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Professor Kirk Heilbrun Discusses the Psychological Dynamics of Mass School Shootings

November 07, 2012

Mass school shootings, like student Seung-Hui Cho's shooting which left over 30 dead at Virginia Tech in 2007, involve a variety of factors which may contribute to the perpetrator's psychological state, Professor Kirk Heilbrun explained.  Among these factors are the availability of weapons, whether the potential shooter was the target of bullying, the incentives to impress a group of peers, family dysfunction, depression, overall school environment and the communication of intent. However, Heilbrun cautioned that profiling students solely on these factors could alienate many students who would otherwise never engage in a mass shooting, particularly because many of these characteristics fit a majority of adolescent children.

Heilbrun also stressed the importance of aspiring lawyers considering these factors, not only because mass shootings result in complex criminal prosecutions but also because many law students will be the future policy-makers, scholars, litigators and judges, faced with evaluating psychological profiling at some point in their careers. 

Moreover, it is important to remain mindful that in the overall context of public safety, mass school shootings are rare, Heilbrun said.  In fact, incidents of bullying are a far more pervasive public threats than mass shootings, Heilbrun added.  Therefore, it is far more important that schools avoid drastic zero tolerance measures that expel students because they fit a certain profile and instead work on building bonds within the school community. 

Heilbrun also discussed how doctor-patient confidentiality might play a role in the James Holmes trial. Many have suggested that the mental capacity of Holmes, who was charged with murdering 12 people and attempting to murder another 116 during a July 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., will play a role in his trial.  Although psychological records could shed light on Holmes' mental capacity, the law would generally prevent those records from being released unless Holmes puts his mental state at issue at trial, such as by claiming insanity as a defense, Heilbrun concluded. 

Professor Heilbrun, who has headed the Drexel University Department of Psychology since 2002 has taught Mental Health Law at the law school.  The school's Health Law Society hosted the event.