Why Kids Shoot Up High Schools, Why They Only Do So Outside of Big Cities, and How to Stop Them

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Family and friends of Reynolds High School students wait for word of their safety after a shooting at the school. Photo: Faith Cathcart/The Oregonian /Landov

The news that a school shooter in Oregon killed at least one other student and was then killed (though whether by police or by himself is not yet known) has reignited familiar fears about school shootings in the United States. While the debates about their causes inevitably spin off into all manner of cultural complaint and youth panic, the one silver lining to these tragedies is that social-science researchers have developed a pretty clear sense of how school-shooting plots develop — and how they can be disrupted.

Katherine Newman, co-author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings and the James B. Knapp dean of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins, told Science of Us that it’s important to understand that different types of shootings follow different types of patterns. High-school shootings are usually different from college shootings or shootings in public settings, for example. Within high school shootings, though — and Newman and her colleagues studied the 20 or so multiple-victim shootings that occurred in high schools between 1970 and 2000 in great depth — there are certain universal or near-universal commonalities:

School Shooters Aren't Loners

The notion of school shooters as troubled lone wolves is a misconception. “Their daily experience is not one of being alone, but of being enmeshed in social friction,” Newman said. “They experience rejection all the time, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to join groups. They just fail, all the time."

At first, a shooter-to-be might just be prone to clowning around and being obnoxious. "Shooting is the last act in a very long drama in which all the other attempts to gain attention have failed. And sadly, shooting works," she said. "It works because when these kids start to talk about shooting — and sometimes they talk about it for as long as nine months in advance of their actions, they start getting the attention they’re looking for, sometimes from other boys who are egging them on, sometimes because they have a sixth sense that they’re dealing with someone who is psychologically vulnerable.”

School Shootings Are Rarely a Surprise, But They Happen Anyway

The fact that shooters tend to talk about their plans provides an important opportunity to disrupt plots before they are carried out, explained Newman. “What was striking to me was that very often the kids don’t need the police to tell them who did this [after a shooting]. Some of them don’t come to school that day, because they were afraid of something coming,” she said. All too often, though, kids don’t speak up. That’s partly because the threats are “coming from someone who’s been saying crazy things for years. Because it’s the last act, not the first act, they’ve been trying to get attention for a long time,” and therefore it’s hard to know how seriously to take their talk of violence.

There’s also a frequent lack of trust between high-school students and adult authorities. “Kids have a very skeptical view of what adults do with information that is not pleasant,” said Newman. “They think that adults will either ignore it, they will not keep it confidential, or that they will overreact and get someone in trouble" who didn't turn out to be an actual threat.

"Soft Cops" Are a Key to Preventing School Shootings

Schools that have so-called "soft cops" or school resource officers — that is, members of law enforcement, often retired police officers, whose “jobs involve hanging around in the schools and getting to know the kids,” as Newman put it — tend to do better on the threat-reporting front, because such officers’ daily contact with students builds up a degree of trust. Unfortunately, these positions are often the earliest casualties of budget cuts, and kids are a lot less likely to go to police or to administrators with whom they have not developed a trusting relationship. Whether or not schools have school resource officers at their disposal, Newman said it’s important that administrators emphasize that they will respect the anonymity of any student looking to report a threat, and that they won’t automatically come down hard on the student being reported.

For Shooters in Rural and Exurban Settings, Their School Is an Irresistible Stage

Beyond the question of who commits school shootings and why, Newman and her team also developed a profile of where these school shootings are most likely to take place: “Rampage-shootings happen in two kinds of places: a small town in the middle of nowhere, or an exurb,” she said. “But not in big cities.” That’s because “sadly, school is not much of a stage in urban America. If you want to prove that you are somebody to be feared, doing something in school is not going to get you very far. There are lots of other stages where you could prove your manhood, which is a part of what’s going on here. But if you’re [in] a small town in rural America, what’s the stage? There are no streets of the kind we think of in New York and Chicago. The one institution that really is visible throughout the entire community is the school.” It’s a “stage,” in other words, “on which to reverse all of the negative baggage they carry … to be seen as an antihero to be feared [rather] than a loser to be rejected.”

The Media Play a Role, But It's Double-Sided

Especially since Columbine, many commentators have questioned aloud whether the fevered media coverage of these incidents might be contributing to them. These shooters want attention, after all, and that’s exactly what the subsequent reporting provides. Newman said there’s certainly something to this critique, since “the main thing [shooters are] after is the attention that comes from being an antihero.” But on the other hand, following coverage of shootings, there tends to be an uptick in the rate at which students around the country report suspected plots, a few of which turn out to be legitimate threats. The media coverage, in other words, partially solves the problem of kids being reluctant to reach out to authority figures. So while Newman said she was unsure whether the benefit of blanket media coverage outweighs the risks, “It is simply mindless to say the media is responsible, if they stopped covering this everything would be fine. That’s really naïve.”