Adramatic series of school shootings between 1995 and 1999 startled the nation. Deadly violence within schools struck fear in the public and particularly school-age youth across the nation. Beginning in 1989, there had been an increase in school violence, ranging from verbal harassment, threats of harm, and violent crime.
Overall national violent crime rates dropped after 1993 and continued at lower levels into the twenty-first century. Similarly, following a period of increased violence by juveniles (youth less than eighteen years of age) between 1989 and 1993, youth violence had begun to level off or decline as well. Crimes reported by schools dropped 10 percent between 1995 and 1999. The decrease in youth violence, however, was less than the overall trend.
Public concern about school violence rose significantly as school shootings dominated the media's attention from 1997 to 1999. This was despite the fact that these high-profile crimes occurred during a period in which violent deaths related to schools and school activities had decreased by 40 percent.
Suddenly in the late 1990s, some middle- and upper-class white youths were lashing out with planned acts of cold-blooded violence against their schoolmates and teachers. School violence was no longer considered an inner-city problem. In reaction to the rise in the number of multiple homicides, governments and school districts adopted new measures to identify and respond to possible problems before they erupted.
Though difficult, teachers and administrators turned to students for help; asking them to report threatening comments or dangerous activities. They also sought to reduce negative behavior such as bullying, which was generally ignored in the past or noticed but dismissed as typical adolescent behavior. As the United States entered the twenty-first century, the public considered schools to be dangerous places. Statistics actually indicated the opposite and showed that schools were the safest public places in the nation.
The history of school discipline
School discipline problems have substantially changed through time. Disciplinary action usually concerned talking without permission, being disruptive in class, running in the hallways, or smoking behind the gymnasium. By the 1970s dress codes became a key discipline issue; in the 1980s it was fighting among students. By the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, gang activity entered schools. Along with it came the problems of weapons, substance abuse, and violent assaults against other students and school staff. Some students even carried firearms for protection.
Crime victim surveys in the early 1990s showed significant rates of robbery or theft and assaults in schools. Victims tended to be in inner-city schools, male, and of a racial minority. While theft was the most common crime in schools in general, assault was the most frequent violent crime. Multiple homicides in schools during this period were uncommon, though there were two in 1992. This yearly figure would more than double by the late 1990s when 3 percent of teachers became victims of violent school crime.
Until the late 1990s school violence was largely a problem of inner-city schools where there were high poverty and crime rates, drug trafficking and prostitution, and poorly funded school districts. The growth of gang activity in schools after 1989 only reinforced these perceptions. The gang presence more than doubled in just four years by 1993.
In a dramatic shift, the highly publicized school shootings beginning in 1995 took the issue of school violence to the suburbs and rural communities of predominately white America. Accordingly the focus on causes of school violence expanded to include such issues as student peer pressure, or how some students were ignored and became outcasts. These behaviors appeared to trigger violent retaliation.
In the early twenty-first century, the top school violence concern among students, parents, and school officials was shootings, though theft and other crimes were the most common. Before 1995 school shootings were infrequent and usually did not lead to multiple deaths. One early school shooting occurred in San Diego, California, in January 1979. Seventeen-year-old Brenda Spencer used a rifle she had just received for Christmas to shoot at an elementary school across the street from her house.
During a six-hour standoff, Brenda killed two men trying to protect the schoolchildren and wounded eight children and a police officer. Spencer showed no emotion when finally captured. In March 1987 in Missouri twelve-year-old Nathan Ferris, an honor student, grew tired of being teased. He took a gun to school and when teased shot and killed the student and then himself.
The rash of school shootings of the 1990s began in Giles County, Tennessee, on November 15, 1995. Seventeen-year-old Jamie Rouse, dressed in black, took a firearm to school and shot two teachers in the head, killing one, and killed another student while attempting to shoot the school's football coach. Rouse had told several of his classmates beforehand about his intentions, but none reported the conversations to authorities.
Less than two months later on February 2, 1996, in Moses Lake, Washington, fourteen-year-old Barry Loukaitis walked into a mathematics class wearing a long western coat. Under the coat he concealed two pistols, a high-powered rifle, and ammunition. Loukaitis killed two classmates and the teacher while wounding another student. He took the rest of the class hostage. Another teacher rushed Loukaitis, ending the standoff. Loukaitis, like Rouse, had shared thoughts of going on a shooting spree with another student. The same day Loukaitis attacked his fellow schoolmates, a sixteen-year-old in Atlanta, Georgia, shot and killed a teacher.
The April 1999 Columbine shooting spree and other occurrences of school violence triggered greater efforts to curb bullying in schools. Bullying, which includes a range of behavior including teasing and threats, exclusion from social activities, and more physical intimidation, has been widespread in American schools. It was often considered a normal part of growing up. When bullying repeatedly surfaced as a cause of deadly school violence through the 1990s, parents and schools took a renewed interest in the consequences of bullying and how to restrict it.
Studies in the 1990s showed that bullying was far from harmless and actually posed serious lasting effects. Victims of bullying suffered significant negative social and emotional development. In the short term victims suffered from low self-esteem, poor grades, few friends, and had school attendance problems. Such emotional problems as depression and anxiety could also develop and last a lifetime. In addition, those doing the bullying often progressed to more serious aggressive behavior when not confronted about their actions.
Schools responded with aggressive antibullying programs and instituted stricter rules and discipline. Discipline was enforced through monitoring student behavior in all parts of the school grounds by school staff. Some new school programs taught anger control, ways for a victim to cope with bullying, and overall greater appreciation of student diversity in a school. Police also became more interested in threatening behavior at schools. Many school districts that adopted these measures reported significant declines in aggressive behavior. Web sites about bullying and its effects were also created to help students as well as provide support to school staffs.
Shootings become more frequent
On February 19, 1997, a year after the Washington and Georgia shootings, sixteen-year-old Evan Ramsey in Bethel, Alaska, who was tired of being teased, took a shotgun to school. He killed a student and the principal and wounded two other students. He had previously told two fourteen-year-olds about his plan for retribution against those bullying him and the authority figures who had not protected him.
Later in 1997, on October 1, sixteen-year-old Luke Woodham in Pearl, Mississippi, stabbed his mother to death then went to school carrying a rifle and a pistol. There he killed a girlfriend who had just broken up with him, a second girl, and wounded seven others. When returning to his car for more ammunition he was charged and captured by the assistant principal. Again, other students knew of his plan but told no one.
Two months later on December 1, fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal of Paducah, Kentucky, carried a gun to school and fired on a small prayer group killing three girls and wounding five others. Carneal was intrigued with Satan worshiping and frequently dressed in black. Other students had heard him talk about wanting to shoot up the school. Police found a pistol, two rifles, two shotguns, and seven hundred rounds of ammunition.
The spring of 1998
The spring of 1998 turned out to be a very bloody time in U.S. school history. On March 24, eleven-year-old Andrew Golden and thirteen-year-old Mitchell Johnson set off a fire alarm at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas. They then fired on school staff and students as they evacuated the building. The two boys killed one adult and four children and wounded ten others on the school's playground.
One month later on April 24, fourteen-year-old Andrew Wurst carried a handgun to an eighth grade school graduation dance in Edinboro, Pennsylvania. He killed a teacher and wounded three others before being captured while fleeing.
On May 21, barely a month later, fifteen-year-old Kipland Kinkel opened fire on a crowded school cafeteria in the morning before classes began at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon. He killed two and wounded seven others. When police went to his home, they found his murdered parents, whom he had killed the previous day. The house was booby-trapped with several bombs including one placed under his mother's body.
The day he murdered his parents Kinkel had been expelled for bringing a firearm to school, but he had been released by police to his father's custody. Kinkel was small in stature and had dyslexia (a learning disability). He felt inferior to his academic parents and athletic older sister. Kinkel was routinely teased at school and felt detached from his schoolmates.
Columbine and beyond
On April 20, 1999, two students of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, entered the school and killed thirteen, including a teacher, while wounding twenty-six. Seventeen-year-old Eric Harris and eighteen-year-old Dylan Klebold had planned their shooting rampage long in advance. The sixteen-minute shooting spree ended with the two shooters committing suicide. This was the bloodiest episode in school violence in U.S. history.
Harris and Klebold had an illegally modified semiautomatic handgun, two sawed-off shotguns, and ninety-seven explosive devices. The two had also planted bombs around the school, which police recovered without exploding. The two had even planned on escaping and hijacking an airplane and crashing it into New York City.
The two had also been members of a club called the "Trenchcoat Mafia." Its members wore long, heavy black trench coats. Two other persons were convicted and sent to prison for illegally supplying the modified handgun to Harris and Klebold. The shooting later inspired a controversial documentary in 2001 titled Bowling at Columbine. Written and directed by Michael Moore, the film explored the culture of violence, especially firearms, in the United States.
The Columbine tragedy triggered other school violence. The number of school bomb threats by students increased for a brief time, more youth began wearing long black trench coats, and Internet sites popped up praising the shooters at Columbine. School closures increased in response to threats through the brief remainder of the school year.
The Columbine shootings, in addition to previous events of school violence, finally led students to begin reporting potentially threatening situations. No longer were threats of violence by fellow students ignored or not taken seriously. On May 13, 1999, only a few weeks after the Columbine shootings, students at a middle school reported that four classmates were planning a massacre at their school and trying to recruit others to help. The four were arrested and tried as adults, charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
The violence, however, was not over yet. On May 20, Anthony Solomon, a sophomore at Heritage High School in Conyers, Georgia, opened fire on the last day of school, wounding six.
After a short lull in violence, school violence struck again. On February 5, 2001, three students who admired the Columbine shooters planned an attack on their school in Hoyt, Kansas. Others discovered the plans and turned them in. Police discovered bomb-making materials, a modified assault rifle, and a black trench coat. Police charged the students with conspiracy to commit aggravated arson.
One of the worst incidents to occur after Columbine came at Santana High School in Santee, California, on March 5, 2001. Tired of being teased for his short height, fifteen-year-old Charles Williams entered a crowded boys' bathroom in school and opened fire, killing two students and wounding thirteen. In addition to the handgun he took to school, police found seven rifles at his home.
Causes of school violence
The causes of school violence are complex and varied. Forensic psychologists who study criminal behavior believe school killers are very different from other violent youth, such as gang members or drug dealers. For whatever reason, they feel powerless and begin obsessing over killing or injuring others. They may make direct threats concerning those they feel are taunting or intimidating them. They often express these thoughts and plans to fellow students. In general, other students tend to ignore the comments or simply look the other way.
The decision to kill for these youth is not a sudden occurrence, but coldly planned. Use of guns gives them the power they felt deprived of, and makes those offending them powerless. In addition, the shooters become famous with their faces splashed across televisions screens nationwide. The violent outbreak turns the tables and gives them both the power and attention they seek. This type of offender is almost always male; females approach retribution in less direct ways, such as hiring classmates or others to kill those they wish to strike out against.
Each case may represent a unique combination of factors. Some are physical, some behavioral, and others are learned. Physical factors can include birth complications. For example, being deprived of oxygen during the birth process can lead to brain dysfunction and learning disabilities. Violent behavior has been linked to certain forms of these abnormalities. Similarly, head injuries have been shown to increase the potential for violent behavior in certain individuals.
Behavioral problems can be linked to a difficult personality, which leads to problems of interacting with others, impulsiveness, and being unable to conform. These children may not blend into school activities and become ignored and rebellious. Some become depressed and take medication that can produce serious behavioral side effects. Broken family relationships can also be a major factor. Harshly treated children are more likely to behave violently later in life.
Being bullied or teased by others can often lead a troubled youth to violent revenge or retribution. This factor showed up repeatedly in the school shootings of the 1990s and beyond. It received the most attention from school administrators and others in the early twenty-first century.
Learning violent behavior can come from a dysfunctional or abnormal home life, perhaps involving domestic abuse or parents who do not respond well to authority figures such as the police. From this type of home environment, youth learn to react to authority such as teachers or school officials with aggression. Some believe learned violent behavior also comes from repeated exposure to violence in the media such as music lyrics, Hollywood movies, television programs, video games, and 24-hour news stations broadcasting violent or graphic scenes. Studies showed that youth exposed to an overwhelming amount of such material became more aggressive and no longer upset by violence and its consequences. These kids, it is believed, have trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy.
Schools themselves have changed a great deal since the 1950s, and by the later twentieth century they brought a wide range of students together from often markedly different social environments. Differences appear in attitudes and behavior that can lead to social cliques or racial tensions. A major change was the emergence of gangs, which doubled between 1989 and 1993. Gang activity within schools included recruiting new members, which often led to school violence as part of initiation. In addition, illegal activities in the vicinity of the school increased, such as selling drugs and firearms.
Yet another major factor in the rise of deadly school violence was the easy availability of firearms and other weapons. Estimates in the 1990s on the number of weapons brought to school on a daily basis were staggering. The number of guns brought into schools on any given day ranged up to over 250,000 and the number of knives more than double that figure.
Effects of school violence
The effects of school violence have been extensive. Many students stayed at home out of fear in the late 1990s than ever before. Schools were no longer viewed as safe havens for the nation's children. The increased presence of police, metal detectors, and intervention programs have become daily reminders of school violence.
The thousands of students directly exposed to school violence, both the highly publicized multiple homicides and the less publicized episodes of threats and standoffs that did not lead to actual injury or death, can suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder. This condition can cause depression, anger, and anxiety. Overall, the ability for youth to learn and schools to effectively teach are greatly affected by school violence.
To prevent school violence, schools have looked at not just focusing on at-risk youth, but have also attempted to change the social climate and culture of their facilities. Teachers and administrators joined with parents, students, police, and the local community to help maintain a safe atmosphere in their schools. Safety programs were remodeled to be much more responsive not just to outbreaks of violence, but also to the signs of potential problems. Early warning signs were identified, including extreme or uncontrolled anger, knowledge of a student's illegal possession or access to firearms, students suffering the effects of extreme poverty, those targeted or making racist remarks, students with a low interest in school, and violence at home.
Classes were also added to educated students on human diversity and socializing. Thirteen state legislatures passed laws to aid in reducing school violence. Mental health requirements were added to some school curricula and in others funding was provided to increase the capabilities of existing mental health services.
More physical measures were adopted as well. Some schools installed metal detectors and security cameras. Police
became a common sight on school property. Many schools adopted a "zero tolerance" policy for weapons, issuing automatic suspensions and even expulsions to students who brought weapons to school.
Alternate education programs have also been established for students who are unruly or incapable of blending in to local public schools. Programs have been added to help at-risk students, which usually involve mentoring and how to peacefully resolve disputes or problems. In general, schools have made a concentrated effort to reach every student, help with their social skills, and set expectations of academic performance.
For More Information
Bonilla, Denise M., ed. School Violence. New York: H. W. Wilson, 2000.
Coloroso, Barbara. The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Pre-School to High School, How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence. New York: HarperResource, 2003.
Flannery, Daniel, and C. Ronald Huff, eds. Youth Violence: Prevention, Intervention, and Social Policy. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1999.
Garbarino, James. Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them. New York: Free Press, 1999.
Heide, Kathleen M. Young Killers: The Challenge of Juvenile Homicide. New York: Sage, 1998.
Kelleher, Michael D. When Good Kids Kill. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998.
Smith, Helen. The Scarred Heart: Understanding and Identifying Kids Who Kill. Knoxville, TN: Callisto, 2000.
Bullying.org.http://www.bullying.org (accessed on August 20, 2004).
The National Campaign to Prevent School Violence.http://www.ribbonofpromise.org (accessed August 20, 2004).
North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Center for the Prevention of School Violence.http://www.ncdjjdp.org/cpsv/ (accessed on August 20, 2004).
"School Violence." Constitutional Rights Foundation.http://www.crf-usa.org/violence/intro.html (accessed on August 20, 2004).