What We Know About Targeted School Violence
The United States Secret Service and National Threat Assessment Center have released a report focused on targeted school violence, including school shootings.
They studied 41 attacks against K-12 schools in the United States from 2008 to 2017. The report focused on the background and behaviors of attackers to identify commonalities among them.
Remember: There Is No Profile. There Is No Single ‘Stressor’
The National Threat Assessment Center has been studying these types of violent incidents for the past 20 years. This reportbuilds on that research and surfaces a few important findings:
- There is no profile of a student attacker, and there is no profile of the kind of school that is targeted in these attacks.
- Attackers usually had multiple motives.
- Most attackers (61%) used firearms and those firearms were often acquired from the home.
- Half of the attackers were interested in violent topics, like the Columbine School shooting or Hitler.
- Most attackers had a history of school disciplinary actions, and many had prior contact with law enforcement.
- Most attackers were the victims of bullying, which was often observed by others.
- All attackers exhibited concerning behaviors that someone else noticed. Most also communicated their intent to attack.
Peter Langman, a psychologist specializing in the psychology of school shooters, contributed to the report. He said if nothing else, it’s crucial readers remember the first two findings: There is no profile of these types of shooters, and these individuals usually have multiple motives.
“[Attackers] have remarkable diversity in terms of who they are, the families they come from, what’s driving their attack, and so on,” Langman said. “We can’t just reduce this to a soundbite and say this is who school shooters are.”
The report found that while attackers were predominantly male (83%), 17% were female.
The majority (63%) were white, while 15% were “Black or African American” and 10% were multiracial.
And when it comes to motivation, Langman says there are a variety of “stressors”.
“A lot of people want to simplify it or reduce it to one thing, whether it’s blaming video games or bullying,” Langman said. “What we see in this study is just how many different kinds of ‘stressors’ there were.”
All the attackers experienced at least one social ‘stressor’, whether they were being bullied or if they had conflicts with classmates. Family ‘stressors’ were also very common and included conflicts at home or abuse or neglect from a parent.
Remember: School Shootings Remain Rare
While school homicides involving multiple victims have become more frequent in the past decade, they remain extremely rare and account for less than 2% of all youth homicides in the U.S.
David Ropeik, the author of “How Risky Is It Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match The Facts,” studies the prevalence of school shootings.
“If you run the numbers on the number of people who in K through 12 public schools in the United States were killed by any kind of weapon from 2008 to 2017, you get about a 1 in 5,000,000,000 chance, per kid, per day [over nine years] that they’ll be murdered in schools,” Ropeik said. “That’s crazy rare!”
A fact, Ropeik points out, is not prominently mentioned in the report, (it is noted in a footnote on page 59.)
According to a 2018 study from Northeastern University, a child is more likely to die drowning in a pool, or in a bicycle accident, than a school shooting.
But it’s still scary.
“Statistics are not how we judge how scared to be of anything,” Ropeik said. “Even if the odds are low, if the nature of the thing is scary, and there are a bunch of psychological characteristics that make that so, especially one of them being kids are involved then the numbers don’t matter that much.”
Ropeik was also struck by the diversity of weapons used in these attacks.
“Only [61%] of these attacks were by guns,” Ropeik said. “A lot of the attacks are by other weapons.”
While a majority of the incidents used a firearm, which included handguns, rifles and shotguns, 39% used bladed weapons, including pocket or folding knives.
Some students used a combination of weapons, including a claw hammer and a knife. One incident used both a firearm and Molotov cocktail.
The report also showed that most attackers (76%) acquired their firearm from the home of a parent or another close relative. In half of these cases, the firearm was readily accessible or wasn’t secured in an effective way.
Remember: Much Of This Isn’t New
Beverly Kingston, Director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado Boulder, says this isn’t new.
“The thing about it is, they’re not surprising because we’ve been seeing them across shootings for many, many years,” Kingston explained.
She argues that the report does provided further evidence to implement holistic approaches to school safety.
The report encourages schools to create violence prevention plans that are inclusive of immediate threats like weapons on campus, and lower-level concerns like conflicts between students or interest in violent topics.
“We want to address these root causes of all these kinds of problem behaviors,” Kingston said. “Preventing bullying in schools, making sure that young people get the mental health supports that they need, knowing that we’re preventing lots of problem behaviors, not just those who are going to go on to be a mass shooter.”
Kingston wants to see more schools adopt policies that address mental healthcare support, rather than hardening schools against the dangerous, but rare, school shooter.
Adhiti Bandhamudi is the 2018-2020 Audion Reporting Fellow based at North Carolina Public Radio — WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.