The Perfect Storm: Why School Shootings Are Increasing
Five causes of violence and five potential actions for creating safer schools.
Posted May 19, 2018
After the March 5, 2001 shooting at Santana High School in Santee, California, veteran network news anchor Dan Rather declared school shootings to be at epidemic proportions. According to CNN (May 18), the shooting that occurred on May 18, 2018 at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas was the 22nd school shooting of this year. That’s one per week. Even Rather could not have envisioned that the “epidemic” would spread to such frequency.
Why has there been such an explosion of school violence?
Both the answers to the question and the solutions to the problem are more complicated than most think. Despite the intense grief and trauma, we must resist the temptation to pick the “low hanging fruit” and offer quick fix, simplistic solutions to interacting multivariate problems.
5 Factors of School Violence and the Actions We Can Take
I would argue that five major interacting factors than can largely explain the increase in school violence that we see today.
1. Predatory bullying and marginalization.
Despite the efforts of school administrators and parents’ groups, within many schools there exists a malignantly toxic culture of bullying. Pressure to “fit in” is arguably part of adolescence. This pressure seems to have increased in the last several decades and so for those who do not “fit in” the pain can be excruciating, especially when targeted by predators who use bullying and social alienation to enhance their own self-esteem. To combat the growth of toxic school-based cultures, cultures of zero tolerance for bullying and marginalization must become the norm, not the exception.
2. Weaponized social media.
Social media platforms, while often bringing people together, have been hijacked and weaponized by more than a few to attack and marginalize. Stricter oversight of social media use by minors, while repugnant to some, must be considered.
3. Inadequate access to mental health services.
On March 18, 2018, Dr. Joseph Bienvenu and I published on this blog a “profile” of the prototypic school shooter who has been responsible for the vast majority of deaths and injuries. By controlling for the regression attenuation effect, we were able to identify the characteristics of the student most likely to commit mass violence. The Santa Fe shooter fit our profile. Our profile should never be used for punitive purposes, but rather, can be an additional tool to identify those students at risk for committing violence and those same students for early supportive intervention and counseling. No “profile” is perfect, but early psychological interventions could be facilitated. The expansion of available early psychological resources to foster resilience can be achieved through: 1) the creation of mentoring programs, 2) peer counseling wherein students are trained in psychological first aid, and of course, 3) school-based psychological services.
4. Media coverage.
Intense media coverage of school shootings brings attention, if not cause célèbre, to students who otherwise live in anonymity. The attention, if not fame, given to shooters clearly serves to reinforce school violence and to encourage similar actions on the part of others. I support Anderson Cooper's position at CNN, of withholding the names and infinite personal details of school shooters.
The can be no question that the ease of availability of firearms contributes to school violence. Just how this risk factor is best managed is beyond the scope of this post, but clearly resides in some compromise between political and public health interests. Until such time, it may become necessary to do what we already do at government buildings: Place metal detectors and security personnel at all school entrances.
These are not the only contributing factors, but are clearly among the most influential. It would be a mistake to see them acting independently; they interact to create a “perfect storm” of school violence that shows no foreseeable decline without decisive intervention on the part of educators, parents, politicians, law enforcement, and mental health professionals.
© George S. Everly, Jr., PhD