We need to find out how to prevent every school shooting, but focusing on the overwhelming male incidence of these tragic events may be helpful. There are many advanced, developed countries in the world in recent times that do not have a half a dozen or more fatal school shootings occurring every year.* Still, our problem is unique and may require a gender-driven solution.
If we look at the numbers from Columbine up to today, as adapted from published lists of school shootings by Joseph A. Lieberman (2008) and Brian Van Brunt (2012) and through detailed internet searches, a sense of urgency is apparent. To date, we will find 83 fatal school shootings, and 80 of the 84 shooters (Columbine had two assailants) were males. For those who didn't pull a calculator out, that's a whopping 95 percent! Further, if we remove adults aged 30 or more, we are left with 61 fatal school shootings, all committed by males aged 30 and younger (For a detailed list see Endingschoolshootings.org).
No doubt, the deck seems stacked against young males -- but perhaps we should look outside the school walls. In our society, violent crime is largely committed by males. The FBI report of the most recent full-year analysis of all crime in America, including over 8 million crimes of committed, can help shed some light on this. This report shows that males were responsible for 80.1% of the category of violent crimes.
I would recommend that all readers spend some time reviewing the percentages for crimes committed, as adapted from the FBI report described previously. We should ask why males are on the top of the charts for 29 out of the 30 types of crimes in the most recent year. Actually, males commit crimes in 24 out of 30 areas at rates over 70 percent. More, males commit the other five types at rates over 50 percent. This stands in stark contrast to females, who only commit one type of crime at a higher rate than men: prostitution. But let's be honest, that is a crime that is purely driven by mischievous or worse exemplars of men. Don't get angry at me for reporting the facts about crime even if the motivations might be different. Still, I would ask the reader, "Why do males lead the ranks in essentially all 30 types of crime -- and not only that, but lead by a landslide in many of them?" I'll answer this question about gender definitively in a future article.
Today, let's be sure about one thing: school shootings, and similar rampage events, are indeed violent crimes. I've interviewed children of survivors from the oldest school massacre in America on the Bath School Disaster of 1927 (for more information on the Bath School Disaster from another researcher's perspective, check out this Slate story).
Two similar themes emerged from the stories of these children of survivors. First, they said their parents shuddered for decades up until their deaths every time another fatal event happened, whether in schools or not. One even said that it was fortunate that her parents were not alive when the Columbine shooting occurred -- fortunate because they were shielded from this painful event. Second, the wounds of school shootings do not go away, ever.
It is frightening when we think about the 223 people who have died in the 83 fatal school shootings since the time of Columbine for one reason: because of the family members and friends who still live! Indeed, these losses scar the entire landscape of American education -- a problem waiting for a comprehensive national solution -- but also those who live still suffer.
Frank Hall, the former Chardon High School coach in Ohio, was interviewed last winter on 60 Minutes about his valiant rescue of students in a school shooting where three perished. Hall considers many others to be the heroes rather than himself, and he only wanted to help a tragedy stop sooner. We tend to remember the positive stories, but even the pain in Hall's voice is clear. No one triumphs in a school shooting; instead, we all endure together.
On the day Columbine occurred, I was teaching in a middle school in a different state. I clearly remember the concerned voices of all the teachers as our principal huddled with all of us in one room and showed what was on television; we instantly felt a sense of deep concern for those suffering many hundreds of miles away.
At the start of my graduate program, I investigated the ethos behind school shootings at that time: Columbine, then Savannah, Georgia (2000), Fayetteville, Arkansas (2001), and Santee, California (2001). Years later, my PhD research included topics of gender imbalances in crimes and other behaviors. It seems that maturity is a lens by which we can deconstruct the male experience. And it leads to a question:
Does a deficiency in emotional maturity in males play a contributing role in why they are so quick to seek criminal means to gain the things they want in their life: revenge, power, esteem, fame?
It is surprising, and actually unsettling, that the males who commit school violence are often not guided by an honorable desire for recognition or fame. They may seek infamy, but more often are plagued by emotions relating to their own inabilities, fears, rejections, and longings. There is anger and rage too, and there are longings that current circumstances are not able to adequately address. Also, emotional damage and/or illness indeed play a role. And in any of these cases, being a victim of bullying and seeking revenge are also common themes among school shooters according to the Threat Assessment Report published after Columbine by the FBI. But here are some things that can help.
Stable, Accountable Relationships: As we think about the prevention of school shootings, the presence of stable relationships with accountable and thoughtful adults can play a major role. Young people are often insecure about their lives and their future. Social media, these days, allows for kids to feel a gigantic amount of opportunity and also significant negative pressure at times -- and this forum of communication did not exist a generation ago. Still, the presence of stable relationships can provide a lot of the comfort that is needed, can give correction where appropriate, and might help find solutions to interpersonal issues so kids do not resort to what they wrongly think are quick fixes with guns.
Thorough Bullying Prevention: Also, schools need to deepen their bullying prevention programs, and where appropriate conduct an equity audit over students and staff to deeply understand where discrimination and subjugation may be occurring. Many school shootings have embers before there is fire, as well. For example, it was reported that the school shooter at Arapahoe High School last winter had surfed the internet and looked at guns while in the cafeteria at school. Many other examples exist of warnings signs observed before a tragic event has taken place.
Emotional Connections with Boys: A way to mitigate negative peer relationships in boys would be through a nationwide push to build emotional connections with boys, and to strengthen those connections. What we are already doing, we need to do more systematically so that not only one school but instead all schools in a district have multi-tiered systems of support for all students. And not one district in a county, but all districts. And so on.
Strengths-Based Supports: Lastly, we have a large opportunity ahead that we can provide a new type of supports to distressed students: strengths-based supports, like are used in business and with leaders (for more on this, see the NY Times bestseller, Strengths Based Leadership by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie). If school leaders actively seek to build strengths in each distressed student, rather than just working in corrective areas, this can help propel these students in positive directions. And we might give a more optimistic focus towards the circumstances that trouble each young person.
This commentary opened by saying that distressed males were the primary group responsible for school shootings, and yet the solutions discussed herein can be quite valuable for students of both genders. We may need to revisit this insight in the future to guide our nation prevention plans. Overall, these solutions should involve having better relationships, better systems in schools, and better utilization of students' strengths.
Perhaps to truly close the gender gap for school shootings, we should focus on preventing all school shootings. This may sound grandiose, but it would not be surprising if many people protest this very idea. Still, we can end all school shootings in America -- I firmly believe it is possible and that we as a nation can collectively do it.
Dr. Jonathan Doll has extensively researched the topic of school shootings. Dr. Doll is also a Strategic Data Project Fellow, a program of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University. His research includes dissertation work on school dropout, early warning signs, and the in-press book, Ending School Shootings. His views are his own. He can be reached at Jonathan@endingschoolshootings.org.
* Number of fatal school shootings in U.S. per year since the time of Columbine:
1999 2 fatal shootings
2000 4 fatal shootings
2001 5 fatal shootings
2002 2 fatal shootings
2003 3 fatal shootings
2004 1 fatal shooting
2005 2 fatal shootings
2006 5 fatal shootings
2007 6 fatal shootings
2008 7 fatal shootings
2009 3 fatal shootings
2010 7 fatal shootings
2011 5 fatal shootings
2012 6 fatal shootings
2013 16 fatal shootings
2014 9 fatal shootings
83 total fatal shootings