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School shootings: why they do it

"It can't happen here."

From the safety of suburban Maryland, it is only natural to think that random shootings erupting in movie theaters in Colorado will not visit our neighborhoods. Safe, quiet, stable communities are not the places we imagine when we think of kids and guns, the excitement of the first day at school and the terror of "code red," the evacuation of our children and debates over whether to charge a 15-year-old shooter as a kid or an adult.

But it did happen at Perry Hall High School on Monday, and so we must follow the self-examination that other communities, from Littleton, Colo. (site of the infamous Columbine High School murders years ago) to Blacksburg, Va., where a disturbed student mowed down 32 students at Virginia Tech.

As the request of the National Research Council, my research team spent two years studying the rampage school shootings of the late 1990s, interviewing everyone from teachers and principals to parents and acquaintances of the perpetrators and the victims. Our findings surprised many, including us, for they upended a lot of received wisdom about why and where rampage shootings happen.

The first thing to know is that initial media accounts are often dead wrong, often because they labor under misconceptions about rampage shootings. And since we have very little information about the accused Perry Hall High School shooter, Robert Wayne Gladden Jr. — and especially about events that may have preceded Monday's tragedy — only time (and careful investigation) will tell as to whether the general scenario applies in this case.

But looking at what we learned from a large body of evidence, we know a lot about why these things happen. It helps, of course, to carefully examine the kind of violence we are trying to understand: rampage shootings, which are different from than targeted attacks. They are random in their impact, and the shooter often has no idea who has been hurt until he or she is sitting in a jail cell, if indeed the shooter survives at all. It is the institution or the group that is under assault: the school, the community, teens as a whole.

Sadly, the shooter is usually trying to solve what he (and it is virtually always a he) sees as a serious problem: social acceptance. Rampage shootings are generally the last act, not the first, in a series of attempts to change a damaged reputation. The shooter is rarely a loner. He is, rather, a "failed joiner," someone who has tried, time and again, to find a niche, a clique, a social group that will accept him, but his daily experience is one of rejection, friction and marginality. These experiences are amplified by social media: Facebook and its electronic cousins speed the damage done by teasing, stigma or outright bullying.

So is the shooter reacting in anger? That is not what we found. Instead, the perpetrator is looking to change the definition of his public personality from "loser" to a notorious anti-hero. The "Trench Coat Mafia" in Columbine had an image in mind, and they weren't its authors. They had plenty of popular culture to lean on that connects masculinity with violence. Those movie magazines that feature Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, those rippling muscles and outsized shotguns — they are the epitome of what young men believe we admire. When rampage shooters kill or maim, sadly, they are hardly giving any thought to who they will hurt. They are thinking about how a dramatic act will change the way their classmates think about them later.

When Michael Carneal, who killed three high school students at Paducah High School in Paducah, Ky., in 1997 approached his school with a loaded shotgun, he wasn't dwelling on the fact that people would die. He was thinking about how he would be seen as cool, how kids would finally come over to his house, and he would be invited to theirs. He would finally break into the social circles that had consistently rejected him.

No one was surprised when Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden mounted an armed attack on their middle school outside Jonesboro, Ark., in 1998. The kids in the school knew who was responsible before the police chased them down in the woods. Why? They knew because the shooters had issued repeated warnings, for months, before they erupted in bloodshed. The warnings came because they got the shooters the attention they craved. Finally, kids in the cafeteria were not ignoring them. And the more they talked about shooting, the more attention they got. The strategy worked. But it also boxed them into a terrible act: They could not back down on their stated intentions unless they were prepared for one more social failure.

We cannot successfully profile these shooters; they come from strong families and broken ones; they are good students and weak ones. Even the FBI gave up trying to profile them, and that agency is in the business of predicting rare events. The only real hope for preventing rampage shootings is to increase the likelihood that kids who are witness to these hints of what is to come are able to come forward and tell someone.

Katherine S. Newman is the James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of "Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings." Her email is knewman@jhu.edu.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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