Helping set the stage for copycat school shootings

By James Alan Fox, and Jack Levin, 3/11/2001

afety once again eclipsed scholarship as the issue in America's schools last week. In Santee, Calif., Monday, a 15-year-old boy brought a gun to school and killed two schoolmates and wounded 13 people. In Williamsport, Pa., Wednesday, a 14-year-old girl at a parochial school shot an eighth-grade classmate.

Coincidence? Hardly. These are just the latest in a string of copycat shootings, reflecting an insidious contagion of schoolyard violence.

Oddly, well-intentioned efforts to reduce school shootings may actually be having the unintended effect of encouraging some students to take up guns against classmates.

More and more students must pass through metal detectors and security cameras at school entrances. Then they encounter security guards posted in the corridors. They are alerted to the warning signs of violence and reminded to look out for anyone uttering a threat. They watch televised public service announcements depicting scared youngsters pleading with their schoolmates to behave, and - perhaps most powerful - news programs replaying scenes of bloodshed and carnage in the aftermath of the latest school massacre.

Not only do these images keep school violence fresh in everyone's minds, they confirm the idea that angry students resolve their problems with a gun. Violence against classmates has become, if not an accepted way, at least a familiar way to solve problems. The attention we pay it only reinforces that notion.

The contagion of school shootings has been with us for five years. It began on Feb. 2, 1996, in the sleepy town of Moses Lake, Wash. Barry Loukaitis, a 14-year-old student at Frontier Junior High, ended his deadly assault on two classmates and a math teacher with a caustic remark, ''This sure beats algebra, doesn't it?'' The line came straight from his favorite Stephen King fiction story about a school massacre.

Without intending to be a trendsetter, Loukaitis sparked a string of multiple murders that included tragic episodes in such unlikely places as West Paducah, Ky.; Pearl, Miss.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Springfield, Ore.; Littleton, Colo.; and now Santee - communities hardly known for violence.

Notwithstanding these episodes, it's important to remember that America's schools are extremely safe. The risk of violence in classrooms is less than in playgrounds, neighborhoods, or at the local mall.

The problem of school homicide is not new, but its form and visibility have changed dramatically. School homicides committed by teenagers a decade ago were isolated cases of mostly one-on-one attacks. In the 1992-'93 and 1993-'94 school years combined, for example, 99 students and teachers were killed in 97 episodes. Those single-victim incidents attracted little outside attention. They certainly didn't make the national news or the cover of popular magazines.

Today, school homicide often involves a multiple shooting in which many students are killed or wounded. In the 1997-'98 and 1998-'99 school years, there were 65 people murdered and many more wounded in 35 incidents. Because of the scope of their carnage, such episodes are guaranteed widespread publicity at the national level.

Twenty years ago, a teenager might have imitated the behavior of kids down the block, or in his class; now, because of pervasive national media fixation on violence, he is more likely to be inspired by what happens in far-away Pearl, Jonesboro, or Littleton.

The process of imitation determines the timing and the form of subsequent crimes - that is, it assures that the next massacre will also happen at a school, that the perpetrator will also use a gun, and that he will also attempt to kill numerous people in an indiscriminate fashion.

The copycat effect even helps influence the race and hometown of the next perpetrator, who is likely to resemble the personal characteristics of previous shooters - hence, the predominance of white teenage boys in suburbs and small towns.

It is not only exposure to massive media coverage that encourages copycats. More important, it is the notoriety we give to killers that teaches our youngsters - especially alienated and marginalized teenagers - a lesson about how to get attention, how to be in the spotlight.

The message they hear is: ''Want to be noticed? Want to feel important? Simple. Shoot lots of your classmates. Then, you'll be on the cover of People magazine, you will be interviewed by `20/20,' you will make the headlines all over the nation, if not the world!'' Some alienated youngsters even come to view school snipers as heroes; after all, they had the guts to strike back against the bullies and mean-spirited teachers - and were made famous for it.

Teenagers, especially boys, have always sought to be the first on their block to try out a new fad. In the 1930s, they were swallowing goldfish. In the '50s and '60s, they went on panty raids and tried cramming themselves and all their friends into phone booths and Volkswagen Beetles. School shootings represent a deadly version of the same phenomenon.

In many respects, the problems students face today are no different than earlier generations'. There have been schoolyard bullies as long as there have been schools; there has been adolescent alienation as long as there have been teenagers.

Earlier generations of disgruntled and dispirited youngsters responded in less violent ways. They may have conceived of some silly prank to get even, or picked up a rock and smashed some windows. But the idea of opening fire on their classmates would never have crossed their minds. Today, the image is never far from their consciousness. The seed has been planted in their imaginations, and we keep it well watered.

Of course, most students who are exposed to images of school violence will not re-create the crime, no matter how badly they are treated. The overwhelming majority of America's schoolchildren identify with the pain and suffering of the victims. But an angry few identify instead with the perpetrators and model the violence their heroes have used to even the score.

No one is suggesting we ignore the problem of school violence. Rather, we must learn to respond without gratuitously calling so much direct attention to it. One way is to change the fact that too many children go unsupervised, and that too many are bullied, harassed, and teased by other students.

We can also strive to make our schools less impersonal. Many troubled youngsters are nameless faces to teachers, guidance counselors, and school psychologists whose huge caseloads in oversized schools simply do not permit them to get to know their students as individuals.

Rather than giving over so much of our attention during prime time or school time to reminding children of recent classroom tragedies, we should be doing more to enhance the quality of life and learning for all of our students.

The contagion of school shootings, like other fads, will dissipate eventually, but only if we let it.