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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence
including the incidents of school violence that occurred in Pearl, Mississippi; Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Springfield, Oregon; Edinboro, Pennsylvania; Fayetteville, Tennessee; Littleton, Colorado; and Conyers, Georgia.
Congress specifically asked that detailed case studies be developed of the circumstances that led to extreme lethal violence in schools. The goal was to use these cases to learn as much as possible about two important questions. First, what could be said about the important causes and consequences of these unexpected, lethal shootings? Second, what actions could individuals and institutions take either to prevent these events from occurring in the first place or to minimize the damage once they began to unfold?
The most important challenge the committee confronted was to choose the particular cases to be developed, a task with both practical and scientific elements. Congress asked the committee to examine “incidents of lethal school violence in urban, suburban, and rural schools,” but all of the specific cases identified in the legislation occurred in suburban and rural schools between 1997 and 1999. From a practical standpoint, cases could be selected from this list. However, the scientific question before the committee was what was the general class of violence of which these eight incidents were exemplars? When the committee examined the data sources on school shootings from this period, we found urban school shootings, but none that appeared similar to the listed cases. It seemed then that the form of lethal school violence that occurred in the late 1990s might represent a distinct form of lethal school violence—different in its causes and in its effective prevention and control. This possibility made the important scientific question of the relationship between the form of lethal school violence that was concentrated in the inner-city schools, and the seemingly newer form of lethal school violence that erupted in suburban and rural schools in the late 1990s, central to the committee’s work.
To more fully answer these questions the committee decided to examine the series of school shootings that began in 1997, not by themselves as a separate phenomenon, but instead against the backdrop of the broader patterns of violence that had recently affected American society, especially between 1985 and 1995. This also seemed important for policy-making purposes; that is, it seemed important to keep these particular shootings in perspective. An overreaction to events that were so dramatic and so unexpected, overshadowing the importance of other violence problems, seemed likely. It also was important to look at general trends to understand the relationship between the unexpected outburst of shootings in suburban and rural schools and other forms of both youth and adult violence. The committee was particularly interested in understanding the relationship, if any, be