If schools aren’t already back in session where you are they soon will be. As a sign of our times, many parents will worry about the safety of their child and the possibility of another deadly school shooting.
The fact is: while mass shootings in the U.S. seem all too frequent, occurring between 10 and 20 times a year, shootings at schools are extremely rare and their numbers have been on the decline since the peak in the early 1990’s. That said, even one more catastrophic event at a school is one too many.
“There is not an epidemic of school shootings,” according to James Alan Fox a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northwestern University who has studied mass killings since the 80s. Fox and his research team found that more kids are killed each year from pool drownings or bicycle accidents.
It is easy to think the opposite given the media coverage. One study from Clemson University last year concluded, “More people have died or been injured in mass school shooting in the U.S. in the past 18 years than in the entire 20th century.”
Well ... yeah. During the first 73 years of that century there were no mass school shootings, they being generally defined as an incident in which 4 or more people are killed. According to a joint study by the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Education the country’s first identified school shooting occurred in rural Olean, New York in December 1974. The 17-year-old shooter was an honor roll student with no record of misbehavior.
That joint government study was undertaken after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting to try to answer two basic questions. “Could we have known that these attacks were being planned?” and “What can be done to prevent future attacks from occurring?” The conclusion: there is no simple answer as to why. But researchers learned enough to say that, “some future attacks may be preventable” if school administrators and parents know what to look for and what questions to ask.
Keep in mind this comprehensive report came out in 2002, yet here we are nearly two decades later still scratching our heads over how to spot a potential mass shooter and what to do to stop the next school shooting.
This report found there is no one-size-fits-all profile of a school shooter, but it gave important clues for education officials to watch for. 100% of the shooters were male and were either a current or former student of the school they attacked. Prior to the event most perpetrators behaved in a way that caused people to be concerned or indicated a need for intervention. Some mentioned or tried suicide. Many shooters felt persecuted and bullied and had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. (Think the Parkland, Florida shooter, Nikolas Cruz, who had long-term behavior problems, had broken up with a girlfriend and had lost his adoptive mother to pneumonia prior to attacking his former high school.) The shooters studied all had access to and had used weapons before and perhaps most important for parents to understand – in many cases, other students were involved in some capacity.
These findings may not constitute an official profile but good grief! A troubled young male who feels bullied, has had a recent personal failure or loss in their life, has mentioned suicide and has access to a gun. That combination should cause multiple red flags for adults, both in and out of school, and for classmates of these troubled kids.
The Secret Service/Department of Education report cited one particularly troubling incident between unidentified students. A young attacker’s original idea had been to bring a gun to school so he could look tough and his bullies would back away. When he told two friends about the plan they persuaded him that simply showing a gun wouldn’t be enough. They told him to be convincing he would have to actually shoot at people. And so that is what he did, staging an attack on his own school mates. The report doesn’t reveal details.
If that isn’t a wake-up call for parents to sit down with their children for a serious safety talk I don’t know what is.
If only students would be schooled in the warning signs and then, rather than stay silent, talk to adults about disturbed classmates so preemptive action could be taken.
Today teachers are tasked with training even our youngest students what to do in the rare case of a school shooting, training that includes the sounds of gunshots and pretend dead bodies in the hallway escape route. I’m thinking if more attention was paid to the outlier kids, those who fit the description described here, there would be a lot fewer traumatized and dead children. And we wouldn’t have to shake our heads after the next school shooting and wonder what might have been done to stop it.
Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist and television reporter of high-profile court cases.