If schools aren’t already back in session where you are, they soon will be. As a sign of our times, many parents will worry about the safety of their child and the possibility of another deadly school shooting.
The fact is that while mass shootings in the United States seem all too frequent, occurring between 10 and 20 times a year, shootings at schools are extremely rare, and their numbers have been on the decline since their peak in the early 1990s. That said, even one more catastrophic event at a school is one too many.
“There is not an epidemic of school shootings,” according to James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northwestern University who has studied mass killings since the ’80s. Fox and his research team found that more kids are killed each year from drowning in a pool or bicycle accidents.
It is easy to think the opposite given the media coverage. One study from Clemson University last year concluded, “More people have died or been injured in mass school shootings in the U.S. in the past 18 years than in the entire 20th century.”
Well … yeah. During the first 73 years of that century, there were no mass school shootings, which are generally defined as an incident in which four or more people are killed. According to a joint study by the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Education, the country’s first identified school shooting occurred in rural Olean, N.Y., in December 1974. The 17-year-old shooter was an honor roll student with no record of misbehavior.
That joint government study was undertaken after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting to try to answer two basic questions: “Could we have known that these attacks were being planned?” and “What can be done to prevent future attacks from occurring?” The conclusion: There is no simple answer as to why. But researchers learned enough to say that “some future attacks may be preventable” if school administrators and parents know what to look for and what questions to ask.
Keep in mind that this comprehensive report came out in 2004, yet here we are, 15 years later, still scratching our heads over how to spot a potential mass shooter and what to do to stop the next school shooting.
This report found that there is no one-size-fits-all profile of a school shooter, but it gave important clues for education officials to watch for. One hundred percent of the shooters were male and were either a current or former student of the school they attacked. Before the event, most perpetrators behaved in a way that caused people to be concerned or indicated a need for intervention. Some mentioned or tried suicide. Many shooters felt persecuted and bullied and had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. (Think the Parkland, Fla., shooter, Nikolas Cruz, who had long-term behavior problems, had broken up with a girlfriend and had lost his adoptive mother to pneumonia before attacking his former high school.) The shooters studied all had access to weapons and had used weapons before. Perhaps most important for parents to understand, in many cases, is that other students were involved in some capacity.
These findings may not constitute an official profile, but good grief! A troubled young male who feels bullied, has had a recent personal failure or loss, has mentioned suicide and has access to a gun: That combination should cause multiple red flags for adults, both in and out of school, and for classmates of these troubled kids.
The Secret Service/Department of Education report cited one particularly troubling incident between unidentified students. A young attacker’s original idea was to bring a gun to school so he could look tough and his bullies would back away. When he told two friends about the plan, they persuaded him that simply showing a gun wouldn’t be enough. They told him that to be convincing, he would have to actually shoot at people. And so that is what he did, staging an attack on his own schoolmates. The report doesn’t reveal details.
If that isn’t a wakeup call for parents to sit down with their children for a serious safety talk, I don’t know what is.
If only students would be schooled in the warning signs and then, rather than stay silent, talk to adults about disturbed classmates so preemptive action could be taken.
Today, teachers are tasked with training even our youngest students on what to do in the rare case of a school shooting, including the sounds of gunshots and pretend dead bodies lying in the hallway escape route. I’m thinking if more attention were paid to the outlier kids, those who fit the description here, there would be a lot fewer traumatized and dead children. And we wouldn’t have to shake our heads after the next school shooting and wonder what might have been done to stop it.
— Diane Dimond is the author of three books, including Be Careful Who You Love Inside the Michael Jackson Case, which is now updated with new chapters and is available as an audiobook. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.