My Point of View: School Shootings are More than a School Problem

The news late last month from Chardon, Ohio, of a 17-year-old boy shooting at a group of students in his high school cafeteria and subsequently killing three classmates served as a numbing reminder that violence is not an exclusive visitor of low-income neighborhoods or the urban streets.

According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, there were 22 school-related shootings in the United States in 2011 that resulted in less than 100 injuries. With close to 60 million children attending public K-12 schools in this country last year, the fact is that the vast majority of schools are a safe haven for its students and staff.

School violence has been trending significantly downward — it was down 60 percent between 1995 and 2005, according to DOJ figures cited by the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. As for school shootings, specifically, “the annual probability of any one school experiencing a student-perpetrated homicide is … about 1 in 12,804. In other words, an educator can expect a student to commit a murder at his or her school once every 12,804 years,” according to the Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia.

While the emotional pain and grief experienced by the families of the children killed at Chardon High School is not to be minimized, what have we learned in the wake of this event and other high-profile school shootings like Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, to less-publicized shootings from places like Red Lake, Minn., Pear, Miss., West Paducah, Ky., Conyers, Ga., and Nickel Mines, Pa.?

Information in a recent report released by the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG) and the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) entitled “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective” states that news coverage magnifies a number of widespread but wrong or unverified impressions of school shooters. Some of these misconceptions are:

• School violence is an epidemic.

• All school shooters are alike.

• The school shooter is always a loner.

• School shootings are exclusively revenge-motivated.

• Easy access to weapons is THE most significant risk factor.

• Unusual or aberrant behaviors, interests, hobbies, etc., are hallmarks of the student destined to become violent.

The reports contend that “school shootings and other forms of school violence are not just a school’s problem or a law enforcement problem. They involve schools, families and the communities. An adolescent comes to school with a collective life experience, both positive and negative, shaped by the environments of family, school, peers, community and culture. Out of that collective experience come values, prejudices, biases, emotions and the student’s responses to training, stress and authority. His or her behavior at school is affected by the entire range of experiences and influences.”

How refreshing is that? The nation’s top law enforcement force hints in more than subtle terms that there must be accountability and responsibility shared across the spectrum of society if security policy is to be effective in any open and public institution.

The report goes on to say that violence is a complex issue with complex causes and consequences. Imagining that there are easy answers and instant solutions is counterproductive — there is no easy way to attack the causes and no simple formula that can predict who will commit a violent act. It is also true, however, that violent behavior develops progressively, and there are observable signs along the way.

Tragedies in states like Colorado and Virginia have led to innovative solutions to address security through proactive methods like anonymous hotlines. The Youth Violence Project at University of Virginia learned that a school needs to conduct a threat assessment, which “results in a course of action that is less punitive and disruptive to [the threatening student’s] education than either zero tolerance or profiling.”

Threats in schools are not just the schools’ problem; therefore, neither is the solution.