• October 23, 2014

Before the Rampage: What Can Be Done?

The nation has marked the eighth anniversary of the Columbine tragedy with an even more deadly rampage at Virginia Tech. Thirty-two innocent people have lost their lives in yet another horrific spectacle. As educators we fixate on the bloody images and wonder which of our campuses might be next. And like millions of other Americans, not to mention shaken observers around the world, we wonder whether we have learned anything from past experience that might have helped stop this plot in its tracks.

We do know something about the circumstances that lead to rampage shootings, although the fact that they are still quite rare makes it hazardous to generalize. Nonetheless, the nation wants to know what scholars of adolescent violence have learned from research about the causes of rampage shootings. Congress demanded as much in 1999 when it passed an extension to the Missing, Exploited, and Runaway Children Protection Act, and mandated a research project conducted by the National Academy of Sciences. Unusual in this age of quantitative research, Congress and the academy were intent on taking an in-depth, qualitative, case-study approach. They didn't want a statistical portrait. They wanted to know, at the most intimate level possible, what had happened to provoke the shootings that grew in frequency throughout the country in the late 1990s.

My research team, which included four graduate students at Harvard University who have moved into the professoriate (Cybelle Fox, who is going to the University of California at Berkeley; David J. Harding, now at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; Jal Mehta, at Harvard; and Wendy Roth, at the University of British Columbia), took to the road. We moved to two communities that had suffered devastating rampage shootings in their schools in the late 90s to try to reconstruct from hundreds of interviews with law-enforcement officials, teachers, friends and family members of the shooters and the victims, clergy members, social workers, and children enrolled in those schools years later, what had prompted three young boys to take the lives of their teachers and classmates.

In the spring of 1998, Andrew Golden, age 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, positioned themselves on a hillside behind Westside Middle School, near Jonesboro, Ark., and emptied long-distance rifles into the milling crowd of children who had come outside in response to the fire alarm that Andrew had pulled minutes before. Four girls died, and one brave teacher lost her life shielding a child. Nine other children were wounded. Tried as juveniles, Andrew is still behind bars, and Mitchell, released at the mandatory age of 21, is living under an assumed name in an undisclosed location.

Michael Carneal was a 14-year-old freshman at Heath High School, near Paducah, Ky., when he entered the lobby early in the morning of December 1, 1997, and gunned down members of a prayer group. Three young women died — including one to whom Michael was fairly close — and several others were severely injured. A short, skinny, awkward boy at 14, today Michael is a strapping six feet in height, with hefty shoulders. Convicted as an adult, he will be behind bars until he is 45.

We backtracked through the lives of the shooters and their families, through the social pecking orders of their schools and the climate of their rural communities. To the thousands of pages of transcripts, we added a quantitative analysis of the information on homicides on or near school grounds that is maintained by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. News-media sources were scoured for evidence on all school rampages around the world from 1970 to 2001. Finally we focused on "near miss" plots, where a shooting almost happened but was prevented by the police. What did we learn from that exhaustive research?

First, rampage school shootings are never spontaneous. Before they loaded a single weapon, Michael Carneal, Andrew Golden, and Mitchell Johnson had let fly with dozens of hints, ranging from vague comments like, "You'll see who lives or dies on Monday," to more-specific warnings to friends to "stay away from the school lobby." Those warnings started months before the shootings themselves. No adults ever heard them. But the boys' peers — particularly groups they hoped to impress — got an earful. Most had no idea what to make of the comments. After all, Michael, for example, was known as a socially inept prankster who often said bizarre things. Most school shooters have a history of trying to ingratiate themselves into a pecking order that doesn't want them. Hence, as frightening as the threats appear in retrospect, at the time they were dismissed as "one more crazy thing that Michael said."

Why do school shooters broadcast their intentions? They are trying to attract the attention of kids whom they hope will embrace them as friends but who have typically denied them the social status they crave. Michael desperately wanted the acceptance of the "goth" group in his high school, which barely tolerated his presence. He posed as a delinquent when he was actually quite intellectual, passing CD's he owned off as stolen property. He stole pistols from his home and brought them to school as gifts for the most charismatic of the goths. "Not good enough," was the response. "We want rifles." No matter how hard Michael tried to change the way his peers saw him, nothing worked until the day he started fantasizing out loud about taking over the school and shooting people. That did work. He began to get attention. And once he had announced his intention, he risked social failure if he declined to go through with it.

School shooters are problem solvers. They are trying to turn the reputations they live with as losers into something more glamorous, more notorious. Seung-Hui Cho, a student of creative writing, probably didn't get a lot of "street cred" for his artistic side. Young men reap more social benefits from being successful on the football field. When their daily social experience — created by their own ineptness, and often by the rejection of their peers — is one of disappointment and friction, they want to reverse their social identities. How do they go about it? Sadly, becoming violent, going out in a blaze of glory, and ending it all by taking other people with them is one script that plays out in popular culture and provides a road map for notoriety.

Depression is endemic in these young men. Indeed, it can be so bad that they want to die. Why, then, don't they throw themselves in front of trains? That is the wimp's way out; it will not change their reputations. "Suicide by cop," putting themselves in a situation where the police will almost surely kill them, is a more glamorous way to go. Cho probably did not expect to survive this catastrophe. But by taking dozens of other people with him, he insured his notorious place in history and found a way to set the record straight: He was a man to be reckoned with.

Different audiences saw divergent qualities in the shooters we studied. Parents, teachers, and other adults saw the benign side. Two months before the shooting, Mitchell's teacher sent a note to his mother praising him as one of the most admirable young men in the community. "You must be so proud of him," she said. People could barely remember Andrew. The boys' peers knew the dark side.

The desire to protect a student's privacy or to avoid influencing next year's teachers with news of this year's infractions generally means that disciplinary records and other vital information are simply discarded when students move across institutional boundaries or from middle school to high school — and particularly from high school to college. What did Virginia Tech know about the psychological profile of Cho when they admitted him? What do any of us know about the students in our classrooms?

There are good reasons for us to be in the dark. In high-school contexts, we want to avoid what sociologists call "labeling." We do not want one bad year to predispose teachers to expect the next one to be equally troubled. The Americans With Disabilities Act teaches us that people with mental problems can lead productive lives and should be shielded from discrimination. But we pay a high price for clearing the slate, and an even higher price for the civil liberties that prevent us from locking up someone who is simply writing scary stories or sending bizarre e-mail messages. We strip information from the system that might yield clues to an unraveling mind when we destroy disciplinary records. We run the risk of a catastrophe when we hit the limits of what we can do to push someone into therapy.

In near-miss cases, we see how important it was for people to come forward with information about the intentions of the shooters that they have heard on the rumor mill. A rampage that could have been as bad as the Virginia Tech massacre was averted when a girl came forward at New Bedford High School, in Massachusetts. She was worried that her favorite teacher would die in the bombings and shootings that her male friends were planning. It is crucial that students feel enough trust in the adults around them to do as she did. Lacking that trust, we lose the only real source of information we have about the deadly intentions of would-be school shooters.

And here we must take our hats off to those at Virginia Tech who did exactly what we would want them to do. They alerted the counseling staff to the scary writing submitted by the shooter; they tried to cajole him into treatment; and they warned the police. Sadly, while that kind of effort will often make a critical difference, it failed in this instance. It will take thorough investigation to figure out why, but part of the story lies in the unwillingness of our society to lock up people who have committed no illegal acts. It is not a crime to be depressed or even scary, as this young man was. And for those civil liberties, we have paid a heavy price. That price will be debated for years to come.

Katherine S. Newman is a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. She is the author, with Cybelle Fox, David J. Harding, Jal Mehta, and Wendy Roth, of "Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings" (Basic Books, 2004).

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