School Shootings: Are They Truly Random?
Research shows where and when school shootings are most likely to occur.
Posted Feb 15, 2018
As I was working on a chapter for a book I was writing, I could hear helicopters flying nearby and police sirens blaring outside my office window. Texts from the university where I worked were periodically vibrating my phone. We had been asked to stay in our offices, safely locked behind heavy, ogre-proof doors. Exactly what was happening, no one seemed to know. Shots had been reported across the quad from my office. That’s all we knew. It felt particularly ironic to me, given that the book I was writing was on culture and violence.
Although it impossible to predict the specific details of school shootings, from Columbine to the latest massacre in Parkland, Florida, there are some things that we can say about when and where such events are most likely to occur, at least at a very broad level. Despite what I keep hearing on the news, these events really are not completely random.
Years ago, Lindsey Osterman, Collin Barnes, and I collected and analyzed the timing and locations of more than 100 incidents of school violence that had occurred in the U.S. between 1988 and 2008. We limited our analysis to cases in which the shooting happened on a school campus (as opposed to, say, a bus stop where school children might have just happened to be waiting for a school bus to pick them up), and in which the shooter was either a student, former student, or employee of the school. We called these “prototypical school shootings” to separate them from random incidents of violence that just happened to occur on or near school property.
What we found was that one month out of the year stood out from the rest (laying aside June and July, when very few students are in school). That stand-out month is February. February is not a particularly special month in the life of a student. For many students, there might be a first round of spring exams in this month, but that’s also true in September (for schools that start in August) or October (for schools that start in September). So why February?
We surmised that what makes February “special” has nothing to do with the school calendar, but rather the national calendar. February is the month when we celebrate Valentine’s Day. This day is supposed to be a celebration of romance and togetherness, but for those who don’t have a romantic partner, or whose partner has recently “dumped” them, Valentine’s Day can feel like lemon juice in a paper cut. Some previous analyses of school shootings by other social scientists suggest that many of these tragic events are precipitated by a “last straw” moment of bullying, or by a humiliating experience of romantic rejection. Perhaps this is why the month of February appears to be a more dangerous month than any other for school violence.
But what about location? Our data revealed an even more striking pattern regarding this question than they did with respect to timing. What we discovered was that prototypical school shootings were three times more likely to occur in southern or western states than they were to occur in northern states. This regional difference remained even after we statistically controlled for a host of other factors, such as average yearly temperature, poverty, religiosity, and the availability of guns (it is noteworthy that guns are much more prevalent in the South and West).
Why are southern and western states at greater risk for school violence? Actually, research has consistently shown that southern and western states are at an increased risk for all kinds of violence, a pattern that many social scientists have linked to what is called a “culture of honor.” Honor cultures exist all over the world, and their defining feature is that they put defense of reputation at the center of social life. Men in honor cultures want reputations for being tough, brave, and intolerant of disrespect. Women in honor cultures want reputations for loyalty and purity. Both men and women will go to great lengths to defend these coveted reputations, although only men seem to go so far as to actually kill to do so.
Given the prevailing cultural emphasis on masculine honor in southern and western states in the U.S., the elevated risk of school violence in these states should not come as a surprise, although the strength of the association between region and risk impressed even us. When a man in an honor culture feels his masculinity has been threatened or challenged, either by his own failure to fulfill the social demands of honor or by the actions of other people in his social circle, the dictates of honor compel him to respond. Sometimes honor drives him to respond violently to a reputation threat, which might help explain why school shootings are especially prevalent in the more honor-oriented states of the South and West. And February, the month of loves gained and loves lost, is by far the worst month of all.
Brown, R. P., Osterman, L. L., & Barnes, C. D. (2009). School violence and the culture of honor. Psychological Science, 20, 1400-1405.