Like many, when I learned of the Newtown shootings, I felt compelled to do something. I wanted to dry the tears of the victims' families. I wanted to tell the families that I'll work to make sure this never happens again. I wanted to tell them that I'll be thinking of them and their lost ones when I try.
I feel a responsibility to the victims. While a blog post in a local, online publication isn't the comfort of open arms, I hope the post offers some context for the tragedy and tools for preventing another. I believe there is much to be accomplished if all of us try.
“I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try
But that was just a dream
Try. Cry. Why. Try.
That was just a dream”
- R.E.M., Losing My Religion
The overwhelming grief and helplessness that school shootings engender compel us to ask, “Why?” If we can answer this question, if we can explain why school shootings occur, we are less helpless. Further, if we know why they occur, we can prevent another attack, and our grief is slightly assuaged. In researching this article, I didn't find an answer. I found useful and confusing information in trying to answer why school shootings occur. I'll present information that appeared consistently across the literature and offer implications for school safety.
First, it's important to put a context around school shootings.
School shootings are not new phenomena ( Safe Schools Initiative, 2002, Muschert, 2007 ). One source identifies the first targeted school shooting in 1974 (Safe Schools Initiative, 2002 ). Another source identifies the first school shooting in 1966 (US News, 2008), and still another identifies the first targeted school shooting occurring in 1927 in Bath, Michigan by a school board member who killed 38 children and six adults (heritage.com, 2012). Despite this history, schools are still safer than children's homes and neighborhoods. More violent crimes and serious violent crimes happen away from school than at school. Further, the rates of violent crimes and serious violent crimes decrease consistently from 1992 through 2010 (Muschert, 2007, OJJDP, 2010).
“It is the way of scholars to show all they know and oppose further information.”
- Francis Bacon
As the above paragraph indicates, there is inconsistency in the literature concerning school attacks, even disagreement as to when the first occurred. In understandable haste to discover why school shootings happen, researchers may force conclusions. After the Columbine shootings in 1999, violent video games, Goth culture, and race were identified as causes, and all were discovered to be inadequate explanations by subsequent scholarship (Muschert, 2007). Also, because school shootings are very rare, and some end with the shooter's death, the study sample is small. Iron-clad conclusions are difficult to draw from small samples. Further, scholars disagree on the definition of a school shooting ("school shootings" are sometimes defined differently than "school attacks") which will alter the participants, the sample size, and the conclusions (Langman, 2010).
This post relies heavily on The Final Report and Findings of the Safe Schools Initiative, a seminal document on school shootings by The U.S. Secret Service and The U.S. Department of Education (Safe Schools Initiative, 2002). The document was written in 2002 after the Columbine shootings and contains a rigorous examination of school shooters. This source and others are able to find some consensus in scholarship. School shooter behaviors, the nature of school attacks, and implications for safer schools are areas where scholarship demonstrates more united findings.
Mainstream media and much of the literature tries to develop a “profile” for school shooters, but a definitive profile doesn't exist. Despite media focus on what school shooters look like, there isn't a set of demographics that indicates the likelihood of students becoming school shooters. Most school shooters are white, male, good students, are involved in extra curricular activities, come from two-parent homes, have no prior history of violence, and no mental health history (Safe Schools Initiative, 2002). These statistics might as easily indicate students who are likely to be admitted into a state university. Using this set of demographics to identify potential school shooters would mistakenly identify the innocent and overlook potential perpetrators (Sulkowski & Lazarus, 2012, Safe Schools Initiative, 2002).
“How overcome this dire Calamity,
What reinforcement may we gain from Hope,
If not, what resolution from despair.”
- John Milton, Paradise Lost
It's far more useful to track behaviors of students to determine the potential of violence (Safe Schools Initiative, 2002, Sulkowski & Lazarus, 2012). In most school shootings, attackers will tell someone else about the attack. In 81% of the cases studied in the Safe Schools Initiative, at least one other person knew that a shooting would occur. In 59% of the cases studied, more than one person knew about the attack. In 93% of these cases, the person who knew was a peer. Telling a peer about the attack is one behavior that most school shooters share.
In addition, prior to the attacks, many shooters display “concerning behaviors” (Safe Schools Initiative, 2002). These behaviors, as in the case of telling someone else about the attack, are far from subtle. Shooters may ask others about procuring a weapon, talk about building bombs, talk about how they would like to kill others, or even talk about how they would attack the school. Expressing homicidal or suicidal ideation, especially in poetry, essays and journals, is common. Experience with shooting guns is also a common behavior. Many school shooters seem to behave in ways that overtly demonstrate their interest in violence.
Most shooters felt persecuted and bullied and had difficulty coping with a recent loss or perceived rejection. Some of the bullying was severe. Some of the persecution was more perception. Regardless, many school shooters are unable to manage social difficulties (Safe Schools Initiative, 2002). The coping abilities of school shooters are diminished. Focusing on behaviors of school shooters is more helpful than a set of demographics to prevent school attacks. Examining consensus on the nature of school attacks offers further insight into prevention.
Like school shooter behaviors, school attacks have commonalities. School attacks are short in duration. From the time the shooting begins until the shooting stops, less than 15 minutes have passed in almost half of the attacks. Over a quarter of attacks lasted less than five minutes (Sulkowski & Lazarus, 2012, Safe Schools Initiative, 2002). School attacks are planned in advance 95% of the time and are stopped by someone other than law enforcement. The weapons used in 68% of school shootings were guns from the shooters' homes or from their relatives' homes (Safe Schools Initiative, 2002 ). Conclusions regarding scholarly consensus in school shooters' behaviors and in the nature of school attacks have implications for preventing other school shootings.
“Tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
The preventive strategies for school shootings are establishing a warm school climate and constructing an effective threat assessment team to evaluate students' potential for violence. Establishing a warm, caring climate in a school sounds like a soft option when considering the hard reality of school shootings. However, given that most school shooters tell someone about their attacks, that school shooters demonstrate “concerning behaviors”, that they express homicidal and suicidal ideation, and that attacks are planned in advance, a school climate that is supportive makes sense. Students and staff may be more likely to report concerns about the potential for violence. Schools where bullying is taken seriously, where students' voices have resonance, where staff are perceived as invested in students' work can create an environment where students are active in their schools' environs (Sulkowski & Lazarus, 2012, Safe Schools Initiative, 2002). In addition to a supportive campus, an effective threat assessment team is essential in preventing school shootings.
After students are identified as concerns, a threat assessment team collects information for evaluation and monitors the students. “A growing body of research supports the efficacy of threat assessment approaches for mitigating threats of violence” (Sulkowski & Lazarus, 2012, p. 343). Systematic threat assessment may be a more effective method of reducing violence than criminal profiling, more punitive discipline policies, and allowing concealed weapons in schools (Sulkowski & Lazarus, 2012). The team collects information about students through interviews, school records, and if needed, contact with law enforcement. After information collection, the team makes recommendations for interventions – mental health, disciplinary, or law enforcement. The team then monitors students through the interventions and tracks their progress. A threat assessment team is generally available in school districts but all stakeholders in a school district, particularly students, need awareness of the teams and access to them. The Safe Schools Initiative has a complete guide to threat assessments (Safe Schools Initiative, 2002).
“We have a responsibility to the victims of crime and violence. It is a responsibility to think not only of our own convenience but of the tragedy of sudden death.”
- Robert Kennedy
School shootings result from “a constellation of contributing causes, none of which is sufficient in itself to explain a shooting” (Muschert, 2007, p. 68). “Knowing everything about the perpetrator, his family, his social experience and the world he inhabits does not answer the question “why” in any way that will resolve the problem” (Solomon, 2012). Being unable to answer “why” is not cause for inaction. Stakeholders in school districts can act in ways that prevent school shootings. Parents can raise their children vigilantly. School staff can be educated in “concerning behaviors” and about the importance of establishing relationships with students. School districts can build effective threat assessment teams. Students can invest in their own safety and report their concerns. Law enforcement can work closely with schools. We keep working.
We grieve for our country, the Newtown community, the Lanza family, the Sandy Hook staff, and those sweet children. But there is work to be done.
We grieve, but we are not helpless.