Dealing with school shootings


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Why are school shootings so common?
How many are there per year?
What can we do to help stop them?
Why do students even think about shooting their classmates?

From The Why Files: Is There Really Life After Death?

Stephanie Munson returned to her high school for the first day of school August 16, 1999.

That’s not unusual except for the fact the school is Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado.

On April 20, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed twelve fellow students and a teacher as well as wounding twenty-three others with semi-automatic weapons and explosives. Stephanie escaped with a gun shot wound to her ankle.

“I remember what happened to me like it was yesterday,” the pretty blonde in an Adidas T-shirt says holding back her emotions. “I have scars everywhere.” Going back to school is “just kind like another scar.”

Lance Kirklin’s scars are more visible. A deep scar on his left cheek and less noticeable scars on his face and neck reveal how fortunate the 16-year-old was to survive a shotgun blast. His reconstructed mouth doesn’t come together perfectly as he says, “You can’t change the past. You can only prevail and move forward.”

The blood-stained carpet has been replaced with white tile. Bullet holes have been patched and walls painted beige. The library, where ten students were killed and the 18- and 17-year-old killers committed suicide, has been gutted and sealed up with a wall and rows of dark blue lockers.

“I’ll never forget what happened, but I’m ready to put it, you know, behind me,” Stephanie says.

Why are school shootings so common?

Judging by the 24-hour coverage of Cable Network News (CNN) and the countless “news-magazine” TV shows, school shootings are common, everyday occurrences.

Shootings, however, only account for 1 percent of the 5,000 firearms-related deaths of children and young adults under 19 years of age. According to the Justice Policy Institute, students are twice as likely to be struck by lightning than to be shot at school.

And, contrary to gun control advocates, the American Medical Association reports that the number of students packing weapons has steadily declined since 1991. During that year, 26 percent of 9th through 12th grade students reported carrying a weapon in the previous month. The percentage dropped to 22 percent in 1992, to 20 percent in 1995, and 18 percent in 1997.

Also, the 1996 Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics reports that the number of high school students being injured or threatened by someone with a weapon was lower in 1996 than twenty years ago. In 1976, 3.4 percent of seniors were injured by guns, compared to 2.8 in 1996.

How many are there per year?

While the news coverage of school shootings has increased, the National School Safety Center (NSSC) reports that the number of actual school shooting decreased from 55 deaths in 1992-1993 to 25 deaths in 1996-1997!

JPI director Vincent Shiraldi believes that school shootings are being used by the media to increase ratings and gun control advocates to further their political agendas. “We are witnessing a tragic misdirection of attention and resources . . . even though the real threat may lie elsewhere.”

What can we do to help stop them?

Shiraldi argues that the money spent on surveillance cameras, metal detectors, and armed guards could be better spent on identifying and counseling students who show signs of potential violence.

According to the Congressional Quarterly, “. . . the shooters had made numerous threats or dropped hints that they were contemplating violent action. The perpetrators also had a history of violence or anti-social behavior.”

“Schools want to find these kids and defuse the anger before the time bomb goes off,” says Barbara Wheeler, president of the National School Boards Association.

Why do students even think about shooting their classmates?

U. S. Department of Education’s “Guide to Safe Schools” lists several common characteristics of school killers, but warns:

      None of these signs alone is sufficient for predicting aggression and violence. Moreover, it is inappropriate–and potentially harmful–to use the early warning signs as a checklist against which to match individual children. Rather, the early warning signs are offered only as an aid in identifying and referring children who may need help. School communities must ensure that staff and students only use the early warning signs for identification and referral purposes-only trained professionals should make diagnoses in consultation with the child’s parents or guardian.
      • Social withdrawal
      • Excessive feelings of rejection
      • Being a victim of violence
      • Low school interest and poor academic performance
      • Expression of violence in writings and drawings directed at specific individuals (family members, peers, other adults)
      • Patterns of impulsive and chronic hitting, intimidating, and bullying behaviors
      • History of discipline problems
      • Past history of violent and aggressive behavior
      • Intolerance for differences and prejudicial attitudes
      • Affiliation with gangs
      • Inappropriate access to, possession of, and use of firearms
      • Serious threats of violence

Again, many of the above behaviors may be exhibited by totally harmless students.

And some of the responsibility for school killer’s mental state can be blamed on fellow students.

Luke Woodham who killed his mother along with xxx students in Pearl, Mississippi, told the court, “I’m not insane. I am angry. I killed because people like me are mistreated everyday.”

Newsweek quotes classmates of Harris and Klebold as saying they walked the halls of Columbine “with their heads down, because if they looked up they’d get thrown into lockers and get called a `fag.'” Time reports that they were physically threatened and taunted as “dirt bags” and “inbreeds” on a regular basis.

The number of guns in America as well as violent video games and movies have also been blamed for killings in schools. But the school systems themselves, seem to share some responsibility for the killings in their halls. When students are taught that they’ve merely evolved from pond scum and that there are no moral absolutes, can administrators expect students to treat others any different than pond scum with no thought of whether it’s right or wrong?

While all this finger pointing doesn’t excuse the murders, it may help explain what influences, in part, have motivated the killings.

The Department of Education’s report goes on to list “Imminent Warning Signs” that indicate that “a student is very close to behaving in a way that is potentially dangerous to self and/or to others.”

      • Serious physical fighting with peers or family members.
      • Severe destruction of property
      • Severe rage for seemingly minor reasons
      • Detailed threats of lethal violence
      • Possession and/or use of firearms and other weapons
      • Other self-injurious behaviors or threats of suicide

If you are aware of a student exhibiting these symptoms, immediately contact your school principal. (Some schools have set up special “hot lines” to confidentially report these kinds of behaviors.)

In conclusion, school shootings are actually very rare. The media plays up the sensational killings for increased ratings and the anti-gun political group use the abuse of weapons to further their agenda.

You may want to compare the situation to tornadoes or hurricanes. Deaths caused by these storms are very rare, but the home videos of nature’s wrath, along with reporters standing beside rubble which were once homes, make great television news. However, as long as one takes the warnings seriously, there is little danger of death.

Remember, you’re twice as likely to be struck by lightning than be killed at school. But do take storm warnings seriously.

Copyright © 1999 James N. Watkins. All rights reserved.

Related site
Dealing with death and grief

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