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Professor offers guidance on heading off student violence

November 5, 2002

A student shot three professors to death before killing himself last week at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Two of the professors died in a classroom at the university's nursing school, and the third professor's body was found later on another floor of the building.

The gunman has been identified as Robert S. Flores, a 41-year-old nursing student and Persian Gulf War veteran who was frustrated with failing grades and what he called "blatant sexism" on the part of his instructors.

As a service to readers, the publishers of "InnerAction" are reprinting information from the Feb. 4, 2002, edition. This information came from an article published in "InnerAction" after the fatal shooting of a dean, faculty member and student at West Virginia's Appalachian School of Law.

According to Dr. Patti Wilson, assistant professor of psychology and one of two coordinators in Austin Peay's school psychology program, most acts of school violence are committed by people who could be categorized in one of two groups: sociopaths, who tend to be bullies and manipulators; or psychopaths, socially inept "loners."

"The first thing to look for is a student who doesn't interact with other students, a person who doesn't seem to have a network of support."

A second characteristic: extreme frustration. "People who commit acts of violence often feel they have nowhere to turn, no one to turn to," Wilson says. "They feel that they have no options."

Many acts of school violence are committed by sociopaths. Their behavior may be marked by aggressiveness, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're physically aggressive, Wilson says. "They may be verbally or emotionally aggressive." So the student you see screaming profanities at his girlfriend in the parking lot may merit an attentive eye, she suggests.

Violent behavior also is correlated with gender. Aggressors who use deadly force are more likely to be male than female. "We have to be careful about profiling, but the fact is most acts of school violence are perpetrated by males. Not that girls are less destructive. They just tend to express their anger in more underhanded ways," Wilson says. A female student who feels she's been unfairly treated by a professor is more likely to slash the professor's tires than shoot him or her, she adds.

An act of aggression is also more likely to take place when a student has failed. "People come to college with a goal," says Wilson. "If they fail, it can impact their job prospects, the view their family holds of them and their own perceptions of self-worth. When we get into college, there's a need to prove ourselves."

The stress of achieving academic success can push a student with fragile coping skills over the edge. "There are more pressures in college," Wilson says. "Transportation, housing, interpersonal relationships, finances. And students may find themselves with people who are very different. When you add religious differences to the mix, there's enormous potential for problems."