After Columbine, School Shootings Proliferate
The massacre at Virginia Tech may be the largest single shooting spree at a school in the nation's history, but it is far from the first. In fact, the number, frequency, and death toll for shootings at schools has increased dramatically since the attack at Colorado's Columbine High School eight years ago this Friday.
The list of school shootings is a grim yardstick to measure the violence that has spared neither the ivory tower nor the elementary schoolyard.
In 1966, Charles Whitman climbed a clock tower at the University of TexasAustin, proceeding to kill 16 people and wound an additional 31 during a 96-minute rampage. But experts point to that case as an anomaly. The first incident involving a student or former student killing on school grounds happened in 1974 when a man in upstate New York climbed to the top of a building and began to rain death down on his classmates. Three adults were killed and 11 students were wounded. "This is not something new, but the intensity and frequency of the attacks have increased since the events at Columbine," says Dr. Marisa Randazzo, a psychologist who contributed to an extensive study of school shootings conducted by the Secret Service.
There is a remarkable similarity in the more than 30 major school shooting incidents that have taken place since 1974, according to the Secret Service report.
- Nearly all the shootings were committed by boys or young men.
- In over half of the incidents, fellow students were not the only targets, as attackers targeted administrators and other adults.
- In almost all the incidents, the attacker developed the idea to harm targets before actually doing so. In many cases, this planning was done weeks before the crimes were committed.
It is also worth noting that in over three quarters of the cases, the attacker told someone in advance about his interest in attacking at school. In over half the cases, the attacker told more than one person. (One attacker told 24 people.) But in only two cases did any of these individuals warn authorities about the attacker's plans before the assault.
"Most incidents of targeted school violence were thought out and planned in advance. The attackers' behavior suggested that they were planning or preparing for an attack," the report found. "Prior to most incidents, the attackers' peers knew the attack was to occur. And most attackers were not 'invisible' but already were of concern to people in their lives." (You can read the full report here.)
"There is usually a trigger event that sets the person off on their attacks," says Randazzo. "Nearly everyone we studied is notable for their isolation. They were bullied, they were stressed, or they had recently broken up with a girlfriend. Most importantly, they didn't talk to anyone about their problems."
Schools have adapted their psychological and security responses to the threat of campus violence. High schools around the country have instituted lockdown procedures and emergency response plans, and colleges often offer mental health services for students.
Campus security is also a priority. "Traditionally, the tactics in these situations involved containing the shooter and waiting for the SWAT team to show up," says Gene Burton, chief of police at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. "That's not the case anymore. Now, in many cases, the situation can become more dangerous if it's not resolved quickly."
He says that recent training exercises on campus have involved doing just thattaking down attackers before they can cause more harm, especially if there are hostages involved.