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Another Shooting, Another Reminder to Not Ignore the Warning Signs

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Dylann Roof, the young man accused in the horrific shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., is a 21-year-old man who did not go to bed on a Tuesday night as a loving, law-abiding citizen only to wake up on a Wednesday morning as a killer.

His alleged crime raises the usual questions: How did this happen? How can we prevent this? Drugs? Guns? Unfortunately, most of the questions focus on the conclusion of a story that was likely written over the course of his lifetime.

Roof's alleged crime is likely not the result of some immediate triggering event but a culmination of his experiences and influences over several years. To prevent such occurrences, we would be more successful by identifying the problematic influences and altering them earlier in the sequence of his life's events.

It is unknown exactly when Roof's life began its dark turn. We can gain some insight into his path from statements by those who knew him. A New York Times article by Jason Horowitz, Shaila Dewan and Richard A. Oppel Jr. on June 18 quotes an interview in the Daily Beast where a high school classmate reported that Roof was "a heavy drug user ... He used drugs heavily a lot ... He was like a pill popper."

This step along his path is further evidenced by his recent arrest for felony drug possession. Further information can be obtained by the Twitter statement of another classmate, quoted in the same article, who described Roof as "super emo, with long blonde hair and he was pretty quiet."

Roof's young age suggests that this alleged crime is the endpoint of the path he took in high school that was noticed by his classmates. Though such a history does not inevitably lead to a mass shooting, these traits are indicative of trouble and should serve as flashing red lights to families and professionals -- an opportunity to intervene.

With no known knowledge of his specific family or personal history, it is impossible to identify what went wrong. However, the results make it clear that nothing worked in changing his trajectory.

Unfortunately, the majority of our efforts to treat significant behavior problems in juveniles and emerging adults are ineffective, with some increasing the likelihood for future crime because they are narrow in scope and do not target the known predictors of future crime.

Decades of research clearly demonstrates that, along with prior history, the most direct predictor of future crime is the peer group, associating with people that support crime. Of course there are other elements that combine to predict such an outcome, but the peer group is the most direct.

With that in mind, what results do we expect when some of our primary strategies actually force the association with this peer group? Which peer group should we expect them to encounter when we mandate group treatment or incarceration as a result of their behavior?

There are proven approaches like Functional Family Therapy, Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care and Multisystemic Therapy that seek to alter the influences in the person's life so the offending behaviors are no longer tolerated. Had the earlier warning signs prompted effective treatment, intensive effort would have been made toward helping to alter the peer group and other influences from those that supported his alleged "pill popping." The more intensive effort would likely have derailed the sequence that resulted in his association with peers appreciative of the apartheid-era patches on his jacket. We know what works.

As with most crimes that have left us wondering what could be done to prevent them, there were warning signs prior to the shooting at Emanuel AME Church. The shooter's significant drug use, "emo" presentation and white supremacist images were warning signs. Was anyone shocked when they saw his Facebook picture? Identifying concerning signs is one step, one that is fairly simple, but we must respond with something effective if we want a different result.

Since offending is predicted and supported by multiple influences, it requires that people work together to create change. Classmates that notice concerning signs, inform someone that can make a difference -- parents, teachers, police or anyone that may be influential to the person. Do it anonymously if necessary. When informed, parents need to carefully assess the influences on their child and take steps to create the necessary changes. This may include increased monitoring and supervision, new discipline practices, cautious assessment and approval of friends, coordinated efforts with school or decreasing conflict in the home. Some parents take the seemingly wise step of seeking professional help only to be sent to an ineffective or harmful program. The policy-makers and service providers owe it to families and communities to implement evidence-based practices, and communities need to demand it.

Dr. Patrick M. Duffy, Jr., a licensed clinical psychologist, has specialized in working with children and families with significant behavioral issues since 1993. He was initially trained in Multisystemic Therapy (MST), an evidence-based treatment model, in the early 1990's while working for the Charleston Community Mental Health Center in South Carolina. He is the author of Parenting Your Delinquent, Defiant, or Out-of-Control Teen (New Harbinger Publications).