Since 1995, more than thirty students and teachers have been killed and approximately one hundred have been wounded as a result of shootings at American schools. Towns throughout the nation, from California to Pennsylvania, have been affected by school violence. The deadliest of these school shootings occurred on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed twelve students and a teacher and wounded twenty-three others before turning the guns on themselves. However, despite the seemingly high number of casualties at Columbine and other campuses, many people disagree as to whether school shootings are a widespread problem or rare incidents that attract undue attention because of their dramatic and horrifying nature.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is taken every other year, provides statistics on the threat of school violence. According to the 1995 survey: “More than 7% [of high school students] had carried a gun. More than 8% of the students surveyed reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property during the previous 12 months.” For the study’s most recent year, 1999, the percentages had fallen to 4.9 percent and 7.7 percent, respectively. Even though the numbers have fallen, the problem of students bringing weapons to school has not been wholly eliminated.
Another indication of the problem of school shootings is that students are increasingly worried about coming to school due to fear of being a victim of a shooting. The percentage of students who had missed at least one day of school during the previous thirty days because they felt unsafe on campus or traveling to and from school increased between 1997 and 1999, from 4 percent to 5.2 percent. In addition, polls show that parents are increasingly concerned about the dangers facing their children. In a September 1999 Gallup poll, 47 percent of parents surveyed said they feared for their children’s safety at school. Perhaps because several of the shootings have occurred in smaller Southern towns, 54 percent of rural parents and 56 percent of Southern parents expressed these concerns. Another poll, this one conducted by the Wall Street Journal, echoes those findings. Seventy-one percent of its respondents believed that a shooting was likely to take place at their children’s school.
Although these polls suggest widespread fear over the likelihood of a nearby school shooting, some commentators contend that the problem is exaggerated and that too much attention has been placed on school shootings at the expense of the actual facts about violence. Lori Dorfman, director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, and Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute, argue that school shootings are particularly rare occurrences. They write: “School-associated violent deaths have dropped 72% since 1992, and there was a less than one-in-3-million chance that a youth would be killed in a school [in 2000].” However, they note, the public is misled by inaccurate media coverage, writing: “68% of local TV news stories about violence in California involved youth, while youth made up only 14% of violent crime arrests in the state.” Mike Males, who has also researched media coverage of youth violence, supports the conclusions of Dorfman and Schiraldi. He contends that, despite the various school shootings, today’s youth are considerably less violent than their counterparts in the 1970s: “The latest (1999) [California] crime figures report murder by white youths at a record low, 65% below its 1970s rate.” He also writes that of the 150,000 gun-related homicides that occurred in the 1990s, only 150 occurred at or around a school.
In addition to the debate over the frequency of school shootings, disputes exist on how to best end such assaults. Two types of solutions have been suggested for ending school shootings. The first approach focuses on preventing shootings by increasing security. Examples of this approach include placing metal detectors at the entrances to schools, hiring security guards or off-duty police officers to patrol the campuses, removing lockers so students cannot hide weapons, and instituting zero-tolerance policies that expel or suspend students who are found in possession of a weapon. These safeguards are commonplace in many school districts. For example, every high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District is given handheld metal detectors and staffed with district police officers. In school districts throughout Washington State, officials have installed emergency phone systems and established tip lines on which students can call and report threats. Columbine High responded to the shootings by adding surveillance cameras and security officers (it had an on-campus armed law enforcement officer on campus when the massacre occurred), although it has not installed metal detectors.
Some commentators maintain that increasing security is the wrong solution because it does not address the problems facing adolescents, such as feelings of alienation or fears of being bullied. In several of the school shootings, the perpetrators have been described as outsiders who were frequently teased or bullied, which has led to speculation that bullying can have violent consequences.
People who oppose increased security suggest that another solution to school shootings is to teach students how to better understand each other and provide them with outlets to discuss their problems. In his book Nobody Left to Hate: Teaching Compassion After Columbine, Stanford University psychologist Elliot Aronson suggests that high schools are largely hostile environments and that schools should take steps to ensure that students become more accepting of each other. He contends that cooperative teaching methods can help reduce the tensions that can lead troubled adolescents to take revenge against their classmates. In cooperative learning, students are divided into groups to study a topic. Each student in the group researches an aspect of the topic and shares what he or she has learned. Because the group will be tested on all components of the project, it is disadvantageous for students to ignore or ridicule any of their coworkers. Another way in which schools have helped students cope with the pressures of adolescence is on-campus health clinics that provide mental health services. According to James Sterngold of the New York Times, the number of such clinics has increased from 200 to 1,380 since 1991.
Although debate exists over the prevalence of school shootings as compared to other types of violence, each shooting is undoubtedly a tragedy for its campus and the surrounding community. These acts leave communities searching for answers as to why they happen and how they can be prevented in the future. In School Shootings: At Issue, the authors examine why the attacks at Columbine and other campuses have occurred and what solutions might help end the problem.