School Climate & Safety What the Research Says

A Hallmark of School Shooters: Long History of Social Rejection

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 08, 2021 5 min read
Butler County Sheriff Deputies stand on the scene at Madison Local Schools, in Madison Township in Butler County, Ohio, after a school shooting on Feb. 29, 2016.
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Students who commit shootings in K-12 schools are more likely to have a long history of rejection and lack a sense of belonging than are mass shooters in college and adult settings—but they are less likely to have experienced a sudden breakup, or showed bad behavior that can serve as a red flag for administrators.

That’s the conclusion of a new study in the Journal of Social Psychology, which compared the characteristics of 57 shootings on K-12 campuses with 24 college shootings and 77 mass shootings in other places since 2001. The findings come amid a rise in school shootings that coincides with the return to in-person schooling. According to Education Week’s shooting tracker, 15 shootings have occurred on school campuses since the start of 2021, with seven since the start of August. (Unlike the study, however, Education Week also tracks shootings on campus or buses during a school-sponsored event, not just during a school day.)

“These [shooters], in particular in K-12, are not necessarily loners; they’re failed joiners, so you’re not necessarily having a lot of disciplinary problems,” said Robin Kowalski, a psychology professor at Clemson University, who led the study. “A lot of times, kids who create a lot of the disciplinary problems are kids who were sort of instigators with groups that they’re a part of. Whereas, these [shooters] are ... just kind of along the periphery, so they’re not really creating any issues, because they’re just kind of hiding in the background.”

The K-12 shootings studied only covered those that took place on school grounds, during a school day—discounting those at after-school events such as the recent shootings at school football games in Woodbridge, Va.; Sharon Hill, Pa.; and Wilmington, N.C., for example—in which the shooter was a current or former student. While some K-12 shootings involved the deaths of four or more people, most so-called “mass shootings” in the study took place in college or adult settings, not schools. The vast majority of school shootings also took place in the morning, with nearly 44 percent happening at 9 a.m. or earlier.

Kowalski and her colleagues found some commonalities across all kinds of shooters, who were more likely to have mental health issues, problems with rejection, and a fascination with guns or violence. But K-12 shooters were more likely than adults to have had a long-term history of rejection, often as victims of chronic bullying or parental neglect. Adult shooters, by contrast, were more likely to have had a sudden intense rejection, such as losing a job or spouse, before the shooting.

The findings come at the same time as a separate report by the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation, which was established following a mass school shooting in Connecticut in 2012. The foundation report, in keeping with the Clemson study, suggests schools need a multitiered approach to preventing school violence, coupling mental health services with stronger supports to prevent students from feeling socially isolated.

“Students, parents, educators, and community leaders must be trained to develop positive relationships and identify signs of distress, as well as educated on implementing and sustaining the school policies that would be most effective for those in their community,” the group concluded.

Public service campaigns have stressed the importance of identifying students who have a fascination with guns or violence. While the study did find such interests among both adult and K-12 shooters, the study found it much more common among adult shooters: Fewer than 1 in 5 K-12 shooters did so, compared to twice as many mass shooters in adult settings. More than half of K-12 shooters in the Clemson study had diagnosed psychological problems, but that was the case for two-thirds or more of college and adult mass shooters. (About 1 in 4 K-12 shooters committed suicide, compared to more than 40 percent of adult mass shooters.)

Supports needed so students know they ‘matter’

While the combination of psychological problems and a fascination with guns and violence could be a red flag, Kowalski noted that for K-12 shooters in particular, chronic rejection—including feelings of “not mattering” and “not belonging"—could be an even more common sign that a student could be at risk than a sudden, dramatic rejection like a relationship breakup.

“You can sort of see who who’s sitting alone at lunch, who’s standing on the periphery with nobody to talk to,” Kowalski said. However, she cautioned that administrators should focus on building social supports, rather than trying to profile students as “potential shooters,” as many students can have strong feelings of rejection—or even mental health issues—without causing violence to others. “So to the degree that teachers and school administrators can notice those kids, then they can try to talk to them ... keep an eye on them, try to get them integrated into other activities, try to set up a mentor program or buddy system or something like that, so that those kids can feel more integrated and more part of the group.”

While anti-bullying programs have spread in recent years, partly in response to the rise in school violence, the study suggests that other school safety efforts, like safety drills, may actually decrease students’ feelings of belonging and even backfire.

“While I do think the bullying programs have helped with the rejection angle, we also now have lockdown drills and things like metal detectors that kids have to go through. Those are not necessarily all they’re cracked up to be,” she said. “In many cases, a lockdown drill, for example, can cause more harm than good because they induce a lot of fear in students, and in cases where the shooter for K-12 is a student, that means that the student knows exactly what the drill involved” and can use the information when planning an attack.

Researchers are in the middle of a follow-up study, analyzing the social media posts and other messages that shooters sent out before violence. In particular, researchers are trying to identify reasons that students in majority groups within schools feel disengaged in ways that become dangerous.

“The thing that still perplexes me the most about it is why virtually all of the K-12 shooters are white males ... and not just white males, but white, heterosexual males. So most of them are from majority groups, but for whatever reason, they appear to feel marginalized in some way,” she said. “Maybe it’s because of bullying, because of their psychological problems, we don’t know yet. The effects of traditional bullying and cyberbullying can be significant.”

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