8 July 1998

Potential For Violence In Children Difficult To Spot

Why didn't someone see it coming? It's a question that haunts everyone involved with the tragic school shootings that have shocked America over recent months. Why didn't someone spot the signs that this would happen?

According to professor of social work Edward Taylor, it's not a fair question. As a researcher of mental illness in children, and author of a recent article on the topic for the journal Child Welfare, the University of Illinois professor notes that even highly trained mental health professionals would have had scant little chance of predicting those kids would commit that kind of violence.

"We simply don't have the tools to do that," he says. "We still do not understand human development to a point of predicting violence. We can retrospectively look back and say 'Gee, this was a sign, that was a sign,' but it wasn't necessarily a sign."

Taylor's big concern is that the school shootings will reinforce widespread misconceptions about links between mental illness and violence. Mental illness may have played a role in the tragedies, he says, but the vast majority of kids with mental illness are of no danger to others.

"Schools are dealing every day with hundreds and hundreds of kids that go through hundreds and hundreds of situational crises - and out of those hundreds and hundreds of situational crises, there's going to be a small number of people who are severely mentally ill who are going to get missed.

"But we certainly don't want a school system that every time a child throws a temper tantrum, every time a child says something aggressively, that they are immediately suspect of becoming mentally ill and violent."