of the types of distress shooters often experience is important to intervening effectively. Put simply, my first two books focused on understanding the perpetrators; my new book focuses on stopping them. 

Book cover: Warning Signs
Dr. Peter Langman's third book looks aims to prevent school shootings by identifying potential perpetrators.

Q: Why do we need a book like “Warning Signs” right now? 

A: Unfortunately, there is no reason to think that school attacks are not going to continue. There is particular concern about the risk of violence as students emerge from the pandemic and return to their schools. The stress of the pandemic may have caused or exacerbated mental health issues, perhaps putting more students at risk of some kind of crisis.

Q: What kind of research did you conduct as you prepared to write this book?  

A: I studied dozens of perpetrators, focusing on their pre-attack behavior and the disclosures they made, whether to people they knew or online. I also looked at the multiple reasons that people did not report what they knew about an impending attack, or why action wasn’t taken when safety concerns were reported to someone in authority.

Q: What keeps you up at night?  

A: Well, I worry that too many people are not trained to recognize the warning signs of potential violence. Nationally, there has been a focus on things such as lockdown procedures, how to survive an active shooter and emergency response protocols. These are all important, and they can all save lives, but not one of these is focused on preventing an attack from happening in the first place. They are reactive rather than proactive. The proactive piece of violence prevention is to train people to recognize the warning signs and report them and to know how to investigate and intervene effectively.

Q: What is the number one question that educators ask you? 

A: They want to know what they can do make their schools safer.

Q: Tell me a little about your school safety training.

A: In terms of content, my trainings cover two broad areas. The first focuses on the perpetrators — who they are, their families, their life histories and the factors that put them on the path of violence. The second section focuses on preventing attacks. I present information on warning signs and threat assessment, as well as discussing why people often don’t report what they hear.

Q: As schools return to the classroom after more than a year of off-campus or hybrid learning, what concerns do you have about school shootings? What advice do you have for educators? 

A: No one knows how the pandemic might affect school violence. My ongoing concern is that schools need to establish threat assessment teams and be trained to recognize and investigate warning signs of potential violence.

Q: In your research, have you uncovered some positive trends?

A: There is certainly a greater focus on school safety than there used to be. There are more organizations addressing the issue and more products and services available to promote safety in schools. It also seems that more states are implementing anonymous tip lines for students and staff to report various concerns. This is not limited to violence. In fact, most calls are for other concerns, including bullying, substance abuse, sexual assault, suicidality and self-injurious behavior. Having such tip lines in place not only can result in more students receiving emotional support but also in more warning signs being reported. This is definitely a step in the right direction.

For more information about Dr. Langman, his research and to access to his extensive database of documents related to school shootings, visit www.schoolshooters.info.