School Climate & Safety

Gunmen in School Attacks Sought Revenge, Revealed Plans

By Jessica Portner — October 25, 2000 3 min read
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The federal law-enforcement agency that assesses violent threats to national leaders, political candidates, and visiting heads of state released a study last week meant to help schools judge when violence may erupt on their campuses.

Unlike more than a dozen other school violence reports that have flowed out of Washington following a string of campus shootings in the past few years, the U.S. Secret Service’s findings are based on in-depth interviews with many of the actual assailants.

For More Information

The study, “USSS Safe School Initiative: An Interim Report on the Prevention of Targeted Violence in Schools,” is available from the U.S. Secret Service. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Compiled from reviews of medical, mental- health, and school records in 37 incidents involving 41 attackers since 1974, as well as face-to-face interviews with 10 of those students, the study lets the perpetrators speak in their own words. Most of the students—all were boys— say that they had planned their attacks, that they acted out of a desire for revenge, and that their assaults shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone.

Contrary to a common perception that student gunmen “just snap,” the Secret Service found that in more than three-fourths of the incidents, the students had planned their aggression. And more than 75 percent of the time, other students knew of the plans in advance.

Evan Ramsey, who was 16 when he killed his principal in Bethel, Alaska, in 1997, said he had told so many other students about his hit list that many of them crowded into a balcony the day of the incident to watch him shoot people in the lobby.

“You’re not supposed to be up here,” one girl told another standing on the balcony, according to Mr. Ramsey’s account. “You’re on the list.”

Scene of the Crime

More than half the attackers interviewed cited revenge as their motivation. Although the attacker acted alone in at least two-thirds of the cases, in almost half, he was encouraged by other students, the report says.

In one case, a student brought a gun to school to appear “tough” to two students who were bullying him, the Secret Service report says. But it wasn’t until two of the boy’s friends persuaded him to confront his harassers that the boy decided actually to attack.

Unlike an FBI report issued last month that included a list of personality and behavioral traits of likely school gunmen, the Secret Service report uses the case studies to construct a broader statistical portrait of the incidents. (“All Threats Aren’t Equal, FBI Cautions,” Sept. 13, 2000.)

The Secret Service investigators found, for instance, that more than half the attacks took place in the middle of the school day, and that more than half the assailants had histories of gun use.

The study also shows that in the vast majority of cases, people at the school, not police, defused the crisis, or the gunman committed suicide. More than half the attacks had ended before law-enforcement personnel arrived on the scene. In only three of the 37 incidents did law-enforcement officers discharge a weapon.

The report also notes that the incidents tended to be quick. In contrast with the most serious incident—in April 1999 at Colorado’s Columbine High School, where two students shot 13 other people over a three-hour period before killing themselves—half the incidents described in the study lasted 20 minutes or less.

There “is no accurate or useful profile of the school shooter,” says the report, which shows some similarities and many differences among the students interviewed. The 41 student attackers, who ranged in age from 11 to 21, came from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, though more than three-fourths were white.

Some of the assailants were popular in their schools, while others were socially isolated; some came from intact families with ties to their communities, while others lived in foster homes where they were neglected. Their academic records ranged from excellent to poor: Some were high-achieving students in Advanced Placement courses, while others were failing.

Traits Useless?

Knowing characteristics of such assailants “does not advance the appraisal of risk,” the report argues. “Instead, an inquiry should focus on students’ behaviors and communications to determine if a student appears to be planning an attack.”

Julie Underwood, the general counsel of the National School Boards Association, said schools aren’t equipped to conduct those types of assessments. “The most important thing is trying to figure out if someone is serious or someone is blowing off steam when they say, ‘I am so mad I am going to shoot someone,’” she said. “But how do you know? I am not a trained psychologist.”

Secret Service officials said they planned to release additional data later this year.

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