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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence
SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES
Table 8-2, at the end of this chapter, lays out the details of the case studies for ease of comparison.
All seven of these incidents involved young people arming themselves, in several cases with semiautomatic weapons, and opening fire on their schoolmates and teachers, killing or seriously injuring them (mean fatalities: 2.2; mean injuries: 4.5; all but 4 killed or injured were other students). The incidents occurred in places that were supposed to be safe—the hallways and common areas of schools and at a school-sponsored event. The offenders were all young themselves—most were age 13 or 14 (range: 11–15). The offenders in six of the seven incidents were convicted of homicide in adult courts, and most were sentenced to long prison terms.
These events also took place in a society that seems to encourage or condone violence. The popular culture is tolerant of violence. The United States has the world’s largest supply of privately owned weapons (used in four of these incidents). And recently there was a dramatic increase in violence occasioned at least in part by an epidemic of cocaine use fueled and supported by violent illegal drug markets. In the committee’s view, levels of violence are influenced by such structural factors, and we cannot exclude their importance in producing the events examined, although it is hard to find direct evidence of these factors in the cases.
All of these events occurred in the sturm and drang of adolescent development. The youth who committed the offenses were young men trying to become grownups. They were intensely concerned with their status and power, with their masculinity, and with their relationships with members of the opposite sex. They were all vulnerable to exaggerated hopes and fears and to the perceptions and judgments of peers and adults. At this time of life, it is easy to imagine that one is under threat, or that there are certain things one has to do to gain attention or standing in the world. It is also a time of life when adult authority and norms are being contested. These processes were at work in both the inner city and in the suburban and rural areas.
An important difference between the inner-city and suburban and rural contexts lies in the coherence of the events. In each of the three incidents in the two inner-city schools, the offender had a specific reason to shoot when he did, where he did, and at whom he did. Moreover, the reasons given were comprehensible to their peers and even to the adults and officials who investigated and responded to the events. The shootings were occasioned by a very specific relationship between the shooter and some other student at school, which ripened into an unresolved dispute, in which there was a continuing, seemingly credible threat of violence