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Social media could have warned of school shooting

February 28, 2012
by Nick Zubko, Associate Editor
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Yesterday, we reported on the high school shooting that took place in Chardon, Ohio, earlier that day. At the time, one victim was confirmed dead while four others were left fighting for their lives. Sadly, the news has since reported that two more lost that fight today; we can only hope that the two still in the hospital are able to pull through.

In the aftermath, we are left with far more questions than answers. Of course for many, one question is inescapable: “Should someone have seen this coming?” Using what little information we have on the 17-year-old shooter, we now know that he did in fact make his intentions known on a number of social media outlets. While it’s still unknown whether anyone saw them ahead of time, one thing seems clear—nothing was done about it.

According to reports, the suspect made several troubling posts to his Facebook page in the months preceding the shooting. In one, he wrote: "Feel death, not just mocking you. Not just stalking you, but inside of you. Wriggle and writhe. Feel smaller beneath my might … Die all of you." He also reportedly sent out a message on Twitter indicating that Monday would be “a day when people at school suffered.”

Today, Keith Ablow, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and contributor for Fox News, commented on the events in Chardon, saying that if someone had been paying attention, the comments “could have led someone–whether a relative or a friend or merely an acquaintance–to consider him dangerous and bring him to the attention of the police and/or mental health professionals.”

Based on what we currently know, no such "intervention" happened in Chardon. According to Ablow, this common level of inaction reveals a “blind spot” in the way the general public thinks about “extreme and bizarre” communication or behavior. In fact, he claims that people often deny that it exists, or simply become convinced that they are powerless to act.

“The denial is linked to a psychological game of probabilities, combined with a cost/benefit analysis, which all unfolds unconsciously,” he explains. “Our minds calculate the likelihood of a psychological thriller playing out across the street or in our very school system as close to zero.”

To get past those issues and take these potential threats seriously, Ablow advocates educating the public on several “core facts” about people with suicidal or homicidal tendencies, and how often these kinds of intentions are communicated and inevitably dismissed.

Nothing can begin to repair the damage caused in Chardon this week, devastating three families and leaving a school and an entire community trying to derive some meaning from a completely purposeless act. But we need to learn something. There needs to be some tangible progress toward improving how we approach efforts that could conceivably prevent such tragedies.

As Ablow points out, people who intend to do harm to themselves or others often communicate those plans beforehand. Today, the youth of the world spends an inordinate amount of time posting their innermost thoughts on Facebook and Twitter, so it’s only a matter of time before we realize that someone (or maybe everyone) needs to start paying better attention.



It seems to me you've put the blame for this tragic incident on those this young man knew through social media and not the adults with whom he interacted. You write several times in this post that "someone" should have paid attention to his social media postings, but you never assign this task to anyone. Who is it that is supposed to step forward? If his posts only went to a few people, which is likely given his lack of social interactions and many of those had marginalized him, they may not have considered his comments unusual or threatening. Where were his parents? Were they monitoring his posts? I doubt it -- teens don't want their parents reading their "private" material they share with friends and schoolmates. So who is the someone? I believe you have to step further back in the communication chain to his family and teachers or other significant adults in his life and not the few who may have been on his Facebook "friend" list. As adults we need to be vigilant and ready to assist any one, young or not, who may be at risk.

While the visibility of the posts is not 100% clear at this point, it seems fair to assume that if they were found now they might have been visible earlier. As far as who is supposed to step forward, I totally agree that it's the adults who need to be vigilant as you suggest -- parents, teachers, other adults. Determining exactly who that "someone" should be probably varies from case to case, but many parents still feel that privacy is a privilege they extend to their children ... not a right. If not a single adult was monitoring the posts of this troubled young man, maybe they should have been. At the very least, social media should be seen as a potentially useful tool in these efforts.

Nick Zubko

Associate Editor

Nick Zubko


Nick Zubko is associate editor of Behavioral Healthcare.

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