This article isn’t about gun control, victim advocacy, or the family backgrounds of criminals. It’s also not about bashing the actions of first responders, school administrators, teachers or counselors.
Instead, it explains a society-wide knowledge gap that, if corrected, could change outcomes, and save lives.
On Nov. 30, 2021, in Oxford, Michigan, a 15-year-old student shot 11 individuals, four fatally. Prior to this tragedy, counselors at Oxford High School were faced with a difficult decision.
In a letter sent to parents and students in his school district, Superintendent Tim Throne discussed the counselors’ decision to allow the alleged perpetrator to return to classes after meeting with his parents. Throne wrote that, in addition to the suspect’s lack of prior disciplinary infractions, “… At no time did counselors believe the student might harm others based on his behavior, responses, and demeanor, which appeared calm …”
Although I would never level criticism against school counselors who were clearly acting in accordance with their training and experiences (and are typically undervalued, and underpaid) … based on the shooting that followed we can safely assume that something was missed.
To start unpacking Throne’s statement, it’s necessary to first understand that all violence is not the same. Emotional (reactive) Violence occurs when an individual perceives a threat, experiences physical or emotional pain or irritation, and uses violence to protect themselves from this perceived threat. Emotional Violence is associated with activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the perpetrators typically show signs of anger or fear.
Common signs of emotional arousal (and subsequent violence) include irritation, rapid and shallow breathing, muscle tension, and pupil dilation. It greatly diminishes and impairs one’s judgment, reasoning, consideration of consequences, and ability to calm themselves.
Many self-defense programs center around looking for these physical cues of someone’s emotional state. To see examples, search social media for “anti-mask” altercations or “Karens Gone Wild.”
Predatory Violence happens when an individual uses violence as a tool to obtain some tangible or intangible goods or resources. This “Predator” is not emotionally aroused or afraid, and is not engaging in violence to protect themselves from some imminent threat.
Predatory Violence is hunting. The brain’s “reward system” is involved in Predatory Violence, not the SNS (it’s a means to an end, like working to be able to travel).
Because Predatory Violence is not based in physiological arousal and fear, there is no muscle tension, no tense demeanor, and no increased heart rate, pupil dilation, or rapid breathing. Individuals engaging in Predatory Violence do not have acute impairments in their thinking skills as there are with Emotional Violence.
Predators use cost-benefit reasoning and assess their likelihood of “success.” They may wait for an opportunity to engage in violence. They plan for and rehearse the act, to increase their chances of obtaining some tangible or intangible object or mental state via the violence they intend to commit.
In the third type, Appetitive (pleasure-seeking) Violence, the perpetrator’s only motives for engaging in violence are the enjoyment that they feel while being violent, a sense of mastery they experience, and the “rush” of it.
Like Predatory Violence, the Appetitive perpetrator does not perceive the victim of violence as a threat, is not experiencing SNS arousal, and relies heavily upon analytic cost-benefit thinking. The perpetrators can often be excited in the moments leading up to the anticipated violence, which is because activation of the brain’s “dopaminergic-seeking circuitry” is playing a central role.
It looks different than Emotional Violence and differs in motivation from Predatory Violence. Because of this, it’s often missed, dismissed as an outlier rather than included in discussions of violence research and prevention.
Working as I have with all three types of violence for nearly 30 years I’ve been a Clinical Psychologist, it seems likely to me that the counselors of Oxford High were only evaluating for Emotional Violence. It’s the type of violence most familiar to them in a school setting, so it makes sense that with no signs of anger, anxiety, and tension to alert them, there seemed to be no imminent risk of harm. The alleged perpetrator wasn’t upset.
He wasn’t afraid or angry. He didn’t seem “triggered.” To them, his behavior signaled no danger.
To me? He appears to have been hunting. He wouldn’t have been afraid or angry; he would be calm. He would regulate his emotions and be able to give plausible explanations for his behavior and reasons why he needed to return to class. These are necessary skills for the Predator, part of his process.
For him, the violence was “business” and business calls for calm.
Almost daily, we are seeing reports of school shootings, road rage, and violent altercations on news, podcasts, and social media. This isn’t a blind spot we can afford to have.
We need to change the way we see violent behavior, and the way we teach mental health and other professionals, parents, and peers to spot potential problems.
We see the anxiety and anger when someone is “running from lions.”
It’s past time we learn to spot the people who are hunting gazelles.
Dr. William Kennedy, Psy.D. is a business consultant and sports, clinical, and forensic psychologist with a private practice in Wilmington. He graduated from Wilmington College (’91) with degrees in psychology and mathematics and from the School of Professional Psychology (SOPP) at Wright State University with a doctorate in clinical psychology. Dr. Kennedy worked as a prison psychologist conducting risk assessments, sex offender evaluations, pre-parole evaluations, and providing services and therapy in a state correctional facility.