Analyzing, and preventing, school shootings

March 5, 2012 By Lauren Dibble
Eric Madfis, a Northeastern doctoral candidate whose dissertation focuses on examining school shootings, discusses the latest tragedy in Ohio and how similar events in the future might be thwarted. Credit: Mary Knox Merrill

Earlier this week, a teenager was accused of killing three high school students after he opened fire at Chardon High School in Ohio. Eric Madfis, a doctoral candidate in Northeastern’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology and a research associate at the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict, has been working with criminology expert and professor Jack Levin to complete his dissertation focused on school shootings. We asked Madfis to analyze this shooting, how it relates to past school shootings and how similar tragedies in the future might be prevented. 

Are there observable patterns that exist across school shootings? 

While the majority of single-victim school homicides actually occur in urban areas with minority victims and offenders, school rampage shootings such as these in which multiple victims are killed or injured are far more likely to occur in suburban and rural schools with white offenders and victims. In terms of the offenders, no single unifying profile exists. They do tend to be boys, to experience chronic bullying and frustration throughout their lives, to suffer from an acute prompt – which they perceive to be particularly devastating – and to plan their attacks far in advance. However, previous school rampage shooters have grown up in a variety of diverse family situations. They have also ranged from popular students and loners, and had varying academic success. 

What circumstances might drive a student to this level of violence and aggression? Are the factors more internal or external?

These extreme cases of violence must be seen as resulting from a complex nexus of causes, at the individual, community and sociocultural levels. At the individual level, depression, personality disorders, psychoses and other mental-health concerns have played a major role in some incidents, though numerous students who committed had no prior history of mental illness. At the community or microsocial level, there has always been evidence of negative relationships and experiences with school peers, family members, romantic interests and/or authority figures. These negative life circumstances – and in particular, the perception that such slights were catastrophic – often led to violent fantasies of revenge and grandiose displays of violence. Finally, at the macrosociological level, one must consider the role that pervasive notions of masculinity and the widespread access to guns and acceptance of gun culture play in reinforcing and legitimizing violent solutions.

How can we as a society work to prevent tragedies like this in the future?

My dissertation focuses on averted incidents of rampage school shootings, in which student plots came to the attention of authorities and thus were thwarted. I found nearly 200 of these successfully prevented incidents across the United States during the last decade. One of the key findings to emerge from my research is that these incidents were not prevented through enhanced security measures (such as metal detectors, random locker searches or surveillance cameras) or increasingly strict discipline (such as “zero tolerance” policies with mandatory arrests, suspensions and expulsions), but instead by alert students and faculty members coming forward with knowledge about a violent plot being planned. In the vast majority of both completed and averted school rampage shootings, the perpetrators informed multiple people about their plans in advance. 

Given this, it is vital to encourage students to be more than passive bystanders and actively speak up about threats made by their peers. Additionally, antibullying programs and increased support for at-risk youth are crucial to help students cope with the trials of adolescence before we are put in the much more difficult position of trying to stop someone determined to kill many people. 

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