When most people think of school violence, they think of the massacres at Virginia Tech and Columbine High School. While these events were horrific, such events are rare and not stereotypical of violence in schools. Violent deaths at schools account for less than 1% of the homicides and suicides among children ages 5-18.
School violence wears many faces. It includes gang activity, locker thefts, bullying and intimidation, gun use, assault – just about anything that produces a victim. Violence is perpetrated against students, teachers, and staff, and ranges from intentional vendettas to accidental killings of bystanders.
Middle school students are more than twice as likely as high school students to be affected by school violence. Eight percent of eighth graders stay home at least once a month to avoid a bully. The typical victim of an attack or robbery at school is a male in the seventh grade who is assaulted by a boy his own age.
Studies suggest two reasons for the higher rates of middle school violence. First, early adolescence is a difficult age. Young teenagers are often physically hyperactive and have not learned acceptable social behavior. Second, many middle school students have come into contact for the first time with young people from different backgrounds and distant neighborhoods.
Urban schools suffer most from violence. Many of these schools serve neighborhoods troubled by violence and gang-related crime. It is not surprising that these problems find their way onto campus. However, according to the 2008 National Youth Gang Survey, suburban and rural areas are reporting a bigger increase in gang activity. 45% of suburbs and rural neighborhoods reported that their gang problems were getting worse.
The causes of school violence are complex and varied. Forensic psychologists who study criminal behavior believe school killers are very different from other violent youth, such as gang members or drug dealers. For whatever reason, they feel powerless and begin obsessing over killing or injuring others. They may make direct threats concerning those they feel are taunting or intimidating them. They often express these thoughts and plans to fellow students. In general, other students tend to ignore the comments or simply look the other way.
The decision to kill for these youth is not a sudden occurrence, but coldly planned. Use of guns gives them the power they felt deprived of, and makes those offending them powerless. In addition, the shooters become famous with their faces splashed across televisions screens nationwide. The violent outbreak turns the tables and gives them both the power and attention they seek. This type of offender is almost always male; females approach retribution in less direct ways, such as hiring classmates or others to kill those they wish to harm.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Constitutional Rights Foundation
US Department of Justice
2008 National Youth Gang Survey