Since the mid-1990s, America has witnessed a string of shootings in its schools. The deadliest of these tragedies occurred on April 20, 1999, when students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a massive rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killing twelve students and one teacher and wounding twenty-three others before killing themselves. Fortunately, there have been no subsequent shootings on the scale of Columbine. However, school shootings do continue to take place. For example, on April 24, 2003, James Sheets, a fourteen-year-old student at Red Lion Junior High School in Pennsylvania, shot and killed the school’s principal before turning his gun around and killing himself. On September 24, 2003, fifteen-year-old John Jason McLaughlin brought a gun to Rocori High School in Cold Spring, Minnesota, and shot two students, apparently at random. One victim died soon after being shot; the other survived for about a month before succumbing to his injuries. These are just two of many examples of deadly school violence since Columbine. These incidents, especially Columbine, have prompted a national debate over the nature, causes, and potential solutions to such violence.
Many surveys support the impression created by these shootings that violence is a problem in the schools. A report by Rand, a public policy research institute, finds that during a given school year, about one-half of middle and high school students report at least one incident of attacks, fights, theft, larceny, or vandalism. In addition, 7 to 8 percent of high school students report that they have been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property. A survey of school principals conducted by the U.S. Department of Education found that in one school year, 10 percent of schools experienced at least one serious violent crime, and 66 percent of schools experienced at least one less serious violent crime, including fighting without a weapon, vandalism, and theft. In the same study, a survey of students revealed that 18 percent had been threatened with a beating, 13 percent had been attacked with a weapon, and 11 percent had experienced at least one act of violence at school, including being robbed or threatened with a weapon.
Many social commentators caution against exaggerating the problem of school violence. Some insist that excessive media coverage of school shootings—combined with the dramatic and horrific nature of the crimes—has created the belief that such incidents are on the rise when they are actually declining. According to the School Violence Resource Center, an organization that works to reduce violence in schools, deaths from school violence decreased from fifty-six in the 1991–1992 school year to twenty-two in 2000–2001. A child’s chance of dying from homicide at school is 1 in 1.7 million. In fact, the risk of being killed by violence at school is less than the risk of dying from an automobile accident, influenza, or an accidental fall. As stated by sociology professor Joel Best, the “evi- dence flatly contradicted the claims that there was a wave, trend, or epidemic of school violence [at the time of Columbine]. In other words, the wave of school shootings was a phantom—that is, a nonexistent trend.”
Although disagreement exists about the severity of the problem, all agree that just one school shooting is a horrible tragedy and that schools should be made as safe as possible. To this end, school administrators, policy makers, and concerned parents have attempted to devise ways to prevent school violence. Some of these measures have targeted society at large. For example, some have called for stricter gun control laws to keep young people from getting access to deadly weapons. Others have demanded that the entertainment industry tone down the violence in its movies, music videos, and video games, fearing that such depictions of pretend violence inure children and teens to the consequences of real violence. Still others call for more parental involvement in children’s lives or a greater emphasis on religious and moral values at home and in the schools. Another set of solutions focuses on the schools themselves. Schools nationwide have increased their security efforts, installing cameras, metal detectors, and increased security personnel. Some districts have adopted zero-tolerance policies, which provide mandatory, harsh punishments for any student caught possessing a weapon or making threats of violence. In addition, because many school shooters were reportedly bullied prior to lashing out, many schools have instituted programs designed to reduce student bullying.
One school-based solution to the problem of violence that has proven particularly controversial is student profiling. Experts believe that students who act out violently share certain characteristics. For example, they are likely to be interested in weapons, be bullied or be a bully, and be alienated from the popular group at school. By creating a profile of a typical school shooter, it may be possible to identify students who are at risk for committing a violent crime before they do so. To assist in this effort, the National School Safety Center NSSC, an organization dedicated to reducing school violence, has created a “Checklist of Characteristics of Youth Who Have Caused School-Associated Violent Deaths. The list contains twenty items, including those listed above as well as other warning signs such as Displays cruelty to animals, Habitually makes violent threats when angry and Has witnessed or been a victim of abuse or neglect in the home. The American Psychological Association, a professional organization for psychologists, and the U.S. Department of Education have created similar lists of warning signs.
Many experts criticize the use of checklists and profiles to identify students at risk of violence. They argue that the traits and behaviors listed on the checklists could describe nearly any teen. For example, the NSSC list includes Is often depressed or has significant mood swings. However, mood swings are certainly not unusual during adolescence. Other items in the list include Consistently prefers TV shows, movies, or music expressing violent themes and acts” and “Is on the fringe of his/her peer group with few or no close friends. In short, while some warning signs are indeed clear and undeniable signs of trouble, others could describe large numbers of teens, the vast majority of whom would never consider bringing a gun to school. In addition, critics contend, the use of such checklists has the potential to punish and stigmatize teens who sim- ply differ from the norm. After all, teens naturally experiment with their identities and seek to assert themselves as unique individuals. Opponents charge that checklists simply hamper creative self-expression and enforce a code of conformity on the young.
Although a great deal is known about early warning signs of violent behavior, the truth is that many students fit these profiles and only very few will ever commit a violent act. Hence, many students who will never commit violence are labeled as potentially violent. The label itself can lead to stigmatization and, if linked with a segregated group intervention, the labeling can also significantly limit the opportunities of the identified students.