The modern world offers people an absolute right to life and its protection. Then why does a phenomenon like school shootings persist, and what are the reasons for its occurrence? School shootings are an unacceptable part of modern society that have occurred with regularity over the past decades with no significant improvement. A number of research studies have been conducted on this issue in recent years, and various institutions have tried to respond to the results of those studies by offering various solutions such as safety measures in schools. But are these solutions enough? School shootings are understandably a very sensitive subject, but there are facts and numbers that are imperative to know so that the causes can be identified, and the incidents of school shootings eliminated. For these reasons, this article will review the results of several different studies on the topic in order to provide a detailed look at the factors associated with this phenomenon.
In a study conducted by Joshua D. Freilich, a professor in the Criminal Justice Department at John Jay College, 652 events in the USA were identified as school shootings. All of these 652 events had to meet the following criteria: occurred at kindergarten through grade 12 (K-12) schools, resulted in a criminal justice response, occurred between 1990-2016, and involved a weapon that fired a bullet resulting in the injury or death of at least one person (National Institute of Justice, 2022). A significant finding was that 40% of the school shootings were committed outside of a school building but in the school area, for example, in the schoolyard, outside school hours, or by non-students. In many cases, the motive of the shooting was unassociated with school issues but was linked to a gang or other activities. These results suggest that many school shootings are not school related, but rather they may indicate neighborhood or community issues and problems with violence that arise on school grounds (Freilich et al., 2022).
Figure 1: School shooting (Ben Jennings, 2018).
The purpose of this article is to discuss the issue of school shootings, and for this reason, the first study, the Freilich study, will be narrowed down to more specific criteria. These criteria represent cases of intentional shootings where the perpetrators were publicly known, thus 354 perpetrators were studied. All of these 354 known perpetrators were 20 years of age or older. The majority of them (253) were young males, many of whom suffered adversity personally, in school, and at home. About 26% of these young males showed evidence of a psychological disorder, 19% had problems at home, 21% were suspended or expelled, almost 10% quit school, 31% had criminal records, and 21% were gang members (Freilich et al., 2022). Despite these statistics, there is no specific profile of a school shooter that is considered more prone to attacks, but these findings can be taken into account when determining the reasons why someone would resort to such destructive behavior.
Freilich's research study was more general, but additional, more explicit research has been conducted by the U.S. NTAC (National Threat Assessment Center, 2019). This research focused on cases that were categorically considered to be school shooting incidents, meaning the attacker's intent was to attack the school. The NTAC criteria were more specific: incidents that targeted school violence; incidents not related to gang or drug violence, or any other violence that started elsewhere but spilled onto school property; incidents that occurred in the USA between 2008 and 2017; incidents that involved K-12 students; incidents targeting students or employees; the weapon was purposefully used to cause physical injury or death to at least one student or school employee in school or on its property; and, last but not least, the perpetrator was known (National Threat Assessment Center, 2019).
Figure 2: Angry shooter (Davis, 2022).
Considering these criteria, 41 identified incidents conducted by 41 adolescent perpetrators were studied. These 41 attacks left 79 people injured and 19 people dead. Seventy-six percent of the attackers that used firearms obtained them from home; in 48% of cases, they were easily accessible or not properly secured. In 16% of cases, the firearms were kept in secured locations such as a locked gun safe, but the attacker knew how to access the firearm; therefore, it was still accessible to them. Of the perpetrators who used firearms for their attack, 77% had a history of weapon use including owning, using, training or practicing with weapons. Almost all schools (80%) had provided physical security measures, and 66% had full or part-time school resource officers. Despite these safety measures, almost half of the attackers (48%) transported the gun into the school in their backpacks (National Threat Assessment Center, 2019). Most school shooting incidents were reported at the start of a school year (September) and after the winter break (January). Of these 41 attacks, 41% were conducted within the first week of attendance after a break from school for the perpetrator due to holidays, illness, or suspension. This information gives a potential timeline for when these incidents could occur. The results also show that access to a firearm increases the likelihood of an attack occurring and that security measures are not always enough to deter a perpetrator from carrying out their attack.
The study conducted by NTAC (2019) showed that most of the attackers (85%) had multiple motives and reasons for their violent actions. In most cases, the motive was grievances (83%), and for 61% of these attackers, it was their primary motive. A further motive was a desire to kill (37%), and for 17% of these attackers, it was their primary motive. All perpetrators who had the desire to kill targeted random victims. Suicide was a motivation for 41% of the attackers, and 3% of attackers stated it as a primary motive. Additional reasons were psychotic symptoms (12%) or fame/notoriety (10%). Generally, the attackers targeted a specific person or persons (73%); in 54% of these attacks, the targeted person was injured or killed.
Figure 3: A police officer patrols the high school hallways (Getty/Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post, 2012).
Mental Health Factors
Research continued with an observation of mental health factors which were divided into three main categories: psychological, behavioral, and neurological. Almost all perpetrators (91%) displayed symptoms in at least one of the mentioned categories, while 49% exhibited symptoms of more than one type, with the most common combination being psychological and behavioral symptoms. In addition to mental health factors, personality traits were also studied, and the one personality trait that seemed to appear in multiple cases was narcissism. Although the NTAC study involved 41 perpetrators in most parts of their research, only 35 attackers were studied in the analysis of behavioral history due to the lack of information on the remaining six attackers.
The results of the behavioral history analysis were as follows: psychological symptoms were observed in 69% of perpetrators and were linked with depression (63%), suicidal thoughts (60%), anxiety (29%), anger (26%), and psychosis (20%). Behavioral symptoms were exhibited by 57% of the perpetrators and were linked with defiance/misconduct (40%), ADD/ADHD (29%), aggression (23%), anger (14%), and animal cruelty (9%). In 20% of the perpetrators, neurological/developmental issues were diagnosed. These neurological issues were often associated with poor problem-solving or decision-making skills, learning disabilities, diagnoses within the autism spectrum, poor social skills, developmental delays, and poor communication.
Figure 4: Sad teen (Anna Parini, 2017).
The family situation was another matter considered in the NTAC study. Ninety-four percent of the attackers experienced at least one family situation factor such as divorced/separated parents (71%), financial difficulties in the family (69%), arrested parents/siblings (54%), substance abuse by parents/siblings (46%), domestic violence (40%), family mental health (23%), abuse of the attacker (23%), and non-parental care (11%). All 35 perpetrators experienced at least one social stressor, and 91% experienced family-related stressors. Eighty-nine percent of perpetrators experienced school-related stressors, and 63% experienced general personal stressors. In this study, 80% of the attackers were bullied by their classmates, and 57% of them were bullied consistently for weeks, months, or years. The most common type of bullying was verbal (74%). In 46% of cases, at least one of the attacker's parents was aware, in 46% a classmate was aware of the bullying, and in 34% of cases, a school official was aware. In 14% of the cases, all three parties knew about the bullying. Thirty-seven percent of the perpetrators were simultaneously bullies and victims of bullying. These findings of mental health and family dynamics have similar results to those in the first study examined, which can serve as an indicator of behavioral and social factors that need to be addressed.
All 35 attackers exhibited concerning behavior before the attack either at school (94%), at home or in the community (77%), or online (74%). As a result, 66% of people approached the attacker at least once to find out if the attacker was okay or needed any help, 23% expressed concern to other peers, and 20% responded to the concerning behavior of the attacker by avoiding him (National Threat Assessment Center, 2019). In 66% of the cases, there was at least one communication attempt by the attacker about the intent to attack to which no one responded. Some of the reasons given for not responding were that classmates believed they calmed the attacker, the attacker was fine, or that the attacker was only joking. Classmates also stated they feared what the attacker might do to them if they talked about the attacker's intentions. In some cases, classmates believed that the attacker would act violently but outside of the school. In one case, the teacher assumed that the administrator would take care of the attacker as both acknowledged the concerning behavior of the attacker. In instances where there was a response, classmates attempted to help the attacker, but the attack happened sooner than they expected. (National Threat Assessment Center, 2019).
Figure 5: Peer displaying signs of concerning behavior (Niv Bavarsky, 2018).
School shootings are an unacceptable phenomenon in the modern world and have been recurring in recent decades without fundamental change. This topic has been studied over the years, and research has provided significant results. On the basis of these results, various measures have been introduced, such as security measures in schools. According to the NTAC study discussed, up to 80% of the schools studied had provided physical security measures before the attacks. This measure can be considered as a general measure that is indeed necessary, but the situation has not improved. So the question remains, were these procedures appropriate to tackle the problem, or are these measures insufficient and further steps ought to be provided? In support of this claim, the results of these studies serve to point to the origins of this phenomenon. These results include, in particular, the factor of the mental health of the attacker as well as the attacker's dysfunctional family situation. It can be called a vicious circle, where the attacker has mental health issues as a result of the situation at home, or the attacker suffers from a mental health disorder, and, given the dysfunctional situation at home, the family is unable to help the attacker. This results in the neglect of the attacker's mental health issues which can escalate into tragic incidents such as school shootings. Situations like this require an intervention that failed to be provided at home or at school. Another factor that failed was the lack of reporting suspicious behavior of the attacker by classmates or other people who noticed it, including parents and teachers. This problem could be solved by educating others, especially children, about the importance of sharing information that indicates an incident like a school shooting might happen in the near future. Part of the education should also include informing potential attackers that the feelings and thoughts or even actions leading up to an act like a school shooting is by no means normal, and if they experience something similar they should seek help immediately. Furthermore, gun culture along with the accessibility of guns affects how people react to their problems, and whether they consider guns as a possible solution. To prevent such tragic events from happening, not only are school safety measures essential but social intervention is as well.
Freilich, J. D. F., Chermak, S. M. CH., Connell, N. M. C., Klein, B. R. K., & Greene-Colozzi, E. A. G. (2022). Overview of the American school shooting study (TASSS). Rockefeller Institute of Government. https://rockinst.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Overview-American-School-Shooting-Study-TASSS.pdf
National Institute of Justice. (2022). Creation of school shooting open-source database fuels understanding. Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. https://www.dcjs.virginia.gov/sites/dcjs.virginia.gov/files/the_american_school_shooting_study_tasss.pdf
National Threat Assessment Center. (2019). Protecting America’s schools: A U.S. Secret Service analysis of targeted school violence. U.S. Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security. https://www.secretservice.gov/sites/default/files/2020-04/Protecting_Americas_Schools.pdf
Cover Image: Golden Cosmos. (2018). A shade of a boy with guns in a school hallway [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.newyorker.com/podcast/the-new-yorker-radio-hour/malcolm-gladwell-on-school-shootings-and-the-return-of-paul-schrader
Figure 1: Ben Jennings. (2018). School shooting [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/picture/2018/feb/15/ben-jennings-florida-school-shooting-cartoon
Figure 2: Ariel Davis for NPR. (2022). Angry shooter [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/02/10/690372199/school-shooters-whats-their-path-to-violence
Figure 3: Getty/Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post. (2012). A Police officer patrols the high school hallways [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.americanprogress.org/article/smart-investments-safer-schools/
Figure 4: Anna Parini. (2017). Sad teen. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/13/well/family/teenagers-depression.html
Figure 5: Niv Bavarsky. (2018). Peer displaying signs of concerning behavior [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/05/school-shootings-prevention/560753/