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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence
tions individuals and institutions could take either to prevent such events from occurring in the first place or to minimize the damage once they begin to unfold.
This special mandate from Congress challenged the National Academies’ National Research Council (NRC) to focus its attention on a very specific, very urgent national problem. Viewed from one perspective, this is not unusual. The NRC is often called on to offer scientific advice to policymakers as they confront urgent, specific problems. The difference here, however, was that the violent incidents that galvanized congressional concern seemed to many to be new and unique as well as urgent and specific.
Of course, the problem represented by multiple, lethal victimizations in school settings could, on close investigation, turn out to be neither new nor unique. Perhaps there had been episodes like this in the past or in other places that had not been noticed as much as these recent incidents. Perhaps the phenomenon could be easily understood against the backdrop of a larger theory of violence, or of school violence more generally, or as some kind of offshoot of the dramatic increase in youth violence that had occurred earlier in the nation’s inner cities.
If, however, on close investigation, the incidents that attracted special congressional attention turned out to be both new and different from what society had seen before—producing different kinds of consequences, caused by different processes, and best prevented through different mechanisms than the other more familiar kinds of violence—then the committee charged with characterizing and understanding the problem would find itself in a difficult position. It would be challenged to make sense of a phenomenon for which no established literature existed.
Without a strong science base to rely on, the committee would have to abandon its usual procedures of reviewing an extant literature, arbitrating the disputes contained therein, and synthesizing the results. It would instead have to engage in original research—something that is often thought to be done better by individual scholars pursuing their theories rather than a committee trying to reach a shared understanding. To the extent that original research was less than definitive, the committee would enter a realm in which the standards for making claims about causes, consequences, and effective cures were ambiguous. It would be operating in a realm in which its findings had only a little more weight than the opinions of other thoughtful observers.
THE COMMITTEE’S APPROACH
The task before the committee was to find some satisfactory way to meet these challenges. An important first step was to develop agree