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Right Now | Grief and Grievances

Behind the Rampages

September-October 2002

Their names—and their respective tragedies—are now a part of the American lexicon: Littleton, Colorado; Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas. The school shootings of the late 1990s came to represent everything bad about youth and American culture. The urban youth-violence epidemic of the 1980s had reached the suburban and rural heartland—no place was safe anymore. But, despite intense news coverage and consoling words from politicians, the shootings provoked little research.

Now two new studies, launched after the worst of the shootings, attempt to shed light on them—and, more important, to extract lessons for the nation and its educators. The studies, conducted by the National Research Council (NRC) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), formed the foundation for the first National Conference on Lethal School Violence, held in May at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The CDC's report studied 220 school-related shootings from 1994 to 1999 that resulted in 253 deaths; the NRC study—its lead author is Mark H. Moore, Guggenheim professor of criminal justice policy and management at the Kennedy School of Government—focused on 35 multiple-victim incidents, mostly in rural and suburban school systems.

The researchers compared the suburban school-shooting sprees of the 1990s to an earlier wave of urban school violence that began in the 1980s. "While the inner-city epidemic of violence was fueled by well-understood causes—poverty, racial segregation, and the dynamics of the illicit drug trade—the violence in the suburban and rural schools more closely resembles 'rampage' shootings that occur in places other than schools, such as workplaces," explains the NRC report. "In the inner-city cases," the report continues, "the shooting incidents involved specific grievances between individuals that were well known in the school community. In contrast, the suburban and rural shooting incidents did not involve specific grievances. These shooters felt aggrieved, but their grievances were a more general and abstract sense of feeling attacked, rather than a specific threat by an individual.

Both studies agreed that steps could be taken to reduce the risk of a school-related shooting. The NRC researchers explain that since "rampage" shootings are so rare (affecting only 35 of the nation's 116,910 elementary and secondary schools in the last decade), preventative interventions must also serve more immediate purposes.

Although some youths' relatively easy access to guns exacerbated the problem, merely addressing America's culture of violence would not end school shootings, the researchers said. Instead, the overarching element in the shootings was a "disconnect" between students and their parents, teachers, or administrators.

In many of the cases studied, fellow students knew about the shooter's plans and, in some cases, even knew the shooter had a gun with him before the attack began. "None of these students just snapped at the end of a bad day," explained William Modzelski, director of the U.S. Department of Education's Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program. Each shooter, instead, showed signs of his plans—even, in some cases, pleading for help. But knowledge of the impending tragedy never made it to the adults in the community.

"These warnings are locally transmitted," explained Katherine Newman, Wiener professor of urban studies at the Kennedy School and dean of social science at the Radcliffe Institute, who oversaw two of the NRC case studies. Newman said that educators must build bridges and relationships with students to ensure that young people feel safe talking to adults. Adolescents and adults, she said, "live in very different worlds."

~Garrett Graff