The Florida School Board Shootings

A Post-incident Analysis with the WAVR-21

Stephen White, Ph.D.
Winter 2011 Newsletter

Note: The following feature was composed prior to Saturday’s tragic Tucson, Arizona shootings, the very rare event of an attempted assassination combined with a mass murder. Was the copycat effect a factor in Tucson?  Clearly the Arizona shooter, Jared Loughner, was driven by serious mental illness that included anti-government, anti-law enforcement paranoid themes. Was he also further “inspired” and his time frame accelerated by the Florida public figures attack and the inevitable resultant notoriety for the perpetrator?  In any case there are now at least two relatively recent well-publicized events – and thus reminders of the need to be especially vigilant for subsequent incidents of concern that could foretell a next attack.  A third possible influence is the assassination of the governor of Punjab on January 4th by one of his security guards with terrorist motives.  Both the Punjab and Arizona attacks were blitz assassinations at close range, of political figures in democratic societies, by individuals with extremist beliefs.  Potential assailants follow the news and identify with previous perpetrators. 

On December 14th 56 year-old Clay Duke – disgruntled, broke, and troubled – held the members of a Panama City, Florida school board at gunpoint while pronouncing his grievances, eventually firing at them but missing.  When the school security guard fired on Duke, hitting him, he fired back and then killed himself.  Miraculously no one else was injured.  The incident gained national attention because it was recorded on video and posted, including the tension-filled exchange between Duke and the pleading board superintendent.

This is a workplace targeted violence incident: an outsider with conscious intent to attack the board members and what they presumably symbolized to him.   It could also be classified as an attack on public figures.  Local governmental representatives, who may regularly make controversial decisions, are not immune to public attacks by a citizen who may know them well-enough.  Although you have likely seen it, here is one of the links to view the incident.

With respect for his family members, we review here the case as an instructional exercise, and conduct a post-incident analysis with the WAVR-21.  Our purpose is always to educate toward preventing other tragedies.  This is not a critique of the actions of those who were subjected to or involved with the incident.

From media accounts (not always accurate and never complete) we can see which workplace violence risk factors were present or likely so, leading up to the attack.  Together the factors combine into a “perfect storm” of ingredients and Duke’s pathway to violence.  (For those unfamiliar with the WAVR-21, it is our scientifically based structured instrument for organizing risk-relevant information and assessing workplace violence risk.)

Item 1: Motives for Violence

Duke’s stated grievance was that his wife had been fired from the school district (she did not pass the probationary period and was released as a teacher’s aide last February, 2010).  He stated during the incident, “You fired my wife…Our benefits have run out. We’re broke. You see what I’m saying?”  He also criticized the board for being supportive of tax increases.  His stage – an official public meeting – suggests he was motivated to bring attention to his problems, and make a dramatic impression, which he did.  His Facebook posting on December 9th points to his worldview, one of economic powerlessness, which plausibly contributed to his actions:

“My Testament: Some people (the government sponsored media) will say I was evil, a monster (V)… no… I was just born poor in a country where the Wealthy manipulate, use, abuse, and economically enslave 95% of the population. Rich Republicans, Rich Democrats… same-same… rich… they take turns fleecing us… our few dollars… pyramiding the wealth for themselves. The 95%… the us, in US of A, are the neo slaves of the Global South. Our Masters, the Wealthy, do, as they like to us…”

Item 2: Homicidal Ideas, Violent Fantasies or Preoccupation

Duke identified with the movie “V for Vendetta,” a 2006 film portraying a shadowy and charismatic freedom fighter who seeks revenge against those who disfigured him, and who uses terrorist tactics to fight against a totalitarian society.  At the time some political groups saw the film as presenting an allegory of intrusion and oppression by government.  Duke posted pictures from the movie on his Facebook page, including the circled “V” that he painted on the wall of the school board meeting room.  Such violent preoccupations may serve to compensate for opposing feelings of despair, powerlessness, and diminishing self worth.

Item 3: Violent Intentions and Expressed Threats

Duke stated to the board, “Somebody is going to die today.”  Given the attack the question of his intent is moot.  Or did he only intend to scare the six board members, as his wife claimed after seeing the video?  She stated in a credibly poignant and understandably protective television interview that he was a good shot and at such close range he could not have missed if he intended to harm others.  However he did fire back at the district security guard.  What is clear is his intent for the incident to end with his suicide, a common occurrence in targeted violence – especially in cases of intended mass murder–whether others are first harmed or not.  After initially telling everyone to leave the room except “the assholes” on the board, his next words were, “I’m going to die today.”

Item 4: Weapons Skills and Access

Duke’s wife stated he did two Air Force “tours” and received firearms training.   He used a 9mm Smith and Wesson pistol and was carrying an extra box of ammunition with 50 bullets and an extra magazine.  He also allegedly stockpiled weapons in preparation for Y2K.  Weapons access is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient for an armed attack, but skill is even more important.

Item 5: Pre-Attack Planning and Preparation

Obviously Duke planned the attack, but apparently leaving little concrete evidence of what was in store.  Police did find a telling sign: a calendar in his mobile home with the circled letter “V” marked on December 14th.  They also found references to military tactical books and anti-government literature.  Although they knew he was “upset” and struggling, Duke apparently kept his intent and planning completely unknown to his wife and family, who are described as “devastated and shocked.”  Alternatively those close to him could have subconsciously ignored the more serious signs and their implications.  This is not to judge them.  Denial is a very common and all too human mechanism in the service of protecting intimate relations.  Shooters often “leak” their intent to third parties, but not always; threatening communications of any kind are not always reported.  As the date of the attack approaches an individual may go into “tactical silence.”   Intriguing is that Duke opened his Facebook profile only a week prior to the shooting.  In the absence of other risk factor evidence, social network postings are most often not indicative of real risk: there is a high rate of false positive hyperbolic ranting.  But if other factors had been known, this recent act and the posting quoted above could have been interpreted as a sign of serious escalation and preparation.  The issue is always to know more of what is unknown at the time of the threat assessment, and to connect the dots in a meaningful way.

 Item 6: Stalking and Menacing Behavior

Duke apparently had no other criminal problems or incidents of concern in the year leading up to the attack.  However, in 1999 he was arrested for aggravated stalking of his ex-wife from his first marriage.  Four years after their divorce, but six months after his marriage to his current wife, Duke appeared at the first wife’s home with two handguns and wearing a mask and a bulletproof vest, according to an arrest affidavit.  He threatened to kill her and as she tried to leave, he shot out a tire on her vehicle.  By Duke’s own account he had been surveilling her for six months and told her details of her personal life to prove it.  He said he was going to kill her and several other people before he killed himself.  She’d seen him parked outside her home on previous occasions and a tree in her yard had been vandalized months earlier.  Duke eventually pleaded no contest to several felony charges and served five years in prison (According to the website of the Florida Department of Corrections, he was sentenced in 2000 for aggravated stalking, obstructing justice and shooting into a vehicle.).  Duke did not stalk the board members; why would he need to?  But this history suggests his inclination to obsess about and act out against others as the perceived source of his problems.

Item 7: Current Job Problems

Duke was unemployed and had trouble keeping a job.  “He couldn’t work.  He just mentally couldn’t make the connection for eight hours a day,” said one of his former attorneys.  Although he had no current job and thus no current job problem, we are concerned as well in our assessments with individuals who have a pattern of job losses or under-employment.  Work is a great stabilizer and provider, not only of income, but of social belonging and status.  This is especially true for most men in our society.

Item 8: Extreme Job Attachment

This factor does not seem relevant in this case, at least for Duke per se.  It refers to the strong emotional attachment and personal identification an individual may have to his current job, and that losing it against his or her will may trigger violent retribution.

 Item 9: Loss, Personal Stressors and Negative Coping

This seems to be a prominent factor for Duke given his mounting financial problems and resulting pressure, in the context of a work life that never seemed to “launch.”  His wife’s unemployment benefits were on the verge of running out.  She stated, “The economy and the world just got the better of him.”  In 2005 he sued the Social Security Administration, which had denied his application and five appeals for disability benefits and health insurance.  He had previously filed for bankruptcy while in prison.  Duke’s case represents the tragic extreme of our national issue with unemployment and high stress levels.  Some cope better than others.

Item 10: Entitlement and Other Negative Traits

On the one hand, those who were closest to him do not describe Duke as a distinctly negative character.  But a decision to attack does speak, by definition, to a striking sense of entitlement and lack of any empathy and consideration for the targets and other secondary victims of violence.  His former lawyer stated that one of the doctors who evaluated Duke included the diagnosis of a “personality disorder.”  This refers to enduring maladaptive traits and behaviors that are evident across different situations and are much more challenging to treat.

Item 11: Lack of Conscience and Irresponsibility

Obviously these qualities are present to some degree, but Duke’s lifestyle does not suggest an everyday pattern of antisocial behavior.  In conjunction with item 10, targeted shooters are not always individuals who present as malicious and callous across all aspects of their life and relations.  Many display a “good side”.  It is one reason we are careful to gather collateral information from various individuals when doing assessments, to see what darker motives and irreconcilable insults or wounds they may harbor.  We note that there are often discrepant accounts of an assailant’s nature offered by his friends, neighbors and coworkers after an attack: for example, he was “friendly and generous” vs. he was “hostile and ready to explode.”

Item 12: Anger Problems

Some relatives described Duke as angry and seething inside.  His cousin, who cared about him, stated that since his wife’s dismissal, his anger and alienation “rumbled and grumbled inside of him until he just couldn’t take it anymore.”  Anger may serve as a motivator for those who attack, and is another indicator of insufficient self-controls.  Yet as we see repeatedly, shooters are not feeling or displaying anger during the attack.  They are focused on “the hunt.”   The board superintendent described Duke as having “almost a smile on his face.”

Item 13: Depression and Suicidality

A cousin who saw him at the family’s Thanksgiving gathering said, “He hugged me a little tighter than usual.”  Had he made his decision by then?  His Facebook posting, written in the past tense, suggests suicide: “Some people (the government sponsored media) will say I was evil, a monster…”  Historically Duke is described as being subject to depression as a result of bipolar disorder, described more fully under the next item.  He also allegedly considered suicide to conclude the attack on his former wife that resulted in his imprisonment.  It is reasonable to speculate that despair was a common experience for Duke and a significant underlying contributor to his frustration, anger, and eventual decision to act violently.  His opening remark to the board after clearing the room – “I’m going to die today” – is uttered with a tone suggesting he had taken control over his circumstances.   Such lethal decisions, shocking and irrational to family members and others, are regarded as a solution by the individual.

Item 14: Paranoia and Other Psychotic Symptoms

One of his former attorneys, in defending Duke’s attempted shooting of his ex- wife, filed a notice with the court that he intended to prove Duke had been stricken with a “mania” associated with Y2K.  He remembered Duke as especially paranoid about the new millennium.  “He was one of these Y2K people,” referring to a computer bug that some thought was going to cause massive problems and economic chaos on January 1, 2000.  “He was one of those believers that the world was going to turn for worst and he was stockpiling weapons, assault weapons… He was competent but he was one of those people who had a mood disorder where they could be depressed one day and all excited another day.”  He allegedly received treatment and took medication in prison for what he told a judge was adult-onset bipolar disorder in a letter last year.  Another attorney of Duke’s stated he had been diagnosed by several doctors as bipolar, but no longer had enough money to buy the needed medication. “He was clearly in need of help.”  Although Duke may have had paranoid episodes and clearly lacked trust in government, the visible elements of the attack itself do not suggest it was driven by active and severe paranoia per se (nor by an agitated manic state).

 Item 15: Substance Abuse

No mention of substance problems was offered in the media.  This is not necessarily unusual for targeted shooters, in contrast to most single homicides.

Item 16: Isolation

Duke is described as “alienated from society” given his negative feelings about government.  To clarify, this is not what we mean by Isolation in the WAVR-21, as this item refers to individuals who eschew personal relationships and attachments, who prefer to be “loners.”  We are also looking for individuals who are increasingly isolated, perhaps indicative of movement on a pathway to violence.  Duke had attachments and with his current family members they appear to have been positive.

 Item 17: History of Violence, Criminality, and Conflict

Although they often reveal histories of repeated conflicts, reflective of their negative personality traits, the majority of workplace targeted attackers do not have significant histories of violence.  But Duke’s criminal history described above – the 1999 first-degree felony for shooting at his former wife while she was in a car – is very significant, and clearly suggestive of what he eventually could and did carry out.  In the ’99 incident he was wearing a mask and a bullet-proof vest – clear evidence of a planned, predatory act.  (He served 85-percent of his 60-month prison sentence and was released from probation last February.)

Item 18: Domestic/Intimate Partner Violence

Duke’s widow denied he was violent with her and described him as gentle and compassionate and “always wanting to do the right thing.”  However, his history of violence toward his former mate suggests another experience in intimate relations.  Perhaps he “learned” in one realm, even though he ultimately did not learn enough.

Item 19: Situational and Organizational Contributors to Violence

This item is more relevant to cases involving employees or former employees who have or had a real ongoing relationship with the subject of concern.  The item refers to factors such as malicious provocation by others, or denial of any violence risk by the employer – outside influences that may contribute to the mix.  Some may argue that denying Duke his requested $500 to $600 a month for his mental disability was an outside contributor.  It is a fair point regarding our overall social policies, if not in this particular case.  What are the ultimate unwanted costs of not making treatment available to those who want it and would benefit from it?

Item 20: Stabilizers and Buffers Against Violence

Whatever stabilizers may have been available to Duke through his family, it was not enough to dissuade him.  Some shooters perceive or decide their family “will be better off without me.”  We do not know.

Item 21: Organizational Impact of Real or Perceived Threats

Not a risk factor per se, this item is more relevant to unfolding or escalating cases with current or former employees, and addresses the impact – fear and disruption – of threat scenarios.

How can incidents like this be prevented?

Many public meeting places, especially courtrooms, use metal detection technology and other security measures. This is obviously and increasingly prudent given the lack of information about or awareness of potential perpetrators who may gain access.  To identify potential threats earlier in their development, the threat assessment model requires that information of concern be recognized, reported, investigated, and analyzed for its seriousness, then lead to viable interventions being considered.  Municipally sponsored multidisciplinary teams consisting of representatives from law enforcement, mental health, the legal profession, and other administrative resources can help to protect public figures from attacks.  And in our post-911 world, the citizenry now understands, or we should, that officials need help: “If you observe something suspicious, report it.”

If it had somehow come to official attention and been suspected that Clay Duke was contemplating an attack, he might have been helped, perhaps with a resumption of professional intervention, including medication.  His wife was allegedly seeking re-employment, which might have been further facilitated.   It is otherwise likely, given his history with the criminal justice system, that Duke knew better than to leave clues of his intentions, to avoid renewed detention and prosecution, and interruption of his plan.  He must have decided he was done with any help-seeking.

If this case were brought to attention in the days just prior to the attack, what would have given me most concern about Duke, as seen through the lens of the WAVR-21, is his chronic underemployment, economic bottoming-out, suicidal despair and anger, pronouncements rationalizing violence as justified, and especially his history of a serious premeditated armed attack (however strategically ineffectual).  A threat assessment interview of him would add significantly to the database, test the viability of defusing him, and hopefully lead to other risk-reducing options, whether benevolent, punitive and restrictive, or a combination of these.  His case presents the challenges of monitoring and managing an individual over whom outside controls are limited.  But at least he would be “on the radar.”

A final note: Duke also posted on Facebook the final passage from Percy Shelley’s 1819 “Masque of Anarchy”:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you- Ye are many — they are few”

Shelley presents images of “the fearless and the free”– protestors who do not raise their arms against soldiers slaughtering them.  Ironically the poem is considered one of the early modern political statements of the principle of nonviolent resistance.

Thanks to Reid Meloy for editorial comments.  His 2008 text, Stalking, Threatening, and Attacking Public Figures: A Psychological and Behavioral Analysis, is an in-depth resource for public figure issues.   Published by Oxford University Press, the book is co-edited by Lorraine Sheridan and Jens Hoffman, and can be purchased through Specialized Training.