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School Climate & Safety

Student Survey Sees 1 in 10 Peers As Potentially Violent

By Darcia Harris Bowman — September 05, 2001 3 min read

A new study suggests that schools could face a repeat of the deadly shootings of recent years because a significant percentage of students are perceived as potentially violent.

“Lethal Violence in Schools” is available from Alfred University.

About 10 percent of the nation’s 7th through 12th graders may have tendencies to behave violently, according to a survey of 2,017 students. Another 2.6 percent of the students in those grades could be considered dangerous because they have both an inclination for violence and the means to commit it, the study conducted by researchers with Alfred University’s division of school psychology concludes.

“When we looked at the number who said that they had thought about shooting someone at school, had made a plan to shoot someone at school, and had access to a gun, it came to 2.6 percent of the population,” said Edward Gaughan, a professor of psychology at the upstate New York university and the lead author of the report.

“In a high school of 800 students, that’s 20 students we think are most likely to actually carry out a school shooting.”

Students who participated in the survey responded by agreeing or disagreeing with statements such as “I have thought about shooting someone at school,” and “I could easily get a gun if I wanted to.”

Since 1994, Mr. Gaughan said, at least 37 lethal shootings have occurred in American schools, as well as many more “near misses” that were never reported. The deadliest school shooting in U.S. history left 14 students and a teacher dead in 1999 at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo.

At a press conference held last week in Washington to release the survey, several reporters questioned the research methods used to gather information, especially the use of the Internet to interview students.

But the researchers said students who responded to the survey were carefully selected from a database of 7 million youngsters and represented a mix of socioeconomic backgrounds. Harris Interactive, a Rochester, N.Y., polling firm, used the Internet to survey students, but also conducted telephone interviews to buttress the online results.

“I’m confident we have a nationally representative sample,” Mr. Gaughan said.

Code of Silence

The adolescents responding to the poll overwhelmingly ranked revenge as the strongest motivation for school shootings, with 87 percent saying shooters want to “get back at those who have hurt them.”

And 13 percent of the students said nothing could be done to stop school shootings. Those students researchers had concluded were most at risk for violent behavior were twice as likely as other respondents to say there were no ways to prevent school shootings.

“If we want to shoot someone we will,” one respondent wrote. “If we want to do something bad enough, we will find a way. No matter what.”

The Alfred University researchers say their work is the first large-scale attempt to gauge students’ attitudes about school shootings.

“We found students seem to know who in their schools have the potential for violence and what might drive them to shoot someone in school,” Mr. Gaughan said.

Yet only half said they would tell an adult if they overheard someone at school talking about shooting someone. If students tell any adult, the researchers found, they are most likely to turn to a teacher and least likely to confide in a coach.

Fully three-quarters of the students said they were concerned about a shooting happening in their schools, and the study indicates they may have good reason to be worried.

Of those surveyed, 37 percent agreed there were “kids at my school who think I might shoot someone.”

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