Keeping Kids Safe

Inside the minds of school shooters, with general insight into adolescent mental health.

School Shooters Who Are Not White Males

Let's not be blinded by the stereotype of school shooters--it could be deadly.

It is often said that school shooters are white males. Of course, they usually are males. After all, violent crime in general is overwhelmingly a male phenomenon, and school shootings are no different. The perpetrators of large-scale school violence, however, are not always male, and in the interests of understanding and preventing these attacks, we need to recognize that sometimes females go on rampages.

Here are a few examples of female school shooters. In 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Spencer committed a sniper attack at Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego. In 1988, Laurie Dann, age 30, shot young children in Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Winnetka, Illinois. At Penn State University in 1996, 19-year-old Jillian Spencer, who was trained in the Army Reserve as a sharpshooter, opened fire on random students. Latina Williams, a 23-year-old nursing student at Louisiana Technical Institute, killed two classmates in 2008. Finally, in 2010, Professor Amy Bishop shot six colleagues in the biology department at the University of Alabama.

There are several possible reasons why these women are not more broadly recognized as school shooers. Part of the issue may be how we define school shootings. If we think of them as attacks perpetrated by middle school or high school students at the schools they are currently attending, then none of these females were school shooters. Brenda Spencer, at age 16, was a high school student, but she shot people at the elementary school she attended several years earlier. Laurie Dann gunned down children at a school she had no connection to. Jillian Spencer shot students at a college she did not attend. Amy Bishop was a professor who shot her colleagues. Latina Williams was attending the school where she committed her attack, but it was not a secondary school. Thus, the atypical nature of these attacks may keep them out of the conversation on school shooters.

A second factor may be that two of them, Spencer’s and Dann’s, occurred well before “school shootings” as a concept became lodged in the national consciousness. Beccause they occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, they may be far enough in the past as to be largely unknown.

Finally, the shootings by females did not result in large numbers of victims as have many of the attacks by males. Because news coverage is significantly determined by the number of fatalities, these attacks may not have had the same impact on the discourse relating to school shootings.

When it comes to non-white shooters, there is more racial/ethnic diversity than is often realized. There have been at least eight shooters of Asian heritage. Gang Lu was an international student from China at the University of Iowa, where he committed his attack in 1991. Wayne Lo immigrated with his family from China; at 18 he went on a rampage at Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1992. In 1994, Phu Cuong Ta, a Vietnamese Canadian, shot two guidance counselors at his school in Toronto. Biswanath Halder was an immigrant from India who at the age of 62 went on a rampage at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2003. Kimveer Gill’s parents were from India; Gill shot 20 people at Dawson College in Montreal in 2006. In 2007, Seung Hui Cho, from South Korea, committed the rampage at Virginia Tech. In 2009, Jiverly Wong, a Vietnamese immigrant, attacked the American Civic Association in Binghamton, New York, where he had studied English as a second language. Most recently, in 2012, One Goh, an immigrant from South Korea, shot ten people, killing seven, at Oikos University in Oakland, California.

Regarding Latino shooters, Alvaro Castillo’s parents were from Spain and El Salvador. Castillo committed an attack in Hillsborough, North Carolina in 2006. Wellington de Oliveira was a Brazilian who committed his attack in Brazil in 2011. There are two other shooters who might have had Latino heritage, judging by last names. Jason Hoffman shot people at his school in El Cajon, California in 2001. Hoffman’s mother was Denise Marquez, whose name suggests Latino descent though I have not seen this confirmed. Similarly, Robert Flores, who killed three professors at the University of Arizona in 2002, may have been at least partly Latino.

Several shooters have had African heritage. In 1984, Tyrone Mitchell, an 28-year-old African American man opened fire on a school yard in Los Angeles, shooting twelve people. Marc Lepine’s father was from Algeria; Lepine conducted his rampage at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989. Peter Odighizuwa, who killed people at the Appalachian School of Law in Virginia in 2002, was Nigerian. Latina Williams, mentioned above as a female shooter, was also African American.

Three school shooters have had Native American heritage: Jeffrey Weise (Red Lake, Minnesota, 2005), Seth Trickey (Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, 1999), and Evan Ramsey (Bethel, Alaska, 1997), whose mother was a native Alaskan.

The belief that school shooters are all white is odd considering there have been at least 14 who were not white. This is even more striking considering that by far the most deadly attack was committed by Seung Hui Cho, with 32 fatalities and 49 victims overall. In addition, Jiverly Wong killed as many people as Harris and Klebold at Columbine, but whereas Columbine became the epitome of school shootings, Wong’s attack is virtually unspoken of. Perhaps because it was not at a typical school? Perhaps because he killed adults, not children or teens?

As noted regarding the attacks by females, many of those by non-white males did not occur in secondary schools. Seven of the shootings by Asians, and one by an international student from Africa, occurred at colleges or universities. To the extent that we think of school shootings as occurring in secondary schools, we lose sight of those in higher education.

We may also lose sight of shootings outside the USA. Wellington de Oliveira’s attack in Brazil had 32 victims. Marc Lépine’s rampage in Montreal had 26 victims. Also in Montreal, Kimveer Gill shot 20 people. These were large-scale incidents by shooters who were not white, yet they seem to have had no impact on the belief that school shooters are white.

Finally, Tyrone Mitchell’s shooting was atypical in that he was not a student at the school he attacked. He was an adult gunning down children. Though this makes the horror of it worse, it may result in his not being considered a school shooter as they are often thought of. In addition, his attack was in 1984, and time may have caused him to be forgotten.

This brief review has included 20 school shooters who were not white males (22, if Jason Hoffman and Robert Flores were of Latino descent). White male shooters may be more common than those who are neither white nor male, but we should not let this become a stereotype. For one thing, it is inaccurate and fails to take account of a significant percentage of school shooters. Most importantly, however, if we think that the only people who commit rampage attacks at schools are white males, we will be blind to those at risk of massive violence who do not fit the profile in our minds. And that could be tragic.

 

Dr. Peter Langman is the author of Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters and trains professionals in law enforcement, education, and mental health on preventing school shootings. more...

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