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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence (2003)

Chapter: Part I: Case Studies of Lethal School Violence

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Suggested Citation:"Part I: Case Studies of Lethal School Violence." National Research Council. 2003. Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10370.
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Suggested Citation:"Part I: Case Studies of Lethal School Violence." National Research Council. 2003. Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10370.
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Suggested Citation:"Part I: Case Studies of Lethal School Violence." National Research Council. 2003. Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10370.
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Suggested Citation:"Part I: Case Studies of Lethal School Violence." National Research Council. 2003. Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10370.
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Suggested Citation:"Part I: Case Studies of Lethal School Violence." National Research Council. 2003. Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10370.
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Suggested Citation:"Part I: Case Studies of Lethal School Violence." National Research Council. 2003. Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10370.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Part I: Case Studies of Lethal School Violence." National Research Council. 2003. Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10370.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Part I: Case Studies of Lethal School Violence." National Research Council. 2003. Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10370.
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17 The request for original research on what appear to be rare and ex-treme events necessitated a comparative case study approach. However, the aim of the case studies was not to generate certain, scien- tific knowledge about the causes, consequences, and effective methods of preventing and controlling these events. It was obvious from the start that these few cases could not support such an ambitious goal. As a scientific matter, there were too few data points to allow us to decide which of many possible explanations were true and which of many plau- sibly effective responses would actually work. The aim instead was to use the limited experience available to develop some plausible hypoth- eses about causes and effective interventions and to check commonly held assumptions for their plausibility. DEVELOPING THE CASE STUDIES In developing and comparing these cases, the committee was com- mitted to using the discipline and methods of science to ensure that the information gathered was accurate and could be usefully interpreted by others. The desire to be disciplined in the development of the cases forced us to take up three important study design issues: (1) how the cases would be selected for study, (2) what information would be sought across all the cases, and (3) what sources of information would be used. We sought to answer these questions in a way that would maximize the evidentiary and inferential power of the cases—again, recognizing in Part I Case Studies of Lethal School Violence

18 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE advance that the cases would fall short of providing definitive scientific answers. CASE SELECTION The first challenge was to choose the particular cases to be developed. This task had both practical and scientific elements. Congress had pro- vided some guidance to the committee on this matter by specifying eight incidents that were illustrative of the problem they considered important to take up and that might be suitable for detailed study. The practical part of the problem, given that resources were available for only six cases, was to select from among those listed. The scientific question before the committee was to determine the general class of violence of which these eight incidents were exemplars. As stated in Chapter 1, Congress asked the committee to examine “inci- dents of lethal school violence in urban, suburban, and rural schools,” yet all of the cases identified by Congress occurred in suburban and rural schools. It seemed important that the committee address both the spirit and the letter of the congressional request. We therefore decided initially to study incidents that had the characteristics listed in our operational defi- nition of lethal violence regardless of the nature of the community in which they occurred. Moreover, as part of our work, we developed a dataset of all such incidents, using it as a kind of sampling frame for the set of cases and later as a way of indicating both levels and trends in this form of violence. Since much of the lethal violence among young people had occurred in inner-city schools, we assumed we would find examples of this kind of lethal violence in inner-city schools as well. To our surprise, we could find no cases in urban inner-city schools that met these requirements in the time period we were examining, 1997–1999. There were incidents of lethal violence in urban schools, and there were a few schools that had experienced more than one fatality in a given year. But no incidents had what seemed to be the key character- istic of multiple victimizations including fatalities occurring in the same incident. That preliminary finding was a very important one to the committee. It seemed that the form of lethal school violence that occurred in the late 1990s might represent a distinct form of lethal school violence—one that might be similar in its consequences for the victims and communities in which it occurred, but different in its causes and in its effective prevention and control. This possibility encouraged us to take up the important scientific

19PART I: CASE STUDIES OF LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE question of what the relationship might actually be between the form of lethal school violence that was concentrated in inner-city schools and the seemingly newer form of lethal school violence that erupted in suburban schools in the late 1990s. Several such relationships were possible. One was that the different forms of violence were the products of similar causes that played out differently in the different community contexts. A second was that the inner-city violence had created the conditions that shaped the later suburban violence. A third possibility was that there was, in fact, little relationship between the urban violence and these new cases. The decision to take up the scientific issue of whether this was a new and unique form of lethal school violence had important implications for case selection. It would be important to look closely at examples of lethal school violence in inner cities to determine whether the causes of such violence were similar to the causes of the newer forms of violence. In effect, we could choose the cases to get some variation on the dependent variable: within the class of incidents neutrally described as lethal school violence, we could look at the form that this violence took in different kinds of communities—urban, suburban, and rural. If it turned out that the antecedents to lethal school violence in inner-city schools were differ- ent from those in suburban and rural schools, then we would have some evidence pointing toward a firmer conclusion that this was a separate strain of violence. But there was another reason to look at lethal violence in inner-city schools. A preliminary look at the data indicated that levels of overall lethal violence in inner-city schools were much higher than in suburban- rural schools and had been that way for a long period of time. By devel- oping cases on lethal violence in inner-city schools and comparing them with lethal violence in suburban-rural schools, we could put these inci- dents under a microscope and describe the structure of the similarities and differences in the character and antecedent causes of lethal violence in different settings. This would help us understand whether there was something about inner-city communities that made them immune to the forms of violence that hit suburban-rural schools in the late 1990s, and whether there was something about the suburban and rural communities that seemed to protect them from the violence that struck the inner cities in the decade from 1985 to 1995. These considerations were sufficient to persuade the committee that a portion of our limited resources should be focused on developing cases of lethal violence in inner-city schools. To find such cases, we simply had to relax the time frame under consideration. In the period 1990–1992, we found two inner-city schools that had experienced incidents in which multiple individuals were killed and injured. A school in Chicago experi-

20 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE enced a shooting in which one person was killed and two were wounded in 1992. And a school in New York experienced two incidents involving multiple victimizations. In an incident in late 1991, one person was killed and one was injured. In a second incident shortly thereafter in February 1992, two people were killed. We decided to develop cases on these events in addition to four from among the cases Congress identified. With regard to the suburban and rural cases, the committee was aware that in three of the sites listed in the legislation, the shooters had been interviewed for case studies conducted by others, including the Secret Service, the Department of Education, and the Federal Bureau of Investi- gation. We assumed that the previously studied sites would not be par- ticularly amenable to yet another team of researchers conducting an in- depth examination of their community and decided to exclude them from our sample. We decided that we could better add to the knowledge base by selecting sites that had not been previously studied. We had hoped to be able to examine data from the Secret Service and Department of Educa- tion case studies of other rural and suburban sites for our analysis, but confidentiality agreements between the researchers and their subjects pre- cluded this possibility. In the end, we chose the following six cases for close examination: • Heritage High School, Rockdale County, Georgia • Parker Middle School, Edinboro, Pennsylvania • Heath High School, Paducah, Kentucky • Westside Middle School, Jonesboro, Arkansas • Tilden High School, Chicago, Illinois • Thomas Jefferson High School, East New York, New York THE CASE TEMPLATE Once the cases were chosen, the next decision was what information to gather for each case. The aim was to be sure that there was enough information to be able to consider a variety of possible explanations for the violence that was at the center of the cases, and to gather the informa- tion as consistently as possible from one case to another in order to be able to check for the presence or absence of each particular variable. The committee developed a template that each case-writing team could use to guide their data collection efforts. A shortened form of that template follows: 1. Situational factors: Narrative description of the events immedi- ately surrounding the incident (leading up to and immediate response to

21PART I: CASE STUDIES OF LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE the incident at different levels of analysis as seen by different participants and witnesses): • Description of the shooting itself: preparations, precipitating events (including possible provocation by victims), location, tar- gets, relationship of shooter to victims, immediate responses that ended the incident • Motivations/state of mind of shooter at time of shooting • Recent trends in objective and subjective life of the shooter • Witness accounts of shooting (including their interpretations of the offender and motivations) • Warning signs for incident (e.g., shooter’s threats, widely known festering grievances and disputes) • Immediate conditions in the school affecting motivation for incident • Immediate conditions in the school affecting response to incident • Immediate conditions in the community affecting motivation for incident • Immediate conditions in the community affecting response to incident 2. Individual factors: Individual traits and family background of offenders: • Prior criminal activity of the offender • School record (both achievement and disciplinary) • Peer standing/affiliations at school (What groups? What stand- ing in individual groups? Relationships with opposite sex?) • Important adults in offender’s life/quality of communication and connection • Family relationships (parents/siblings) (strength/quality) (pa- rental knowledge/supervision of kids) • History of mental illness • Interest/consumption of violent media materials • Experience with firearms 3. Community-level factors affecting incident and response: • Economic status of community (mean and variance) • Stability of community (transience) • Social coherence/divisions in community (ethnic, racial, reli- gious, political) • Stock of “social capital” in community • Engagement of community with teenagers and with schools • Teen culture in community • Police strategy/organization/connection to community • Justice system organization/connection to community

22 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE 4. School-level factors affecting incident and response: • Size of the school • Organization of the school • Teacher characteristics • Parental involvement in the school • Educational policies of the school (tracking/class size/extracur- ricular activities) • Governance and disciplinary policies and practices of the school • Security arrangements for the school • Extent and quality of teacher connection to students beyond curriculum 5. Description of response and consequences for community of both incident and responses made: • Outcomes of court cases (criminal, civil) • Consequences for offenders • Consequences for victims • Consequences for families of offenders • Consequences for families of victims • Grief counseling/activity following events • Policy changes (and apparent consequences) initiated with schools: ♦ New hardware at schools (magnetometers, fences) ♦ Heightened surveillance and control of students ♦ Police officers in schools ♦ Use of transfers of students to other schools ♦ Increased efforts to deal with festering disputes and grievances • Policy changes (and apparent consequences) initiated in wider community SOURCES OF INFORMATION With the template developed to define the information to collect for each case, it became important to describe the sources to consult to obtain the needed facts. The sources of information relied on in developing facts and observations to fill out the case template include: 1. Journalistic accounts: • local newspapers • local radio and television • national newspapers and magazines • national radio and television coverage • special documentary reports

23PART I: CASE STUDIES OF LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE 2. Official records pertaining to the incident or the offender: • court records (criminal and civil) • police records • school records 3. Governmental statistics 4. Interviews: • the offender • the offender family • friends/acquaintances of offenders • the victims • the victims’ families • witnesses to shootings • responders to the incident • those involved in handling legal cases • school officials • teens in the community • adults in the community • political leaders in the community • civic leaders in the community 5. Direct/participant observation 6. Surveys PROTECTION OF HUMAN SUBJECTS All of the case authors submitted their study designs, including mul- tiple consent forms, to their university’s or organization’s institutional re- view board (IRB) for the protection of human subjects, and in one case directly to the National Research Council’s (NRC) institutional review board. The NRC’s IRB provided a second layer of human subjects review for five of the six case studies once they had been approved by university or organizational IRBs. The NRC then sought and obtained a certificate of confidentiality from the Department of Health and Human Services for the entire project—that is, all six case studies. All subjects interviewed in these cases, no matter what their occupation or public role, signed a consent form that cautioned that every effort would be made to keep responses confiden- tial and anonymous. However, those already in the public eye and/or very close to the events who would be readily identifiable could not be promised such protections. Finally, only the individual case authors have access to the interview data on which these cases are based.1

24 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE VALUE OF THE CASE STUDY APPROACH The strengths and weaknesses of the case study approach are dis- cussed in detail in Appendix A. For this study, the committee sees them as valuable in helping people to understand and respond to instances of lethal violence in schools and school rampages. The case descriptions reveal important possible causes and points of intervention that might never have been considered by social scientists working with general models of violence and relying on statistical information to guide their understanding of causes and solutions. To some degree, thick description of events allows for a different kind of causal analysis than is possible by using large samples of superficially described events. In sum, the cases present a different method for developing ideas about causes and poten- tial interventions. Indeed, in looking at phenomena that are very rare and cannot be studied in laboratories, it may be that thick description is the only viable way of learning much about the likely causes or potentially important interventions. The value of the cases goes beyond their value as evidence in the scientific process of finding causes and effective interventions. The cases are valuable as stories to be used by communities as they make their own judgments about the nature of this threat, what they ought to do to pre- vent it, and how they ought to react to it if a school shooting should occur in their midst. Despite the enormous advances of scientific knowledge, this probably remains the principal way that most people facing real prob- lems continue to try to learn. We present these cases with the hope that they will support learning in the nation’s communities when they are used in formal and informal discussions about the problems of lethal violence in schools and school rampages, as well as when they are used as part of a more elaborate and formalized method of scientific inquiry into these matters. NOTE 1Within the broad outline of the template developed by the committee, the field work for the case studies was conducted and the studies were signed by the case authors as independent researchers. The case authors determined who to interview and what records to review, and each team independently arrived at the findings and conclusions in the individual case studies. Moreover, only the case authors had access to interview transcripts on which these cases are based. The authors were responsible for compliance with the protection for human subjects consistent with the institutional review boards approvals as described.

Next: 2. The Copycat Factor: Mental Illness, Guns, and the Shooting Incident at Heritage High School, Rockdale County, Georgia »
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The shooting at Columbine High School riveted national attention on violence in the nation’s schools. This dramatic example signaled an implicit and growing fear that these events would continue to occur—and even escalate in scale and severity.

How do we make sense of the tragedy of a school shooting or even draw objective conclusions from these incidents? Deadly Lessons is the outcome of the National Research Council’s unique effort to glean lessons from six case studies of lethal student violence. These are powerful stories of parents and teachers and troubled youths, presenting the tragic complexity of the young shooter’s social and personal circumstances in rich detail.

The cases point to possible causes of violence and suggest where interventions may be most effective. Readers will come away with a better understanding of the potential threat, how violence might be prevented, and how healing might be promoted in affected communities.

For each case study, Deadly Lessons relates events leading up to the violence, provides quotes from personal interviews about the incident, and explores the impact on the community. The case studies center on:

  • Two separate incidents in East New York in which three students were killed and a teacher was seriously wounded.
  • A shooting on the south side of Chicago in which one youth was killed and two wounded.
  • A shooting into a prayer group at a Kentucky high school in which three students were killed.
  • The killing of four students and a teacher and the wounding of 10 others at an Arkansas middle school.
  • The shooting of a popular science teacher by a teenager in Edinboro, Pennsylvania.
  • A suspected copycat of Columbine in which six students were wounded in Georgia

For everyone who puzzles over these terrible incidents, Deadly Lessons offers a fresh perspective on the most fundamental of questions: Why?

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