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News from the National Academies
Date: May 17, 2002
Contacts: Nicole Ruediger, Media Relations Officer
Andrea Durham, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Extreme Violence in Suburban, Rural Schools Is Similar to
Adult Rampage Incidents; Accurate Profile of Shooters Elusive

WASHINGTON -- Extreme, lethal violence in suburban and rural schools is more similar to adult rampage incidents than it is to other types of youth violence, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. The committee that wrote the report said there is no way to develop profiles to predict which students will commit the attacks, and that more effective means are needed to achieve the national policy goal of keeping firearms out of the hands of unsupervised adolescents, and out of schools.

"We know little for sure about what causes school rampages, or what can be done to prevent or control them," said committee chair Mark H. Moore, Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice Policy and Management, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. "Fortunately there have been very few incidents, making it difficult to study them statistically. Instead, we relied on case studies to identify possible causes and promising forms of prevention."

Since 1987, the United States has experienced two epidemics of youth violence. The first occurred in the nation's central cities. The second and more recent wave occurred in suburban and rural schools. It involved 13 incidents in which students shot at their schoolmates and teachers. In that epidemic, 44 people were killed, 88 were injured, and nine youths were sentenced to spend most of the rest of their lives in prison. Subsequently, Congress asked the National Research Council to study lethal school violence in urban, suburban, and rural schools.

It was hard to find extreme, lethal violence in urban schools, which raised important questions about the relationship of violence in general to the particular kind of violence the committee had been asked to study. Were the suburban school rampages caused by the same things that caused the earlier epidemic of urban violence, or were they separate phenomena? To consider these issues, the committee commissioned six case studies: four in suburban and rural schools in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Arkansas; two in urban schools in New York City and Chicago. These cases revealed an important difference in the social context and motivations of the offenders. In the suburban and rural incidents, the offenders felt attacked by abstract conditions that made it difficult for them to achieve the status they wanted, but they were under no real physical threat from the students that they targeted. In contrast, in the inner city cases, the shooters were involved in specific interpersonal disputes in which the shooters believed their own lives were in danger.

These differences led the committee to conclude that there might be two types of violence at work. The recent epidemic seemed to have more in common with adult rampage shootings than with the youth violence that had devastated the nation's cities from 1987 to 1992. The idea that the suburban and rural school shootings resembled rampages gained support from the fact that the school shootings coincided with an increase in the number of rampage shootings in all ages.

The committee found in the six case studies that the eight shooters shared only a few characteristics. All were boys, and all had relatively easy access to guns. Five had delinquent or troubled friends; five had engaged in prior, serious delinquent acts. Six of the shooters had serious mental health problems that surfaced after the shootings, such as schizophrenia, clinical depression, and personality disorders. Despite these problems, many of the shooters had what would ordinarily have been viewed as positive characteristics. Half were from stable, two-parent families. Most had friends. Most of the shooters were not considered by the adults around them to be at high risk for this kind of behavior.

The fact that the shooters resembled ordinary adolescents makes it impossible to develop a profile of the shooters that would be accurate or useful. Any such profile would wrongly identify many harmless adolescents as potentially dangerous, and would miss some of the few youths that actually commit the offenses. The report says that the most effective preventive measure would be for adults to stay connected to kids, to recognize situations in which their child's status is threatened, and to take specific threats seriously.

In addition, says the report, there are particular issues that need to be addressed through future research, including the nature of nonlethal violence and serious bullying; illegal gun carrying by adolescents; the signs and symptoms of mental health problems in junior high and high school youths; the effects that student attacks have on teachers; and the impact of rapid community change on youth development. The report also says that case studies should be conducted in communities in which threatened school rampages were successfully thwarted. Finally, added the committee it is important to find more effective means to keep firearms out of schools and out of the hands of unsupervised youth.

The U.S. Department of Education sponsored the study. The National Research Council and Institute of Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. A committee roster follows.

Copies of Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence are available from the National Academy Press; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. The cost of the report is $COST.00 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.50 for the first copy and $.95 for each additional copy. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
Committee on Law and Justice

and

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL AND INSTITUTE OF MEDICINE
Board on Children, Youth, and Families

Committee on Case Studies of School Violence

Mark H. Moore (chair)
Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of
Criminal Justice Policy and Management, and
Director
Hauser Center for Non Profit Organizations
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Philip J. Cook *
ITT/Sanford Professor of Public Policy
Duke University
Durham, N.C.

Thomas A. Dishion
Research Scientist and Associate Professor
Department of Counseling Psychology
University of Oregon
Eugene

Denise C. Gottfredson
Professor
Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology
University of Maryland
College Park

Philip B. Heymann
Professor
Harvard Law School, and
Director
Harvard Law School Center for Criminal Justice
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

James F. Short Jr.
Professor Emeritus
Department of Sociology
Washington State University
Pullman

Stephen A. Small
Family Relations Specialist
University of Wisconsin-Extension, and
Professor
Human Development and Family Studies
University of Wisconsin
Madison

Lewis H. Spence
Commissioner
Department of Social Services
Boston

Linda A. Teplin
Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Northwestern University
Chicago

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

Carol Petrie
Study Director and Director, Committee on Law and Justice

* Member, Institute of Medicine