Misconceptions about School-Related Homicides
by Dr. Peter Langman
In the last fifteen years, a number of large-scale attacks at schools have made the issue of school violence a prominent concern across the United States. Despite the massive attention focused on this issue, there are widespread misconceptions about school violence.
Frequency of Homicides at School
Perhaps the biggest misconception is that school shootings and other types of school-related homicides are common events and/or increasing in frequency. The reality is much different. According to Dr. Dewey Cornell, in his book School Violence: Fears Versus Facts, “the average school can expect a student-perpetrated homicide about once every 13,870 years.” In other words, most schools will not have a homicide within our lifetimes, or for many lifetimes to come.
The peak academic year for school homicides was 1992-1993. Since then, the rate has decreased significantly. The Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia recorded 42 homicides on school grounds in 1992-1993. In the ten years from 2000 through 2009, the average was 6.3 deaths — a dramatic reduction. And, in both 2008 and 2009, there was only one homicide on school grounds each year.
What accounts for this decline? It is impossible to say for sure, but it is noteworthy that the turning point in the homicide rate occurred between the years 1999 and 2000. From 1992 to 1999, the school homicide rate averaged 30 deaths per year. From 2000 to 2009, it averaged 6 deaths per year. Perhaps this reflects the impact of the attack at Columbine High School that occurred on April 20, 1999. Although there had been large-scale rampage attacks at schools prior to Columbine, it was this attack that really made school safety a prominent national concern.
If this hypothesis is correct, it suggests that schools’ efforts to increase safety made a difference. Or perhaps students became more sensitive to warning signs of violence and started reporting their concerns to parents, teachers, counselors or administrators. Whatever the reason, the data clearly indicate that school-related homicides have become very rare events. On average, school is the safest place children can be.
It is hoped that the current economic climate does not result in reduced funding for schools. Budget cuts could potentially result in an increased risk of violence. Cuts to faculty, counselors, security officers and others might adversely affect the ability of schools to maintain the level of safety that has been established.
Who Commits School Shootings and Why?
Certainly, school homicides can take many forms including beatings, stabbings and shootings, but it is rampage school shootings that have received an overwhelming amount of attention. These attacks involve a student going to his own school and opening fire — generally at random people. Who commits such an act? Initially, researchers focused on identifying a profile of rampage school shooters. This effort, however, missed the fact that school shooters are not a homogeneous group.
Nonetheless, there are common misconceptions about school shooters. People often think school shooters are loners, victims of terrible mistreatment and detached from their schools and communities. It is also commonly thought that school shootings are acts of retaliation against specific people who tormented the shooters. In most cases, however, school shooters do not fit this description.
In almost every case, school shooters have friends. In most cases, they are not victims of bullying. They are often involved in activities at school and in the community. And they rarely target anyone who picked on them. So who are school shooters?
As explained in my book, Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, the perpetrators of rampage school attacks fall into three categories.
• Psychopathic shooters. These are youths who are narcissistic and sadistic. They have deficits in the ability to experience empathy, guilt and remorse. They reject traditional values and morality and meet their own needs at the expense of others.
• Psychotic school shooters. These youths experience hallucinations and delusions. The most common type of delusion can be described as paranoid, although some of them also have delusions of grandeur. In addition to hallucinations and delusions, these youths have significant social and emotional deficits.
• Traumatized shooters. Whereas the psychopathic and psychotic shooters come from intact families with well-functioning parents, the traumatized shooters come from broken homes and dysfunctional families. They have parents with criminal histories. They have parents who abuse drugs and alcohol. These youths are victims of emotional abuse, physical abuse and sometimes sexual abuse. They bounce around from one relative’s home to another, sometimes ending up in multiple foster homes. Their lives are unstable and unsafe year after year, and eventually they reach the breaking point.
The fact that someone is psychopathic, psychotic or traumatized, however, does not mean he is destined to be a killer. In fact, most people in these three categories are not violent. The categories help us to understand the types of youth who commit school shootings, but the categories are not complete explanations. There are always other factors involved that shape the behavior of the perpetrators.
But if the attacks are not retaliation against bullies, what is the motivation? Motivations vary across shooters and, even within one shooter, there can be multiple factors driving him to murder. Sometimes shooters are seeking fame and to establish powerful identities for themselves. They may be lashing out at the world, unleashing pent-up rage and frustration. They may attack the students they envy — those kids who seem to have everything going for them. The shooters may be paranoid and believe their lives are in danger; thus, they lash out at others in an act that they conceive of as self-defense. They may hear voices telling them to kill people. Occasionally, there is a specific target, but this is not necessarily a bully. It is perhaps more likely to be a girl who rejected the shooter or a principal who symbolically represents the school.
What works in prevention?
When people think about preventing school shootings, they often think in terms of physical security measures: ID badges, video cameras, metal detectors and so on. Though these measures serve a variety of purposes, they do not stop school shootings. Rampage attacks have occurred at schools with metal detectors and even armed security guards. By the time a student enters a building, armed and willing to die, physical security measures will not stop the attack. Similarly, lockdown drills may help to minimize casualties during an attack, but they do not prevent an attack.
What can be done then to prevent school shootings or other school-related homicides? The best approach is to focus on educating students on the warning signs of violence. It is, of course, important to educate faculty and staff as well, but students are really the eyes and ears of a school. If someone is planning a violent attack, other students are most likely the ones who will know about it. If they are trained in what to look for and how to report their concerns, school shootings can be stopped entirely. In fact, the majority of foiled attacks have been stopped because students came forward with what they knew.|
Dr. Langman has worked with children and adolescents for over twenty years. He spent 12 years at KidsPeace and now consults to the organization. Dr. Langman’s book, Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, was named an Outstanding Academic Title of 2009 by the American Library Association. It has been translated into German and Finnish and is forthcoming in Dutch. He has been interviewed over one hundred times by media outlets in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and the Middle East. He has appeared on CBS-TV, CNN, Fox and the BBC. His research on school shooters has been featured in articles carried by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Forbes, USA Today, Education Week, Junior Scholastic, MSNBC, Yahoo News, and thousands of other news outlets. Dr. Langman writes a blog for Psychology Today. His research on school shooters has been cited in congressional testimony on Capitol Hill. His website is www.schoolshooters.info. Dr. Langman received his B.A. in psychology from Clark University, his M.A. in counseling psychology from Lesley College, and his Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Lehigh University. In addition to being a psychologist, Dr. Langman is a poet and playwright.