Arrow-right Camera
News >  Spokane

Bullying too simple an explanation for Freeman school shooting, experts say

UPDATED: Sun., Sept. 17, 2017, 11:30 a.m.

Lane Mathews, 10, wears a blue ribbon and the hashtag #FreemanStrong on his shirt as he visits a memorial Thursday morning for the school shooting victims  at Freeman High School. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Lane Mathews, 10, wears a blue ribbon and the hashtag #FreemanStrong on his shirt as he visits a memorial Thursday morning for the school shooting victims at Freeman High School. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

When Caleb Sharpe told police he opened fire on his Freeman High School classmates to “teach everyone a lesson about what happens when you bully others,” his story fell into an oft-repeated formula: The outcast and bullied loner who took revenge on his tormentors.

The problem? Experts who study school shootings, and friends and classmates of Sharpe, say this storyline is overly simplistic.

“I think it makes sense to people,” said Peter Langman, a psychologist who has studied and written extensively about school shootings. “People understand revenge. Again, it may be morally abhorrent, but there is a logic to it.”

He said framing the violence as simple revenge is an attempt to easily explain something that can’t be easily explained.

“The idea of a 15-year-old kid coming into a school and opening fire, randomly committing mass murder for no reason, that’s hard to wrap our mind around,” Langman said.

On Wednesday, just hours after the shootings occurred, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said of Sharpe’s possible motives: “It sounds like a case of a bullying type of situation.”

Knezovich revised his assessment on Thursday, however. He said in a news conference that Sharpe’s preoccupation with school-shooting culture played a large part in the violence.

Friends and acquaintances of Sharpe painted a complicated portrait. One with no simple narrative.

Junior Christina Morrison, 15, met Sharpe about a year ago in drama class. She considered herself his friend.

Although a talented actor, she said, Sharpe was “very mentally unstable” and often talked to her about suicide. He was “pretty interested in violence,” she said Thursday. Occasionally, she witnessed students making fun of him, but she said the bullying wasn’t extreme.

“He was definitely not (among) any of the most bullied or outcast people at our school,” she said.

Morrison believes that any bullying Sharpe did endure didn’t motivate the violence. Instead, the bullying only contributed to his already unstable mental situation, she said.

“I don’t think he went into our school yesterday to target people who bullied him or to get revenge,” she said.

Instead of asking if someone was bullied, Langman said, it’s important to take a broader view. The shooter’s mental health, home life and school life all need to be considered.

Langman has studied dozens of school shootings. They are rarely precipitated by bullying, he said. For example: Langman examined 83 school shooters and their intended victims. Only four of the 83 intended victims were bullies.

“Almost nobody commits mass murder because they get teased or mocked,” Langman said.

Iverson Miller, a 15-year-old sophomore who transferred from Freeman to Central Valley High School this year, said he’d known Sam Strahan, the teenager killed by Sharpe, since third grade and Sharpe since kindergarten. Miller said all three boys were part of the same circle of friends.

“I hung out with Caleb a lot, especially last year,” Miller said. But, “Caleb was closer to Sam than I was to Sam.”

Miller said the boys often roughhoused with each other, but it was almost always playful.

“You know, we’re boys. We’d constantly, like, wrestle each other a little bit, for fun … as a joke,” he said.

“We were practically all family,” he added.

Student Michael Harper, 15, also refuted Sharpe’s claim of being bullied.

“We knew for a fact that he wasn’t being bullied,” Harper said Wednesday. “I kinda stopped hanging out with the group and I felt really bad about it.”

Dr. Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist at Michigan State University, said it’s tempting to reduce the motivation of killers. Following the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, Ochberg analyzed the killer’s motivations alongside FBI investigators. What Ochberg found contradicted a narrative that painted the killers as bullied loners.

“If you’re trying to understand motives in homicidal spree killers, we can’t say there is a common profile,” Ochberg said. “The crime does not define the personality and the motive. But it does have to be taken into account.”

And finally, there is a self-serving reason for school shooters to claim to be victims of bullying. It could buy them legal leniency and paint them in a more sympathetic light.

“I think we have to be really careful about accepting the word of a killer about why they did it,” Langman said.

In several school shootings that Langman examined, the killers’ stated motivations of revenge and retribution contradicted much of the evidence.

For example: In 1997, Luke Woodham killed two students and injured several others at Pearl High School in Mississippi. Prior to the shooting at the high school, Woodham killed his mother.

In a manifesto written before the shooting, Woodham said he was committing the murders because “people like me are mistreated every day.”

That manifesto, Langman wrote in an article examining the case, was “used as compelling evidence that bullying causes school shootings.”

However, the reality was much more complex. Woodham had a troubled relationship with his mother, had recently been dumped by a girl he said he loved and had an older mentor who encouraged him to kill.

These oversimplified narratives, while easier to understand, ultimately aren’t accurate, Langman said.

“The soundbite is that there is no soundbite,” he said.

In the same way that the media and public may grasp for simple rationalizations for mass violence – like bullying – mental health diagnoses or suspicions have to be considered carefully and in context.

It’s tempting to link violent behavior to a history of suicidal thoughts, but decades of research have suggested little or no association between diagnosed mental illnesses and violence toward others.

Sharpe told investigators that he was talking to a school counselor about suicidal ideations. His parents told detectives he’d written a suicide note, which was on a counter at home.

“For someone who is suicidal, it’s not common that they would harm someone else,” said Aileen Hetrick, a clinician at Frontier Behavioral Health who works with children and families. “Suicidal attempts are an attempt to alleviate suffering for the individual.”

Many mass shooters and spree killers don’t have a diagnosed mental illness at all. Even when they do, it may not be the cause of their actions.

A study published in an American Psychological Association journal in 2014 looked at 429 crimes committed by 143 people who had been diagnosed with major depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Researchers found only 7.5 percent of their crimes were related to symptoms of a mental illness. Other motives, like poverty or substance abuse, were far more common.

“Most gun violence is committed by people in crisis, who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or in the context of domestic violence or other illegal activities,” wrote Norman Anderson, the APA’s chief executive officer, in a 2014 statement on gun violence.

Psychologists say it’s an important distinction to make, because linking suicidal thoughts with murder and violence can deter people from seeking help for themselves or others.

What could suggest a child or teenager may behave violently toward others? There’s no quick trick or sure sign, but past behavior is the best indicator of future behavior, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

A child who’s made threats against others is more likely to carry them out if they have access to guns or other weapons, a history of violence or aggression and a tendency to blame others for problems. Recent experiences of shame or rejection, witnessing abuse and preoccupation with violent acts are also indicators of greater risk.

Hetrick said everyone, especially teenagers, should know it’s OK to ask for help if a friend is displaying concerning behaviors.

“There’s a big difference between tattling or gossiping and informing,” she said. “When safety’s on the table, it’s all right to let someone know.”

Reporters Chad Sokol and Jonathan Glover contributed to this report.