The father of the accused Santa Fe gunman has moved to pin the blame on bullying, calling his son a “victim,” even as recent research suggests that the role of bullies in driving school shootings may be overblown.
Only about 40 percent of school shooters were bullied, and more than half picked on other kids themselves, according to a 2015 study of 48 shooters conducted by psychologist Peter Langman, an expert who has consulted for the Department of Homeland Security.
Perhaps most tellingly, only one of the perpetrators who was bullied actually targeted the person who victimized him.
“Despite the widespread belief that school shooters are motivated by bullying to seek retaliation against their tormentors, this virtually never happens,” said Mr. Langman in a 2016 paper following the release of his book, School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).
His findings indicate that school shooters may be no more likely to have suffered from bullying that the average teen, based on national surveys showing that as many as 70 percent of students experienced peer harassment at some point during their middle- and high-school years.
“Kids are probably picked on every day in every school in America or maybe the world. It’s extraordinarily common,” Mr. Langman said in an interview. “Statistically speaking, rampage school shootings are extraordinarily rare. So my position is you can’t explain something extraordinarily rare by pointing to something extraordinarily common.”
That doesn’t mean bullying wasn’t a factor in some shootings.
“In a few cases, shooters are not just teased or mocked, but physically assaulted repeatedly. I mean, their lives were hell at school, but that is very rare,” he said.
“Unless the harassment is really severe, it’s hard to know that it plays much of a role at all, even if the kid was teased, because pretty much all of us were at some point in some way,” Mr. Langman said.
Focus on the bullying question surged Tuesday after Antonios Pagourtzis, father of 17-year-old suspect Dimitrios Pagourtzis, tried to explain the rampage at Santa Fe High School by saying that his son must have been victimized in some way.
“Something must have happened now, this last week,” he told Greece’s Antenna TV as reported by AP. “Somebody probably came and hurt him, and since he was a solid boy, I don’t know what could have happened. I can’t say what happened. All I can say is what I suspect as a father.”
The son took two firearms, a shotgun and a handgun, which belonged to his father, before leaving for school the morning of the Friday shooting, he said.
“My son, to me, is not a criminal. He’s a victim,” Mr. Pagourtzis said. “The kid didn’t own guns, I owned guns.”
Nicholas Poehl, an attorney for Dimitrios Pagourtzis, has said his legal team is investigating whether the teen experienced “teacher-on-student” bullying following reports that he had been taunted by his football coaches at Santa Fe High School.
In interviews with local news outlets, Dustin Severin, a junior at the school in Santa Fe, Texas, said the alleged gunman was mocked by coaches and other students, “nothing like physical, but they emotionally bullied him.”
“He was really quiet. He mostly kept to himself,” he told ABC13 in Houston. “I know he was picked on. He was picked on by coaches, other students. Didn’t really talk to anyone.”
Dustin added that, “My friends from the football team told me that the coaches say he smelled, right in front of his face. Other kids would sit there and look at him, laugh at him, talk about him.”
The Santa Fe Independent School District responded the day after the shooting to reports of “bully-like behaviors” with a statement saying that administrators had “looked into these claims and confirmed that these reports are untrue,” prompting pushback from Mr. Poehl.
“So, you’re contradicting your surviving victims’ accounts?” Mr. Poehl asked on the district’s Facebook page. “Calling your own students liars? After an ‘investigation’ you apparently concluded less than 24 hours after the incident? I’ll be fascinated to learn the details of this investigation.”
At the same time, the shooting suspect has been accused of aggressive behavior himself toward one of the victims, 16-year-old Shana Fisher, whose mother Sadie Rodriguez has said her daughter rebuffed his advances and finally “stood up to him” and “embarrassed him in class” a week before the shooting.
Ms. Rodriguez has argued that the episode was what drove the suspect to head to her daughter’s art class and open fire, which Mr. Poehl recently denied.
“There’s a lot of rumors out there right now,” Mr. Poehl told reporters Monday after visiting Dimitrios at the Galveston County Jail. “I will say that my client did not recognize the name Shana Fisher.”
If it turns out the suspect did target Shana Fisher, he wouldn’t be the first school shooter to train his sights on girls.
A chart compiled by Mr. Langman on his SchoolShooters.info website shows that girls, women and school staff are the most frequent victims of mass gunmen.
In some cases, the shooters are driven by anger at women in general for rejecting them. In others, the perpetrator is targeting a specific female.
“It’s the frustration, shame, humiliation of being turned down, whether it’s being turned down for a date or the prom, or someone breaking up after some kind of a relationship,” said Mr. Langman.
Ten people—eight students and two teachers—were killed and 13 were injured in the Santa Fe massacre.
Mr. Langman, whose website holds data on more than 100 school shooters, has divided the perpetrators into three types—psychopathic, psychotic, and traumatized—and argued that those traits are more relevant than external factors such as bullying, video games and medication.
“If you have a psychopathic personality and a girl rejects you, or a kid calls you a name, in your mind that may justify murder,” Mr. Langman said. “So it’s not a matter of what happened to you. What’s different is who you are and how you respond to what happened.”
• This story was based in part on wire service reports.