The world witnessed another tragedy on 14 December 2012, when 21 year-old Adam Peter Lanza shot and killed 20 preschoolers and six staff (pictured above) at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, before killing himself. School shootings such as this and the others before it shook society’s belief that schools are a safe place for children. As a result, most people would want to find out why these events occur and what can be done to eliminate or at least reduce the risk of it happening again. Many journalists and Social Networking Site users have come up with various theories on the subject. However, a lot of their insights are based on intuition, not scientific findings. So what do published academic research papers on school shootings actually tell us?
Despite the enormous media attention given to school shootings over the years, research has found that such incidents are extremely rare. One study estimated that the probability of a school shooting to occur is 1 in a million (Wike & Fraser, 2009).
1. VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES
One of the most popular claims that the media often throw at us is the causal link between excessive time spent playing violent video games and school shooting.. The studies that have been conducted to test this theory however, have yielded mixed results. Studies such as those of Anderson and Murphy (2003) and Carnagey and Anderson (2006) supported the said hypothesis. However, Ferguson et al. (2008) and Unsworth et al. (2007) found no link between playing violent video games and acts of aggression. Barnett, Coulson and Foreman (2008), on the other hand found that playing violent video games actually reduces aggression- a complete opposite of what most of the media reporters claim.
Another problem about the research on violent video games and aggression is the methodologies used in each study. Most experiments involve asking volunteers to play a selected video game for a period of time, and then observing the same people performing tasks in stressful (and aggression-provoking) situations such as white-noise bursts during a competitive activity (Ferguson, 2008). Since studies are bound by ethical issues, real-world acts of violence cannot be tested. As a result, the generalisability of their findings are dubious at best. Nevertheless, a meta-review by Ferguson (2008) claimed that there is no evidence to suggest that playing violent video games would lead to aggression, or school shooting.
2. SOCIAL REJECTION
Some have argued that the perpetrators in school shootings turned into such through victimization. Indeed, the two killers in the Columbine High School shooting were believed to have been bullied by their peers (Peterson, 1999). Contrary to the violent video game hypothesis, this claim has been supported by research findings. In an investigation of 15 case studies, Leary et al. (2003) found that rejection and victimization were present in the majority of the cases they reviewed. Some of the killers have explicitly explained that their actions were their response to the way others have treated them in the past.. In addition to this, the US’ Safe School Initiative report, which looked at 37 school shootings between 1974-2000, have found that 75% of the shooters have experienced peer-rejection, victimization and/ or bullying prior to their attack.
3. LACK OF SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL COPING STRATEGIES
Retrospective analysis have found that school shooters often lack problem solving and conflict resolution skills (O’Toole, 2000). In addition, they lack empathy and they struggle to manage their anger (O’Toole, 2000). It could be possible that these individuals’ lack of necessary social and emotional coping strategies lead them into a spiral of being victimized, being depressed and in turn, put them in a state of permanent anger. Such anger could build up over time, which may lead to their ideation of murder.
4. ACCESS TO GUNS
Gun control has been a subject of debate for many years in the United States, largely because of the school shooting incidents. The argument of people who are in favour of the ban is simple: If you don’t have access to a gun, it is impossible or at least harder to shoot people. Wike and Fraser (2009) found (unsurprisingly) that all school shooters have easy access to guns. (NOTE TO OBAMA: I think it’s time to ban guns in your country)
5. CHARACTERISTICS OF THE SCHOOL
Catalano et al. (2004) found that schools that focus on improving students’ attachment and emotional investment to their schools have fewer incidents of aggression (physical, verbal and substance abuse, and violence). In addition, school size also has an effect. A study by Wilson (2004) found that the larger the school, the harder it is to nurture students’ attachment to it.
SO WHY DOES A SCHOOL-SHOOTER-PROFILE NOT EXIST?
Some of you may be asking why there is no set risk-profile developed to spot potential school shooters. One reason is due to the rarity of these events. It is rather difficult to develop a reliable and generalisable risk-profile based on a small number of cases. In addition, a report by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) explained that profiling would lead to errors since a lot of students have the characteristics presented by school shooters.
POSSIBLE PREVENTION STRATEGIES:
Wike and Fraser (2009, p.167-168) have suggested six possible strategies to reduce the likelihood of school shootings:
- Strengthening school attachment: through extracurricular activities that promote students’ sense of belonging and reduce alienation and hostile behaviours.
- Reduce Social Aggression: through bullying prevention programmes and social skills training.
- Breakng down Codes of Silence: Schools should provide ways in which students can voice their concerns and disclose their problems anonymously.
- Establish resources for troubled and rejected students: Schools, families and communities should work together to develop strategies and gather resources to help troubled students. Mental health services should work alongside schools in order to help those who are depressed or have suicide ideation.
- Increase School Security: The prescence of a policeman or a security officer may deter students to act out their violent/ aggressive intentions. It can also increase the feelings of safety of the students and the staff.
- Improve communications within schools and between schools and agencies: Schools and relevant authorities should improve their ways of communication in order to help the school easily warn authorities about suspicious behaviours and/ or threats.
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