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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence
the schools could have done to prevent and deal more effectively with the violence when it occurred.
While evidence is scarce that the schools somehow generated the violence as a consequence of the way they were structured and administered, the sense of community between youth and adults in these schools, which research has shown is protective against crime, was lacking. In the worst example, the school allowed a school newspaper to print an article that humiliated one of the students who became a shooter. The adults involved may have been too distant from the students to prevent some social processes leading to the potential for violence or resulting in an intolerable humiliation for some particularly vulnerable youth.
In order to prevent violence from occurring, the adult culture and the school’s administration and faculty may have to find ways to successfully engage the youth culture, to make every student feel valued, and to keep the youth culture in the school from becoming lethally dangerous. In hindsight, the schools in the cases may have been insufficiently preventive. But they do not seem to have been criminogenic in themselves.
Characteristics of the Offenders
Another tradition in criminology focuses attention on the more or less stable individual characteristics that make some individuals more likely to offend than others. In these respects, there may be important differences between the cases of violence in the inner city and the rural and suburban areas. Many social pressures—large and small, durable and transient—led toward the incidents of lethal violence observed in the inner-city schools. In the suburban and rural schools, the social pressures leading to violence seem much less visible. This may leave more to be explained by individual-level factors.
The shooters had some characteristics that, based on evidence from research, would place them at high risk for serious offending: being male, having mental health and, in one case, substance abuse problems, and having previous minor behavior problems. Most had recently begun hanging out with delinquent or more troubled friends and had a recent drop in their grades at school. All had easy access to guns (see Farrington and Loeber, 1999).
Of special note is how young all the shooters were. None was older than 15, and the youngest was 11. At least two important aspects of this age period have implications for what occurred. First, it is during early adolescence when peer relations and finding one’s place in the social order of the school become most important. Second, during this period, cognitive abilities, including perspective taking, are developing. Young