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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence
adolescents’ ability to make accurate judgments, especially about social relationships, may be lacking.
Most of the shooters did not have either records or reputations that would link them to violent crime, but there are some important differences between the inner-city and the suburban and rural incidents. Two of the three offenders in the inner-city cases had previous arrests for serious crimes and were known to the police. One of the inner-city shooters and all of the suburban shooters had no previous arrests for serious crimes and were largely unknown to the police. However, we cannot conclude from these facts that the underlying level and seriousness of criminal offending was different in the inner city and the suburban cases, or that the inner-city kids had more experience in committing crimes than the rural and suburban kids. One had committed an undetected felony-level theft, one had stolen and sold his father’s gun, and one had molested a two-year-old child. We can say, however, that the urban teens were more likely to have previous records of offending than the suburban kids, who essentially had none.
The shooters’ records of school performance were similar for five of the boys. In the two inner-city cases, the offenders had good records until 8th grade, when their performance began to slip; that shift was attributed either to the fact that receiving good grades was seen as a sign of weakness or that the offender became involved with a gang culture. In the committee’s view, this shows the influence of local subcultures in the schools that were powerful influences on young, impressionable adolescents beginning their high school careers and their developing hostility to “good” performance. In the rural and suburban cases, two of the offenders struggled in school. For the others, their grades ranged from average to good until around 8th grade.
Disciplinary records in school were similarly varied. At least one of the inner-city offenders and two of the suburban offenders had disciplinary records; the others didn’t. The offenders could not be said to be notorious “bad actors” in their schools. They seemed to be adolescents struggling to make their way academically and socially in the competitive environment of gangs and cliques that characterize most junior and senior high schools.
In considering the causes of these offenses and potential points of intervention, a crucially important question is the extent to which the shooters can be considered mentally ill. For events that seem largely unaccountable (as in the suburban cases), and when there are no apparent powerful social factors shaping conduct (as in the suburban/rural cases), it is tempting to seek the explanation not just in individual characteristics, but in mental illness. Such an analytic move should be suspect, even though it may seem objective and logical. One reason is that such diag