The mass shootings that have hit rural and suburban schools over the past decade may have little connection with the type of lethal violence long associated with urban districts, according to a new study.
While inner-city school violence is fueled by poverty, racial segregation, and the drug trade, write the authors of the National Research Council report released last week, the lethal gunplay in rural and suburban schools more closely resembles “rampage shootings” that occurred during roughly the same period in workplaces in the United States.
The researchers found no instances of that type of shooting in inner-city schools.
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“The urban [shooting] cases tended to be classic disputes that spilled into school territory, but the shooters in the rural and suburban cases consciously picked the schools as a place where a general grievance might be resolved,” said Katherine S. Newman, the dean of social science at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She is a co-author of the study, “Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence.”
From 1992 to 2001, there were 13 multiple-victim shootings in rural and suburban U.S. schools. Those explosions of violence, which peaked in severity in 1999 with the 15 deaths in the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, left a total of 44 people dead, 88 injured, and nine teenage gunmen imprisoned, according to the study.
For the study, researchers examined six shootings in depth, two of them in urban schools in Chicago and New York City.
The study by the National Research Council—an arm of the congressionally chartered National Academy of Sciences—was released on the heels of a federal report on school violence released this month by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education. (“U.S. Agencies Release Details From School Violence Research,” May 22, 2002.)
Prevention Is Difficult
One of the new report’s primary conclusions—that it’s difficult to prevent incidents such as the Columbine massacre—will likely be troubling to many educators.
The study’s authors say they reached that conclusion because there is no consistent profile of a school shooter, youngsters operate in tight-knit social communities that are largely inaccessible to adults, and youth violence is often sparked by a combination of perceived injustices, gradual disillusionment, and hard-to-detect mental illness.
Take the case of Michael Carneal, the 14-year-old who opened fire on a prayer group at Heath High School, just outside Paducah, Ky., on the morning of Dec. 1, 1997. The freshman killed three students and wounded five others, two of them seriously.
The son of a respected local lawyer and a homemaker, and the brother of one of the school’s valedictorians, Mr. Carneal grew up with the support structures that are thought to prevent delinquency and that many urban youths lack, according to the study.
“You won’t be able to identify these kids in advance,” said Ms. Newman, one of the researchers who conducted the case study of the Heath High shooting. “They are very rarely loners, and they’re not the kids who are egregiously disruptive.”
As with other studies of school violence, however, the NRC research confirmed that the assailants had tended to signal their plans by making threats or telling classmates. Intercepting those signals may be a school’s best hope for averting tragedy, Ms. Newman said.
“Kids at this age are good at concealing just how troubled they are,” she said. “But I have never read about a rampage shooting in a workplace where the adult let it be known that this would happen Monday morning, so I see reason for hope.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 2002 edition of Education Week as Lethal School Shootings Resemble Workplace Rampages, Report Says