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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence 11 Response Strategies: Observations on Causes, Interventions, and Research The most important issue for policy officials in responding to school rampages is finding the means to prevent them. One thing that makes such efforts particularly difficult is that no place seems to be immune from such events. Another is that they are exceedingly rare: only 35 of the nation’s 116,910 elementary and secondary schools have experienced a multiple victim shooting over the last decade. This makes it difficult for communities and schools to maintain their vigilance and their preparedness over long periods of time, during which the threat seems to be both remote and receding. This suggests that in order for prevention measures to work, they have to be important for other more immediate and more persistent purposes. A PREVENTION PARADIGM The public health community has developed a useful way of thinking about the prevention of injuries, both intentional (crimes) and unintentional (accidents). They distinguish three different classes of preventive efforts: primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention. Not only does the public health community make analytic distinction among these different forms of prevention,1 but they also are strong advocates for particular kinds of prevention. Generally speaking, they would prefer primary prevention over any of the others—particularly if the primary prevention instruments are both inexpensive to use and entirely effective. The preference for this sort of prevention is rooted in the extraordinary success of
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence immunizations against disease. Immunization has many of the ideal qualities of a primary preventive instrument: it is very low in cost, can be widely distributed, and is extremely effective. It is difficult, however, to import this model into the world of social behavior, especially delinquency. Because of the complexity of developmental and other factors that produce these behaviors, these interventions—whether primary, secondary, or tertiary—can be very costly rather than inexpensive, especially since they must be sustained over time. Research has shown that prevention efforts to date afford quite limited protection. Cost may cause society to depart from its preference for protecting everyone and concentrate on protecting those places, people, and circumstances that seem at particularly high risk. However, because the interventions are less reliable, society may still have to cope with incidents that were not prevented. In short, the more expensive and less reliable the interventions, the more the society will be forced to employ a portfolio of preventive activities that favor tertiary over secondary and primary preventive instruments. One can even imagine situations in which the cost and unreliability of primary and secondary instruments are so great as to make tertiary prevention the best approach to dealing with a problem. In these cases, an ounce of prevention would be worth much less than a pound of cure. This report suggests that many different factors can potentially lead to lethal violence or school rampages, including structural community variables, the ordinary processes of child development, the risks created when children become alienated from adults, cultural influences, the stable characteristics and motivations of the individuals who become offenders, and microsocial situational processes that, although surely influenced by individual characteristics and larger community forces, take on a life of their own in the give and take of interpersonal and group interaction. Since each of these factors is a potential cause, each is a potential target of preventive efforts. And one could attack these different causes in either a general, primary prevention effort or in a more selective secondary prevention mode. For example, one could seek to modify structural conditions across all communities in the country, or only those that are judged to be at particularly high risk. One could treat every youth as a potential offender, or concentrate on those considered to be at particularly high risk. One could treat every instance of status threat and degradation in school as something to be managed, or focus only on those situations that seemed to occur in high-risk communities and schools involving high-risk individuals. The lethal violence and school rampages are spread across different kinds of communities, different kinds of schools, different kinds of youth,
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence and different kinds of situations. So it may be difficult to rely much on certain secondary prevention instruments, such as profiling, especially for the rampage shootings. For example, in our cases, school administrators and teachers could not easily distinguish high-risk schools, youth, or situations from low-risk ones. However, secondary prevention in the form of uncovering and responding to plans for rampages can be highly effective and quite targeted. Tertiary preventive instruments are—for lethal violence and school rampages—insufficiently preventive. Communities need to be able to do more than simply respond after the fact. It seems clear that design of successful interventions will require a more sophisticated research base than currently exists. With this preliminary cautionary discussion in mind, we examine particular preventive ideas that are widely discussed or have been embraced by communities that have either suffered these tragedies or been galvanized into action by the experience of those who did. POTENTIAL TARGETS OF PREVENTIVE EFFORTS Creating a Profile of Likely Shooters One widely discussed preventive idea is to develop methods to identify likely offenders in instances of lethal school violence or school rampages. If they could be identified, then a secondary preventive instrument could be developed to focus on those who are at high risk of committing such offenses. The difficulty is that looking at the relatively stable and visible characteristics of youth generally does not help to find likely offenders. The offenders are not that unusual; they look like their classmates at school. This has been an important finding of all those who have sought to investigate these shootings. Most important are the findings of the United States Secret Service, which concluded (Vossekuil et al., 2000:5): There is no accurate or useful profile of “the school shooter.” Attacker ages ranged from 11–21. They came from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. In nearly one-quarter of the cases, the attackers were not white. They came from a range of family situations, from intact families with numerous ties to the community to foster homes with histories of neglect. The academic performance ranged from excellent to failing. They had a range of friendship patterns from socially isolated to popular.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Their behavioral histories varied, from having no observed behavioral problems to multiple behaviors warranting reprimand and/or discipline. Few attackers showed any marked change in academic performance, friendship status, interest in school, or disciplinary problems prior to their attack. [Note: the cases in this report suggest something different here.] Few of the attackers had been diagnosed with any mental disorder prior to the incident. While the shooters in our cases demonstrated less variability on some of these risk factors, they were, for the most part, not distinguishable from many of their peers on those factors. Trying to make these kinds of distinctions would result in many errors, of two types: mistakenly classifying many schools, individuals, or situations as high risk and wasting resources on circumstances that were not going to produce instances of lethal school violence, and mistakenly classifying many communities, schools, individuals, and situations as safe when in fact they were risky and might well produce instances of violence. This finding should prevent communities from moving quickly to a form of prevention that seeks to identify the shooters before they shoot. Not only would such efforts be ineffective, but they would also unnecessarily stigmatize a large number of adolescents as a threat to their classmates. The combination of high cost, ineffectiveness, and unfairness rules out this particular line of attack. Alternatively, one could look for important changes in a student’s status and behavior. What is notable about the instances of youth violence is that they seem to be propelled forward from the realm of potential to concrete action by small, sudden changes in circumstances: a gambling dispute became an urgent, collectible matter; failure was keenly felt in trying to achieve a certain standing in a peer group; making a date with a girl became impossibly humiliating. It is not that the youth were so unusual; it is that they found themselves in circumstances that felt to them very threatening and impossible. The challenge is to find the kids who feel this way. This is no easy task. It requires close, continuous monitoring, and it is hard to imagine relations between adults in and out of the school that could be close enough to accomplish this. But the kids may know when something dramatic has changed in another student’s status at school. In most of the shootings, other kids knew about the “beef,” or the shooter gave explicit warnings or made explicit threats. The fact that rampage shootings are so rare suggests that there is some success in spotting and thwarting them, and that communities have been somewhat successful alerting adults and children to the need to take explicit or implied threats seriously.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence The seriousness of this kind of threat has altered the norms that exist in schools. One hopes that students themselves are now concerned about their own safety, and they take threats of shootings and rampages seriously. Joined with efforts to draw adults and youth closer together and a commitment to keeping schools safe from lethal incidents, some kind of preventive cover can reduce even further the already low probability that a school will be victimized by a lethal shooting or a rampage. Improving Security Arrangements at Schools An important question is whether and how mobilization to oppose violence in the schools, of the kind just described, might be aided by the installation of specialized security arrangements, including metal detectors, fences, identity badges, and the hiring of various kinds of security specialists. It is easy to understand the opposition to such measures. They can change the look and feel of the school from a learning community to an anxiety-ridden prison. They can draw attention to the fact that the social relations have so frayed that schools have to rely on technology and rules instead of human relationships and values to provide security. Such measures can distract students, faculty, and administrators from the important work of teaching, including teaching the idea of what it means to be a responsible school citizen. All these drawbacks make the use of such measures a last resort. Still, in some circumstances, such measures are a welcome first step in restoring a sense of security. Case authors John Hagan, Paul Hirschfield, and Carla Shedd note that after the city-wide installation of metal detectors in Chicago, no further shootings occurred in Chicago schools. We would need evidence from experimental studies to conclude that metal detectors in schools could end either lethal shootings or school rampages, and one would want to look closely at other effects of the metal detectors on school culture and performance. But it seems reasonable for the citizens of Chicago to think that their schools were made at least a bit safer through the installation of metal detectors. The schools in the case studies that turned to hiring school police officers or resource officers believed that to be a useful program. It is not that the officers patrolled the schools and deterred shootings. Rather, they became a symbol and a rallying point for students and faculty who were concerned about security. They also served as a communication channel for students to report information about threats to school security. Discussions about whether and how to use such security measures could have a salutary effect on the creation of an effective normative system to enhance safety in the school, even if specific measures were not adopted.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Other measures considered or used in the cases seem more suspect. Putting up fences or other measures designed to prevent outsiders from threatening the schools was not productive, because in all of the cases in which this was done, the threat came from inside the school, from members of the school community. The fact that the fences would not have been successful in preventing the incidents that occasioned their construction reveals the fundamentally irrational nature of this enterprise. Increasing Weapons Security to Keep Guns from Youth We cannot conclude this report without briefly discussing the issue of youth access to guns. All instances of lethal violence documented in the cases were committed by youth armed with rifles and handguns who were breaking current gun laws in addition to substantive criminal laws. Both state and federal laws prohibit children of this age from possessing or carrying guns without adult supervision, and many federal and state statutes are designed to prevent children from being able to acquire weapons. This includes bans against selling to minors. It is also true that even the most fervent champions of the rights of citizens to own guns have stood for keeping them away from unsupervised children. Nevertheless, research has found that more than half of privately owned firearms are insecurely stored (National Institute of Justice, 1997). Insecure storage of firearms was clearly a factor in four of these six cases. Despite all of this effort to keep guns from children, the committee was somewhat astounded at the ease with which the young people in these cases acquired the weapons they used. Only in the Jonesboro case were the most powerful weapons in the home of one of the boys too well secured for them to access. But it was easy to defeat the security measures of another relative and get hold of a powerful semiautomatic rifle with a scope. In general, it was easy for these young teens to circumvent both law and informal controls designed to deny them the weapons they used in their crimes. The committee notes that, in the Edinboro case, a gun was used by a citizen to end the rampage incident and prevent the shooter from harming additional victims or himself. This also happened in the rampage shooting in Pearl, Mississippi, in 1997. In the committee’s view, there is much useful work to be done through both law and custom to deny guns to children. Recognizing the fact that both law and community sentiment are against unsupervised children possessing and using guns, the committee believes that denying access to unsupervised youth should continue to be an important national goal.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Dealing More Effectively with Adolescent Status Concerns at Home, in Schools, and in the Community One message that comes through loud and clear in the cases is that adolescents are intensely concerned about their social standing in their school and among their peers. For some, their concern is so great that threats to their status are treated as threats to their very lives and their status as something to be defended at all costs. In addition to the dread and fear that loss of status of any kind inspires in some adolescents, of equal importance is how hard it is for them to form accurate estimations of their standing. They are easily confused by relatively small events, easily imagining that “everyone hates them” or that “life isn’t worth living” on the basis of what may later look like relatively small setbacks. It is important for siblings, parents, teachers, guidance counselors, youth workers, and employers to be vigilant in noticing when these threats to an adolescent’s status occur and to be active in helping them deal with their status anxieties. Young people need some places where they feel valued and powerful and needed—that is part of the journey from childhood to adulthood. If they cannot find paths that make them feel this way, or they find the paths blocked by major threats, they will either retreat or, in the case of lethal shootings and rampages, strike back against those who seem not to value them, or are threatening them, or are blocking their way. Holding spaces and pathways open for them may be an important way of preventing violence. The best way to prevent lethal school shootings and school rampages is to create communities that are committed to the safety and healthy development of their youth. The value of this work is not measured solely in its success in preventing lethal school violence and school rampages. To become and remain a nation that creates equal opportunity for all, that creates the conditions under which individuals can make the most of their talents in whatever pursuit interests them, communities must help young people get to the starting line of adult life with health, vitality, and confidence. Communities that cannot keep their children safe from lethal violence, that endure conditions in which those reaching for adult status and competence in schools cannot be safe, are failing to protect the American dream. RESEARCH Improved basic research is needed to support theories about the scope and nature of lethal school violence. There is already a large body of research on violence among urban youth, much of it emphasizing such risk factors as the influence of a violent environment, belonging to crimi
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence nal juvenile gangs, and illegal gun carrying. But there is almost no research on violence among suburban and rural youth inside or outside schools. Longitudinal research is needed to follow up the perpetrators of school shootings, both those who remain in prison and those who are released. In addition, case studies of other kinds of rampages involving adults are needed as a point of comparison with student rampage shootings. Finally, while some research has followed children who have been victims of school rampage shootings in the past, further longitudinal research is needed to understand the impact of school shootings on both perpetrators and victims, including secondary victims. Two Types of Violence As the committee worked with both the cases and the data, it seemed that there might be two quite different strands of lethal violence. In one strand, the lethal violence seemed to emerge from a fairly specific conflict among individuals, in which all the parties to the conflict were aware of the problem and all the parties felt vulnerable to a physical threat or attack. It also seems clear that others outside the conflict—the audience— knew about it and understood its logic and patterns. Because this kind of violence seemed most typical of the inner-city school cases—as one would expect in communities in which violence had become highly prevalent— we began calling this the “inner-city form of violence.” In a second strand, the lethal violence also emerged from a conflict in which the persons who committed the offenses felt that they were under threat and needed to protect themselves. But there are some important differences in the nature of the conflict. In this second strand of violence, the conflict was much less specific and differentiated than in the first strand. The “beef” was not with a particular person over a particular issue; it involved some abstract idea of “the school” or “the other kids who don’t respect me.” There can be many particular individuals who embody this abstract enemy. A second important distinction between this kind of lethal violence and the first kind is that not all those who were potential targets of the violence knew they were involved in a conflict with the person who did the shooting. Because this seemed to be the pattern that was characteristic of the suburban and rural shootings we examined closely, we came to call this the suburban-rural pattern. It is the committee’s strong view that additional research is necessary to investigate the question of whether there are two different strands of lethal school violence and, if so, whether they are correlated with urban on one hand, and suburban and rural on the other. If these two different patterns of lethal school violence exist, and if they are in fact correlated with the characteristics of the communities in which the violence occurred,
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence then these trends should be revealed in the aggregate statistics on lethal violence in schools. However, because detailed case studies have not been developed for all the instances of lethal school violence, for most of them we remain uncertain both about the motivations of the offenders and the relationships that existed between them and their victims. All we can see is the gross pattern of victimization in the attacks: the number of individuals who were killed and injured and the most superficial account of the characteristics of victims that might give us a clue about their relationship to the offender. It is quite possible that, while rampage shootings showed up in suburban and rural schools that had not experienced much if any “inner-city style” violence, there was some portion of rampage “suburban-rural style” violence that added to the burdens of inner-city schools that were already struggling with violence. Nonlethal Violence and Bullying Lethal violence in any school is rare, but nonlethal violent crime in schools is much more common. The occurrence of frequent bullying is a very serious problem among students in grades 6–10. Such bullying, which can range from physical assaults to verbal harassment and threats, has been shown to have lifelong social and psychological consequences for victims. Moreover, despite attempts to control it, some of the most serious behavior takes place below the radar screen of responsible adults. The committee recommends that research be conducted on the nature and causes of school violence, including seriousness of behavior, motivation of perpetrators, and the role of recognized gangs, crews, and cliques or informal social groups inside and outside the school in both crime and other antisocial behavior, such as serious bullying. The consequences of both lethal and nonlethal school violence for students and adults not directly victimized is also an important area of inquiry. Gun Carrying Virtually every case of lethal school violence that has occurred since 1992 has involved the use of a firearm. In our review of these cases and other research on lethal youth violence, the committee found that illegal gun carrying by youth crosses racial and class boundaries, and that a substantial number of boys—particularly those becoming involved with gangs—illegally carry firearms, at least sometimes, at young ages. In the cases studied in this report, the boys carried guns to school for protection or to enhance their status among their peers. Few youth carry a firearm all or most of the time over a long period, and most who carry one for protection stop when there is no longer a threat.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Because illegal gun carrying increases with age, it is important to develop research that will inform prevention or deterrence strategies. The sources of the firearms carried and used in the cases in this volume were friends, especially gang friends, and parents or friends, from whom they were stolen. It was extremely easy for these boys to get weapons, and in most of the cases, they were familiar with their use. The committee recommends that a program of research be developed to further examine illegal gun carrying by adolescents, especially carrying a gun to school. This research should examine the circumstances and motivations related to illegal gun carrying, the sources of and ease of access to guns, socialization to illegal gun use, and the relationship, if any between legal and illegal gun use by adolescents. Individual Risk Factors for Violent Behavior in School The extensive and sound knowledge base on risk factors for delinquency and violent behavior, which can be used to design prevention programs, would not have helped identify the young people in most of these cases as high risk. Most of the shooters in the cases studied were not thought to be at high risk by the adults around them. While some of them had one or two risk factors, none had the multiple, high-risk factors described in longitudinal studies of delinquency that normally presage violent acts. However, among the eight shooters in this set of cases, the specter of developing mental illness surfaced for five of the boys. In most cases, other than attention deficit disorder, the presence of serious mental illnesses can be difficult to detect in youth ages 11–15. This is particularly true of those who encounter high levels of violence in their everyday lives. In its examination of these cases, the committee found symptoms of mild and severe depression, stress disorders, personality disorders, and developing schizophrenia in these youth. Suicidal thinking was a prominent feature in all of the suburban and rural cases in this study and in many such cases studied by others. Greater research attention is needed to determine how and when mental illness begins to develop in young adolescents, how the social environment inside or outside school contributes to the development of pathology, and how it becomes manifest in the behavior of youth in this age group. The committee concludes that empirical research is needed to measure the prevalence of developing mental illness in young adolescents. We recommend that public health surveillance research methods be applied to the identification of risk factors and signs or symptoms of developing, serious mental illness in children in grades 6–10. Such a research effort might include the development of new, culturally appropriate in
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence struments to measure the effects of exposure to both actual violence and virtual or vicarious (media) violence on the individual development of young adolescents and preteens. Research on the nature and operation of contagion mechanisms that may lead to copycat behavior, especially focusing on suicidal behavior, is also an important avenue of scientific inquiry. Evaluation studies are needed on the effects of suicide prevention programs with this age group. Workplace Violence In the cases presented in this volume, three of the slain victims were teachers. Violent crimes—over 0.5 million in a five-year period in the mid-1990s—and thefts—over 1 million—committed against teachers in middle school and high school have become a serious problem. In addition to the harm caused to the victims directly, crimes against teachers, especially when committed by students, undermine adult authority and severely compromise the safety of students at school. The committee recommends that a program of research be designed and conducted on the nature and causes of crimes committed against teachers in middle school and high school. This research should examine the seriousness of incidents; the identity, status in school, and motivations of the attackers; the effect on the learning environment and social relationships in the school, including the effect on school order and discipline; the individual consequences of these attacks on victims, other teachers, and students; and the effect of these crimes on the school system’s ability to retain and recruit qualified teachers. Community Research The committee found important structural differences in the kinds of communities described in the cases in this study. The urban neighborhoods were characterized by social and physical conditions that created a milieu for the development of youth delinquency and violence. These include a high degree of social and economic disinvestment in the neighborhoods of the shooters, especially the withdrawal of community services; population change resulting in neighborhood hypersegregation; poor housing stock; social disorganization, characterized by the presence of criminal juvenile gangs; and high levels of violent crime. The suburban and rural cases did not evince these community structural conditions and in fact were demographically the opposite—thriving economically, having a high degree of social capital, and mostly free of crime and violence. This is true of the rampage shooting cases not only in this study, but also of rampage shootings in general.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence The environmental similarity across most of the cases is the presence of rapid social change leading to possible instability, even when the changes are positive ones. While many parents successfully supervise their children in these kinds of situations, it is clear, in both the urban and rural and suburban cases, that parents had a poor understanding of their children’s exposure to changing community conditions and involvement in social situations, including at school. It is important to the development of prevention efforts to have a better understanding of social and structural features of communities where shooting rampages have taken place, and of parental supervision of children’s activities in all communities where school shootings occur. The committee recommends that research be conducted on the effects of rapid change in increasingly affluent rural and suburban communities on youth development, socialization, and violence. Such research should include the effects of new industries, such as manufacturing and service industries, and accompanying jobs on the community and its long-term residents; the effects of an influx of many new residents on social class structure, organizations, and institutions, including schools; changes in zoning or differences in the quality of housing, playgrounds, or schools in neighborhoods; and the presence or absence of community conflict among different economic and social groups and whether such conflicts affect youth behavior. In addition, the committee recommends that research be conducted on parental styles of supervision for youth in grades 6–10 when parents are at work or when their children are away from home. To the extent that parents rely on the schools to supervise youth in this age group, it also is important to better understand the effectiveness of various supervisory roles and styles of teachers and other adults, such as administrators, counselors, volunteers, and security personnel. Security and Enforcement The shooters in the cases were arrested almost immediately after the shootings without further incident, and the police were able to respond in an appropriate and timely manner. In no instance did the police have previous warning of the shooting. This is in contrast to the circumstances of other school rampages. In the Columbine incident, which involved two older teenage offenders and much more elaborate planning, there was far more confusion about what was taking place and why, once the police arrived on the scene. And there was some evidence that reports to police about threats to a student, including threats posted on a web site, had been ignored. In addition, over the past two years there has been some experience with preventing planned attacks when there is informa
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence tion that permits the potential problem student or group to be fairly precisely targeted. The committee recommends that evaluation studies be conducted on police response to rampages and on new protocols that have been developed to uncover and respond to plans for rampages in schools. It would also be useful to develop detailed case studies of failed or thwarted incidents, not focusing on police action alone, but including other details as to why the plans were made and what caused them to be disrupted. In addition, most of the schools in these cases adopted new security measures, such as deploying metal detectors, security guards, and police resource personnel and building perimeter fences. The committee recommends that these security efforts be evaluated in terms of their impact on the learning environment and on the overall safety of the school. NOTE 1 Some make distinctions along some time dimension that run from conditions or events that are antecedent to the injury to those that follow the injury. Others make distinctions among the different kinds of prevention on the basis of the probability that the condition or event that is the focus of preventive effort will lead to the injury. Still others associate the types of prevention with their ultimate effectiveness: primary prevention essentially eliminates the risk of injury across the general population; secondary prevention reduces but does not eliminate the risk among a subsection of the population; and tertiary prevention consists of efforts to mitigate the damage once primary and secondary prevention have failed to prevent the injury.
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