Earlier this week USA Today ran several articles on the tenth anniversary of the school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. They called upon several sociologists to talk about how the Columbine shootings changed the culture of American high schools.
School shooters almost always tell classmates of their plans, so schools should provide “confidential avenues for reporting what they hear,” says Princeton sociologist Katherine Newman, who co-authored Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. It’s tough to get teenagers to “tell,” since creating a social culture apart from adults is so important to adolescent development, Newman says. But if adults guarantee confidentiality, results can be dramatic. Examples:
•Colorado has a Safe2Tell anonymous tipline that covers any potential threat to safety. The program also includes anonymous and encrypted Web-tipping, says Susan Payne, special agent in charge of school safety and homeland security for the state. In the past 4½ years, the line has prevented 28 planned school attacks, she says. In one incident, there were 33 weapons found. About two-thirds of the calls come from kids, Payne says. “All of us have seen these unspeakable tragedies. I can’t think of one that could not have been prevented.”
•Safe School Ambassadors is a program created by the non-profit Community Matters in 2000. It has trained staff at more than 650 schools in 23 states on how to set up so-called ambassadors — influential student leaders of varied cliques who learn how to squelch minor fires of bullying and other behaviors, and to report potential rampages.
The Secret Service found that 71% of shooters they studied felt “persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others.” In several cases, they’d experienced school bullying and harassment that was “long-standing and severe.”
“These kids didn’t pick the local movie theater to blow people away, and there’s a reason they picked school,” says David Osher, a sociologist and vice president at the American Institutes for Research.
Schools that tolerate lots of bullying and look the other way from petty acts of violence are more vulnerable to escalating violence, including rampages from shooters, he says.
And where relations between teachers and kids with emotional problems are harsh or distant, violence becomes more likely.
“These are rage shootings,” he says, “kids suffering from depression largely creating public suicides in school environments where they feel alienated.”