JOURNAL ISSUE 14

2006/2007

 

 

Understanding school shootings and the steps that can be taken to minimize their occurrence

Philip Mongan
Undergraduate Student,
Bemidji State University, 2007

 

Introduction


School shootings are a phenomenon that has been a growing concern since the early 1990s. A few research teams have tried to ascertain the driving forces that are behind these events, but, to this day, they still have been unable to do so. Researchers believe that there is no way to predict school shooters (Newman, Fox, Harding, Mehta, and Roth, 2004; Moore, Petrie, Braga, and McLaughlin, 2003; FBI, 1999; Harding, Fox, and Mehta, 2002), and between the various research and media reports, almost 40 factors have been identified as having a major impact on the perpetrators of school shootings.


Oftentimes the media and the surrounding communities are quick to blame superficial or otherwise surface reasons for why the youth has committed a school shooting. However, upon further research into communities that are coping with the aftermath of school shootings, researchers have discovered deeper factors behind these murders.


The intent of this research paper is to take a much deeper look into the dynamics of school shootings, because people often hear what caused the shootings from the media, instead of from what the research is showing. This project was also started to help identify what could possibly be done to help prevent school shootings from occurring.


Limitations


Harding, Fox, and Mahta (2002) found numerous limitations of research on school shootings. Due to the scope of this research, however, only the most important limitations are mentioned.


The first major limitation is the fact that research on this topic is limited. Only a few research teams have attempted to tackle this problem within the last decade, and their results have all been fairly different from one another's.


Another problem with researching school shootings is defining what cases will be counted as a school shooting (Harding et al., 2002). This limitation is often referred to as the case definition problem (Harding et al., 2002), and it restricts the number of cases that will be included in the research. If the researcher uses too broad of a definition, many different cases will be examined, and the research will yield contradictory results. However, if the researcher narrows the topic too far, they will not end up with a large enough cross-section of factors behind school shootings.


The third major limitation of this study is the rarity and multiple variable effects of cases (Harding et al., 2002). This limitation occurs because school shootings are extremely rare in nature and because there are numerous factors behind the actions of the perpetrators. This causes an impossibility of isolating one distinct variable and measuring its total effect on the school shooter. Instead, research has to group variables and find commonalities between the different cases of school shootings.


Methodology


This qualitative research case study on school shootings was carried out by first conducting a comprehensive literature review, then completing a media review of school shooting cases, and finally interviewing seven individuals on the topics of violence, youth violence, school violence, and violence in the world.


Comprehensive Literature Review


School shootings are unique because there is not a profile of a school shooter (FBI, 1999; Newman et al., 2004). Also, cases that do fit the definition of a school shooting are still incredibly different from others (Harding et al., 2002). This is part of the reason every researcher comes up with a slightly different case pool when they research school shootings (Harding et al., 2002).


Defining School Rampage Shootings


While researching this topic, it is extremely important to first define what constitutes a "school shooting." Otherwise, it is impossible to decide which cases will or will not be examined.


Researchers have already posed several different definitions of what a "school shooting" is. Moore et al. (2003) used the term "adolescent mass murder" to describe a school shooting, and his definition was, ".the intentional killing of at least three victims (other than the perpetrator) in a single incident by an individual age 19 or younger" (p. 303).


Another definition of school shootings was proposed during the research on Westside, Arkansas and Heath, Kentucky. This definition identified four aspects that had to be present in order for the researchers to regard the incident as a school shooting: the shooting had to occur at school or at a school event; the shooters had to be students or former students of the school in which the shooting took place; there had to be multiple targets; and some of the targets had to have either been specifically chosen because of their significance or been randomly shot at (Newman et al., 2004). Newman et al. (2004) also stated that school shooters may actually be targeting the institution rather than specific individuals and that those cases would also be counted.


This research paper will follow Newman et al.'s (2004) definition of school shootings, and the cases will be referred to as "school shootings." Selecting this term and definition allows for a broad approach to what counts as a "case," and it allows the option for much deeper research to be done.


Other Explanations for School Shootings


Since 1974, there have been twenty-nine school shootings that fit the definition previously mentioned (Newman et al., 2004). There were about as many similarities between the instances as there were differences. The following are some other factors that are often mentioned by researchers when describing why a school shooting occurred.


McGee and DeBernardo (1999) discuss the fact that being a loner is seen as an indication of straying away from cultural norms and committing violent acts. Stephen Demuth (2004) further explored that topic and found that males are more likely to be loners than females.


Another factor used by researchers to explain school shootings is the culture of violence that prevails in America. This culture of violence includes fashion and groups related to school violence (Ogle and Eckman, 2002), and media is seen as part of our culture of violence (Newman et al., 2004). The problem of gun availability is shown through a national survey of fifty-three schools conducted by Sheley and Wright (1998), who found that 50% of youth thought obtaining a gun was "little" or "no" trouble. Our culture of violence may explain why a violent solution is seen as an option, but it does not explain exactly what caused a school shooter to open fire in their school. However, psychologists also agree that frequently being subjected to violence does lead to being desensitized towards extreme violence (Newman et al., 2004; Sissela Bok, 1998).


Bullying in the school is probably the most cited factor in school shootings. While researchers think it plays a part (Newman et al., 2004; Moore, 2003; FBI, 1999; Harding et al., 2002), they all also agree that it would be a mistake to think bullying directly causes school shootings. It has also been shown that school shooters do not just snap because of outside stimuli, such as bullies; instead, they carefully plan out the attack on the school (Newman et al., 2004). In fact, of the twenty-nine cases of school shootings since 1974, there have been sixteen cases that researchers found in which the perpetrator had not been bullied or in which there was no evidence to back the accusations of their being bullied (Newman et al., 2004). In some cases the perpetrator had actually taken the role of bully themselves (Newman et al., 2004).


Another explanation for the number of school shootings that occur, and the cluster in which they appear to emerge, is the copycat factor. However, while it can be argued that many school shooters fashion themselves after previous school shooters, few actually copycat those that came before them (Newman et al., 2004). Instead, they feel that those school shooters who came before them were martyrs, and gave an example to follow (Newman et al., 2004).


Besides the previously-mentioned explanations, there are many other factors commonly believed to cause school shootings. These include poverty, lack of peer support, mental illness, religious beliefs, and drug use (Newman et al., 2004; Moore et al., 2003; Harding et al., 2002). Many of these have little empirical proof and only help to explain a few school shootings.


Comprehensive Media Review


While using media sources for scholarly research is almost never appropriate, it is crucial to investigate them while conducting research on school shootings. It is also a facet that is often overlooked by researchers because they are an unreliable source for information. However, the information the media reports on, whether accurate or not, is the reality that school shooters operate in every day (Newman et al., 2004).


The importance of including reports from the media in this research is because of the role the media plays in the United States of America. The media is a "mirror" of our values, and they impact the norms and customs of the United States of America. Thus, it is important to include this with research on school shootings because those values and norms are often interwoven into the forces behind school shootings.


The media is also the source by which we all get our news, and it therefore controls what we hear about certain events. This fact is evident in the case of school shootings, as the media is generally off-base with the facts they report to the public. These errors in reporting lead to an incorrect sense of the factors behind a school shooting and can lead to the public misunderstanding the events that were actually taking place. Also, the media coverage that many school shooters receive leads to those perpetrators becoming a martyr in the eyes of many alienated youth who are contemplating ways to gain back the power they have lost or never even had in their school.


Interviews


The interviews were conducted with seven individuals who were selected because they either work with youth, work with violent youth, or have witnessed extreme cases of school violence in the past. For reasons of confidentiality, their names will not be used, and just an overview of the information they provided will be presented.


The interviewees consisted of a social worker, a professor and mayor, a high school teacher, a student who had witnessed a rampage school shooting, a troubled teen who had been violent in the past, a priest, and a student who had never experienced an act they considered extremely violent.


This list of interviewees was selected because, as a whole, they gave a good cross-section of American society, and all provided extremely different perspectives on the issue of violence--especially youth violence.


The guiding questions for the interview were made up in two pages. The first page was made up of these questions:

  1. How do you define violence?
  2. How do you define youth violence?
  3. What contributes to violence?
  4. Are there specific (contributing) factors such as poverty, media, or . Please tell me more about it.
  5. Is school violence related to "youth violence", and what contributes to School violence?
  6. Bullying is a growing concern in the US; how do you define bullying?
  7. How are children/young people reacting to bullying? Do they harbor anger and resentment? If so, towards whom?
  8. What action/s could be taken to lessen, or entirely stop, bullying?
  9. If you were in charge, how would you handle
    • school violence, and
    • youth violence in general?
  10. Did you witness youth violence in the recent past? If so, what, in your opinion, precipitated the incident, and what is to be learned from it?

These questions were selected to get a general overview on the issue of violence and on some forces that are popularly seen as reasons behind incidents of school shootings.


Then, a "b list" of questions was asked to the interviewee to dig deeper into the causes of school shootings. These more in-depth questions were:

  1. Did you witness youth violence in the recent past? If so, what, in your opinion, precipitated the incident, and what is to be learned from it?
  2. Homophobic insults are prevalent in many bullying cases that result in violence, so what do you think causes the use of such homophobic comments?
  3. Do you think living in tight-knit rural communities can actually ostracize those who do not fit the "typical" youth mold?
  4. So far, male is the only gender that has committed school rampage shootings, so what aspects of our socialization do you think leads to the disparities between the genders and violence?

The purpose of these questions was to gain knowledge about issues that research is finding to be behind the cases of school rampage shootings. They also provided a medium to discuss these issues with the interviewee and to gain some of the knowledge they have about the topic.


Analysis of Interview Answers


The answers that interviewees gave shifted the research behind school shootings into two directions. The first was the direction of American masculinity and its effect on males in the United States of America; the second was to the issue of power and control in dominant United States society.


Almost every interviewee discussed power, control, and masculinity in great depth during the interview. While they all had slightly different input on these topics, they all agreed that dominant culture promotes an unhealthy sense of what a man is and what a person needs to do in order to be counted as a man. They also agreed that violence is a form of gaining back power and control. However, they all expressed their displeasure with the fact that violence was chosen as a method instead of a more peaceful means that does not end in tragedy.


The priest that was interviewed discussed, in great depth, the topic of power and control and how dominant American society views it as a viable means to restore power and control when one has lost it. Throughout the interview, he gave many examples of how our society accepts, and sometimes even promotes, this struggle for power and control through violent means. However, he also expressed sorrow that this violent method is accepted instead of a more peaceful means.


The answers that were given shed light on the overall topic of school shootings, and the interviewees provided many personal examples of how the issues of masculinity and power/control are currently playing out in the environment immediately surrounding us.


Findings as Related to the Literature


The findings from the literature point in one major direction, and that direction is that there is absolutely no means in which we can predict, with certainty, incidents or perpetrators of school shootings.


The FBI's Threat Assessment Team came up with a four-pronged approach that can be used to assess a threat, and in that report, the FBI (1999) states:


This model is not a "profile" of the school shooter or a checklist of danger signs pointing to the next adolescent who will bring lethal violence to a school. Those things do not exist. Although the risk of an actual shooting incident in any one school is very low, threats of violence are potentially a problem in any school. Once a threat is made, having a fair, rational, and standardized method of evaluating and responding to threats is critically important (1999).


The fact that the FBI is willing to state that a "profile" of school shooters does not exist is a big step, and Newman et al. (2004) also agrees with that approach. However, Newman et al. (2004) discovered a set of factors that needs to be present in order for a school shooting to occur. While knowing those factors may not mean a person can "predict" the next school shooting, it provides members of those school systems a tool to examine their system and decide whether or not it is "ripe" for an attack.


Newman et al. (2004) suggests that these five factors must be present for a rampage school shooting to occur: gun availability, cultural scripts, perception of being socially marginalized, individual problems, and a failure of social support systems.


Being able to attain a firearm in the United States of America is not a very difficult task. A national survey by Sheley and Wright (1998) on youth, weapons, and violence found that 50% of youth thought obtaining a gun was "little" or "no" trouble.


Cultural scripts refer to the norms and values of dominant American society (Newman et al., 2004). American views on masculinity and on power and control are two major examples of cultural scripts present in almost every school in the United States of America. These cultural scripts tend to promote violent means by males because that is an "accepted" way in which to show one's masculinity. That is one of the reasons seen behind the fact that, to date, no female has committed a rampage school shooting. While cultural scripts do not drive a person to commit violence in school, they do make violence an acceptable means for them to get their point across.


Another thing that must be present is the perception of social marginalization (Newman et al., 2004). It is stated as perception because, more often than not, the person who commits the school shooting actually has a group of friends but for some reason seems to believe that they are socially marginalized. Although in many cases the evidence suggests that the school shooters were severely marginalized while at school, all that needs to be present is the perception of marginalization (Newman et al., 2004).


Individual problems cover a range of issues from emotional and mental problems to family issues (Newman et al., 2004). All that Newman et al. (2004) is suggesting by saying that individual problems must be there is the fact that every school shooter to date has had at least one personal issue.


The final aspect that must be there for a school shooting to occur is the failure of a social support system (Newman et al., 2004). More often than not, this is the school support system and its failure to see oncoming danger. In many cases of school shootings, different people from the community all had a piece of the puzzle but as a whole were unable to bring all the pieces together. In Columbine, this was shown by the failure of the police to report threats to the school or to connect Eric and Dylan's charges for theft with the threats to other members of the school. In almost every case, somebody in the system knows the shooters' intentions, but the failure of the system to follow up on those intentions is always present.


Findings as Related to Practice



While research points to the fact that it is impossible to precisely predict the next school shooting, it does give an outline on how to be proactive in preventing these tragedies.


The first step is the information campaign in the school district. While some schools already have instituted this step, it is not being used by every school, and it is a crucial part in preventing a school shooting from occurring. Case-by-case analysis has shown that in almost every school rampage shooting a fellow classmate knew of the threat (Newman et al., 2004; FBI, 1999), and the breaking down of that code of silence is crucial. The three major informational pieces that should be taught to students are:

  1. Even a threat about bringing a gun to school in order to harm or kill somebody should be taken seriously.
  2. A threat is a cry for help, and those students that are threatening others are actually asking for help. Generally, these students do not want to hurt somebody else, but they do not feel they have another way to be heard.
  3. It is partly the job of the students to help keep each other safe from extreme forms of violence, and if they do not talk to somebody when they hear a threat, then, more often than not, nobody else will find out. Another student's voice may be the only thing capable of stopping a tragedy before it starts.

This information campaign should start in elementary school and continue on through high school in one form or another. The key to this step is teaching students these three principals early; that way, the lessons will be ingrained in the students' minds.


The second preventative step would be to create an interdisciplinary team within the school to share information about students. This team would consist of principals, school social workers, guidance counselors, probation officers that are working with students, and teachers that are involved with the students who are deemed high risk because of their actions in school. By having these individuals together, information would be more readily shared between very different elements of a school, and institutional memory loss could be combated. Also, each member of this team is crucial because of the various pieces of information they bring.


The students that are deemed high risk by the interdisciplinary team then would be accounted for, and the school social worker or the guidance counselor could open up dialog with them. However, it is crucial for the team to not use this method as a means of profiling students and putting pressure on them for conformity. Interventions with students who are deemed high risk should only occur if the student is shown to have a history of high risk behaviors or if the student is one that the faculty of the school is genuinely worried about.


The third step a school can take to be proactive in preventing school rampage shootings is to understand that the shooters were attacking the school itself as much as anybody they fired upon. Thus, it is crucial for school administration, faculty, and support staff to look at the dynamics of their school. The only way that this can be done properly is to be completely honest while examining the school and to accept whatever answers are found. This examination of the school should be done either by a team with a similar structure as the interdisciplinary team or by a neutral individual, and they should examine the following:

  1. Verbal and nonverbal bullying that is present in the school.
  2. If there is a hierarchy in the student population, and if so, what the power difference between the top and bottom group is.
  3. The amount and level of masculine views that are present in the school.

These three elements are a large part of what makes up the climate of a school, and they must be examined if a team is to understand the dynamics of their school. Bullying is the first element and is an important aspect to examine. However, the team must examine both nonverbal and verbal bullying, because both types play intricate roles in the psyche of many school shooters (Newman et al., 2004).


The hierarchy of the student body helps to understand the climate of the school (Brady, 2004). If a hierarchy does exist in a school, there will definitely be power differences between groups. However, if this power difference leads to the rejection of certain groups, than those rejected groups will feel marginalized (Brady, 2004).


Hierarchies develop in schools because of many factors, such as economic status, sports participation, intelligence, and clothing (Brady, 2004). These factors can lead to a sense of certain individuals being inferior or superior. While hierarchies do not innately promote conflict and tension between various groups, it is something for a school to monitor closely. If one or two particular groups do end up possessing a majority of the power in the school, that school can be certain that there are individuals who are being alienated.


Masculinity in a middle- or high-school setting can be a very problematic issue. It is connected with a lower level of literacy and the growing problem of effectively teaching adolescent males in this day and age (Kehler, and Greig, 2005; Martino, 2000). It is also a critical issue in understanding school shootings, because, to date, there has never been a school shooting in the United States of America committed by a female (Newman et al., 2004; FBI, 1999, Moore et al., 2003). That even holds true with drastically broadening the definition of a school shooting. Due to this, understanding the role of masculinity is absolutely crucial in devising a threat assessment.


Newman et al. (2004) discusses masculinity being present in a school by the amount of bullying, homosexual labels, hazing/shaming, and various popularity levels within the school. All of these things are seen as critical factors of masculinity within a school, and Newman et al. (2004) even states, "Masculinity is central to what makes a popular boy the king of the mountain" (p. 144). Martino (2000) agrees with this statement by saying, "popular boys become gatekeepers of acceptable and desirable behaviors for boys" (p. 106). Since these popular boys are the "gatekeepers" and the "king of the mountain," they can socially marginalize others for not being a true man and not following the boundaries of masculinity that the popular boys set up (Martino, 2000).


The belief of having to be traditionally masculine in order to be a man runs extremely deep in the minds of the perpetrators of school shootings. These boys were often marginalized because they did not typically fit into the masculine mold, and many of them believed that the shooting was a way for them to prove their masculinity; therefore, they hold on to the belief that it is best to go out in a blaze of gunfire (Newman et al., 2004). One such disturbing example is Luke Woodham's psychiatric interview, where he stated:


I am not insane. I am angry..I am not spoiled or lazy; for murder is not weak and slow-witted; murder is gutsy and daring. I killed because people like me are mistreated every day. I am malicious because I am miserable (Chua-Eoan cited by Kimmel and Mahler, 2003). Masculinity is a component of socialization and is learned by imitation.


Therefore, it is a logical deduction that places with a more conservative or narrow view of masculinity would be subject to a greater number of school shootings. Traditional masculinity is the old belief still present in many conservative regions in the United States of America, which includes the idea that men are the "breadwinners" and need to be strong and defend their honor. However, non-traditional masculinity is the newer form of masculinity that allows for a man to be labeled as "metro-sexual" and still be considered a man. Kimmel and Mahler (2003) identified that twenty of the twenty-eight cases of school shootings they identified took place in "red" states. These states have a long-standing history of being conservative and having very strong beliefs towards a man being traditionally masculine.


Through studying the various school shootings identified for this research project, one would find that the majority of the perpetrators were subject to many of the previously-mentioned attacks on their masculinity (Newman et al., 2004; Moore et al., 2003). Also, almost all of the schools and communities that the perpetrators lived in had a high level of masculinity present. That high level of masculinity was a contributing factor to their alienation and marginalization and is seen as a contributing factor to the school shooting (Newman et al., 2004).


The research also shows that more exploration needs to be done in regards to school shootings. Only a handful of cases have been exhaustively researched, so there are possibly many important pieces of information that have yet to be discovered. This research also needs to be brought into the communities that have been affected by a school shooting, as long as the research team is careful to respect the amount of sorrow present there. Examining the surrounding culture gives a clearer picture of the cultural scripts that are present in the school system and of how the community deals with marginalized youth.


The final factor that the research has shown, especially Newman et al.'s (2004) research, is that many perpetrators of school violence were crying out for help in one way or another, and that, for some reason, those cries were not heard. The general consensus of all the research teams is that a better job needs to be done actively listening and seeking out information about youth who appear to be heading down troubled paths.


Summary


School shootings have been a part of American culture since 1974 (Newman et al., 2004). It is seen in the media circles as a phenomenon that started in the 1990's, yet research is showing that the forces behind the school rampage shootings are connected to deep-rooted American cultural beliefs like masculinity and power/control.


It is also important to remember that school shooters may externally appear to fit into a mold that people associate with school shooters, but it is impossible and unhealthy to try and have a profile of a school shooter. A profile would do nothing except to further marginalize those who already feel like outcasts in the systems they are a part of.


inally, further research into the issue of school shootings is imperative if we ever want to completely understand these incidents. However, we must also realize that what we hear from the media is initial information that often pans out to be untrue or greatly exaggerated. The factors behind school shootings are never as simple as they are made to appear in the news, and, more often than not, there are deep underlying issues behind the attacks.



References


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Kehler, M., and Greig, C. (2005). Reading masculinities: exploring the socially literate practices of
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Moore, M., Petrie, C., Braga, A., McLaughlin, B. (2003). Deadly Lessons.Washington, D.C.:
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Sheley, J., Wright, J. (1998). High School Youths, Weapons, and Violence. Research in Brief.

 

 

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