Sep 15, 2017 in Psychology

A Closer Look at School Shootings

America is infected with the disease of gun violence. The country which prides itself to be a great democracy wallows in crime and blood of its citizens. According to the latest report of the United Nations Office on Crime and Drugs, the country has the rate of 3,2 gun generated homicides for every 100,000 Americans, which equals to 9960 people killed in 2010 (UNODC, 2010). Statistically, 116 students were killed in 109 school-associated incidents from 1999 to 2006 (Shuster, 2009, 42).

People tend to pay a scant heed to such statistics unless the problem of gun violence affects us directly. However, an unprecedented in its magnitude, body count, and viciousness Columbine shooting has shaken American nation to the core.

On April 20, 1999, the 110th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's birthday, two heavily armed students Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, entered the Columbine High School with an intention of working out a meticulously planned large scale massacre. The forty-five minute rampage resulted in 21 people wounded and 15 dead, including the shooters themselves who committed a suicide (Larkin, 2007). The number of victims may have approximated 500 had the bombs exploded as the gunmen had originally planned.

Columbine shooting received an overwhelming media coverage and attention from local and national investigators. The event has ignited much debate about what factors propelled two high school students to go on a shooting spree. Although more than a decade has passed since then, the causes and effects of that act of violence are often discussed on national and international level. Such public scrutiny of the Columbine massacre is reinforced by the great number of school shootings and killings that have occurred since the Columbine. Everyone bears responsibility for the school shootings happening over and over again: government for lax legal enforcement, mass media for vast exposure to violence, families for bad parenting and little social support, teachers for apathetic response to school bullying situations, students themselves for teasing, bullying, harassment, and deviant peer influence.

Factors Directing to the Crime

In 2012 the U.S. Secret Services of the Department of Education examined 37 incidents of targeted school violence in the United States between 1974 and 2000 (Shuster, 2009). According to the results of their study, there is no accurate profile of school shooters. However, there are a few common factors directing children towards committing the crime.

The factors contributing to youth violence at school can be divided into two tightly interwoven categories: social and psychological. Larkin (2007) subsumes climate of harassment, intimidation, and bullying within the school and in the society in general; popularity of paramilitary culture; religious intolerance and chauvinism; the culture of celebrity under the main social factors leading to school shootings (p. 15-16). Psychological factors include emotional and mental deviations either innate or acquired as a result of the influence of social factors.

Social Factors

Most of youth resort to using firearms as a means of expression of their inner turmoil resulting from hostile school atmosphere. The majority of shooters (71 %) had been victims of systemic school bullying, persecution, threatening, and attacks (Shuster, 2009). Harris and Klebold were not an exception.

Columbine High School was described as dominated by a jock culture where students with access to power and resources were in dominating position. They were constantly reinforcing their hegemonic masculinity through aggressiveness and dominating performances, thus making targets feel unworthy, incomplete and inferior. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were outcasts at school. The boys were frequently taunted and harassed which caused depression and suicidal thoughts and, ultimately, directed them towards murder.

Teachers' involvement is crucial for preventing or deterring negative peer interactions in school. Although Columbine school teacher knew about students' bullying situations, they often overlooked them due to the lack of confidence in dealing with peers conflicts (Hong, Cho, Allen-Meares, Espelage, 2010, p. 864). Therefore, teachers' lack of response to bullying has also to be blamed for the Columbine incident.

Many students with negative school experience resort to firearms as a means of gaining power and constructing their masculinity (Hong et al., 2010). Free access to weapon and explosives is another factor influencing high juvenile crime rate. Thus, students can easily obtain firearms from parents or legally purchase them at gun stores since the age of eighteen. Consequently, many opine that a stricter gun control policy would be an effective deterrent to firearms-related youth homicide. However, access to firearms does not cause shootings; rather, it enables them to occur (Larkin, 2007, p. 15).

Psychological Factors: Depression and Psychopathy

Social factors enable youth violence to happen. However, genuine reasons (or motives) of crimes are hidden in the offenders' minds, thoughts, emotions. In most cases of school shootings, suicidal thoughts and depression make students pull on a trigger. Columbine shooters also had serious psychological problems.

Klebold was a typical victim of school bullying: over-anxious and overly sensitive to shame and humiliation, depressive and suicidal (Hong et al., 2010, p. 862). Overwhelmed with hate and angry with his offenders, the boy went on a shooting spree in order to take a revenge of his offenders. For Dylan gun was an idealized way to end subordination and express extreme wrath.

Harris, by contrast, was cold-blooded, calculating, rational, predatory psychopath. Outwardly normal, Erick had been expressing in his journal hate and contempt to all people. His behavioral patterns were expressing grandiosity, contempt, lack of empathy, and superiority (Hong et al., 2010, p. 862). Driven by preposterously grand superiority complex, Harris used guns to carry out natural selection.

Lack of Public Action

Most of school shootings are not sudden impulsive acts. In 95 percent of the cases, shooters planned to harm the target before the attack (Shuster, 2009). Moreover, in most cases the shooter disclosed his felonious intentions before committing an attack, yet rarely any actions were taken to prevent it.

Harris and Klebold had shown many disturbing signs of their violent tendencies which indicated need for help. For instance, Harris was making death threats, putting messages in the Internet about bombs and mass murder, posted hate messages in his website. However, no one gave consideration to the problem. The lack of communication between the local authorities, teachers and parents enabled Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to fulfill their violent fantasies.

Columbine Shooting: Aftermath

In the wake of the shooting incident, thousands bomb scares, high score of attempted bombings, and several copy-cat school shootings were reported to the police (Larkin, 2007). Generally, the crime activity weeks following the shootings has accelerated greatly. Yet incident at Columbine school had one positive outcome: it signalized that it was high time to stop standing idly by and take measures to stop youth violence.

Many efforts have been taken to ensure safe teaching and learning and prevent critical incidents of youth violence in schools since then. Researches have learned a lot about shooters' profile and risk factors leading to the crime. Tighter security measures have been adopted in schools across the country. Additionally, Columbine incident generated debate over gun laws and put a spotlight on bullying and cliques in schools. Given the high school violence rate, no one should turn a blind eye to the problem.

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