Although the phrase school shootings might describe any shooting that takes place within a school, it has come to refer to incidents where a student smuggles guns into a school and fires indiscriminately at whoever falls into his (or her, although all school shootings to date have involved male perpetrators) line of sight. Variations are common: two shooters may work as a team, a shooter may be a sniper stationed outside the school, and he may target specific individuals or members of groups. The earliest school shooting to attract nationwide attention was the 1966 sniper shooting by Charles Whitman, a recent University of Texas graduate, on the Austin campus. Although school shootings are highly publicized, they are relatively rare; school remains one of the safest places an individual can be. For example, the number of victims of school shootings is small relative to the number of adolescents killed in homicides off school property, but the effect on the community is enduring and devastating, not unlike a terrorist attack.
The earliest documented school shooting involved a brilliant, eccentric Williams College student named Lewis Jack Somers, Jr., who, on May 19, 1936, killed one classmate and wounded another before ending his own life with a pair of mail-order pistols. Occurrences of this kind were limited by the difficulty of successfully firing early pistols as well as the expense of purchasing them. By the time Charles Whitman climbed the Texas tower, assault weapons manufactured in China, Israel, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom were flooding the American market, making guns cheap and easily available through mail-order catalogues, gun shops, and later the Internet. Seventeen-year-old Anthony Barbaro is considered the first of the high school rampage shooters. On December 30, 1974, he improvised a sniper’s nest in a corner of a deserted third floor classroom of his high school in Oleans, New York, and fired at passing drivers and pedestrians, killing three and wounding 11. Barbaro shared characteristics with many school shooters to come: he was an excellent student from a middle-class family that was well regarded in the community. He was socially ill-at-ease, had few friends, and bore a passion for guns and all things military. He chose his victims at random. Eight years later a Las Vegas, Nevada, high school student, Patrick Lizotte, 17, wounded two classmates and shot and killed a teacher, believing that the teacher had planned to institutionalize him. Between 1983 and 1995, nine shootings occurred at 1or 2-year intervals (two in 1995). Then the pace began to accelerate, possibly due to the kind of copycat behavior often observed among adolescents in the wake of highly publicized suicidal and parasuicidal acts. Four shootings occurred in 1997, three in 1998, and five in 1999 (including an incident in Canada). On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold, 17, and Eric Harris, 18, entered Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, with assault weapons, shotguns, and bombs. Twelve students and a teacher were killed and 23 others wounded before the shooters took their own lives. More school shootings have occurred since then, most significantly in Santee, California; Erfurt, Germany; and Red Lake, Minnesota Media coverage and public interest abated for a time but were reignited in 2007 when a student at Virginia Tech University, Cho Seung-Hui, shot and killed 32 people on that campus before killing himself.
Psychosocial View Of Causes
School shootings are rare enough that the unique characteristics of each case seem to outnumber the commonalities. The best that can be done at this time is to describe a combination of factors that are necessary but not sufficient for a school shooting to occur.
- The school shooter perceives himself as marginalized in the social interactions of his school. Often he is only barely tolerated by those who constitute the bottom rung of the social hierarchy, the school’s outcast or Goth group. This effect is more pronounced in tight-knit rural and suburban communities where there is less tolerance for eccentricity.
- He suffers from psychosocial and biological problems such as mental illness, brain damage, the inability to perceive social cues, or a dysfunctional or abusive family. These problems amplify his sense of alienation and undermine his coping abilities.
- The school shooter “falls off the radar.” His parents are in denial or fail to understand the extent of the danger he poses to others. Teachers do not refer him for counseling because his behavior is atypical, he is adept at concealing it, or he is “invisible.” His classmates do not take his threats seriously or are unaware of him.
- By the time he reaches adolescence, he feels that the future has little to offer. He bears homicidal feelings toward classmates who have shunned and bullied him and toward adults who have failed to notice and correct the course of his life.
- He is drawn to cultural myths that depict isolated or eccentric adolescents like himself winning respect through acts of violence. Movies, such as Natural Born Killers; music videos, such as the Pearl Jam song “Jeremy”; and novels, such as Stephen King’s Rage, offer homicidal and suicidal opportunities and a chance to become the center of the world, however briefly.
- He is attracted to the power inherent in firearms and home-made bombs and grenades. In the case of the younger perpetrator, guns are easily available to him in his home or can be borrowed from the homes of friends.
Preventing And Minimizing The Effects Of School Shootings
Systems purporting to profile potential school shooters are not effective and may cause harm by scapegoating eccentric students. Preventive measures include ant bullying programs, comprehensive mentoring programs, gun-control measures, and promoting a culture in which students share information about threats with adults. The effects of a school shooting (and other school crises) can be greatly reduced by having a school safety plan in place, as required by law in most states, as well as a school safety committee to administer it. School evacuation and lockdown protocols should be well rehearsed. Survivors of school shootings will vary greatly in their degree of posttraumatic stress disorder and the time they need to grieve their losses.
- Dwyer, K., Osher, D., & Warger, C. (1998). Early warning, timely response: A guide to safe schools. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
- Garbarino, J. (1999). Lost boys: Why our sons turn violent and how we can save them. New York: Free Press.
- Moore, M. H., Petrie, C. V., Braga, A. A., & McLaughlin, B. L. (Eds.). (2003). Deadly lessons: Understanding lethal school violence. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
- Newman, K. S., Fox, C., Harding, D. J., Mehta, J., & Roth, W. (2005). Rampage: The social roots of school shootings. New York: Basic Books.
- O’Toole, M. E. (2000). The school shooter: A threat assessment perspective. Quantico, VA: Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.
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