The details of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting are slowly coming to light, but a government document issued a decade ago might explain why assailants select schools as targets – a question many Americans are now wrestling with.
In 2002, the U.S. Secret Service released the “Safe School Initiative Final Report”, an exhaustive examination of nearly a quarter century of fatal school shootings throughout the nation. Reacting to the deadly 1999 Columbine High School shooting - at the time, the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history - the report analyzed 37 school shootings from 1974 until 2000. Using police records, court documents and interviews conducted with school shooters, the study’s authors attempted to “identify information about a school shooting that may be identifiable or noticeable before the shooting occurs” in order to prevent future shootings.
Overwhelmingly, the perpetrators of the analyzed school shootings were white males between the ages of 13 and 18, researchers found. They shared many other characteristics, as well.
At the time of the study’s publication, 75 percent of school shooters were Caucasian, while African Americans and Hispanics represented 12 percent and 5 percent respectively of the total population. Most of the shooters were between the ages of 13 and 18, with perpetrators ages 11 and 21 representing the demographic extremes. More than two-thirds of the school shooters lived in a two-parent home. Few of the shooters got in trouble at school. In fact, more than 60 percent were either rarely in trouble at school or had never been in trouble at school prior to their attacks. Just a quarter of school shooters in the study were ever suspended from school, and only 10 percent had ever been expelled.
Nevertheless, the similarities appear to end there, the report indicates. In school, 41 percent of the perpetrators were A and B students. But 22 percent were found to be C and D students, and 5 percent were failing.
The shooters were also split in their level of social involvement. The report found 44 of the shooters were involved in extracurricular activities, team sports or religious groups, But about 34 percent were considered “loners.”
But despite this data, warning signs may be difficult to find. Prior to the shootings, the evaluation found that a majority of shooters demonstrated no changes in academic performance, friendship patterns or school disciplinary problems. Researchers even found instances in which shooters demonstrated improved academic performance in the weeks and months prior to their attacks. “In one case,” the report reads, “the dean of students had commended a student a few weeks before he attacked his school for improvements in his grades and a decline in the number of disciplinary problems involving that student in school.”
Experts and authorities may never fully understand the individual motives for school shootings, but some similar factors existed in the majority of cases. Analysts said two of the most commonly cited contributing factors were history of severe depression and the shooter’s relationship with peers. Prior to the shootings, researchers found, 71 percent of school shooters reported being bullied, threatened or attacked by others, and 78 percent of attackers exhibited suicide ideation or had attempted suicide prior to the shootings.
Despite this, just 34 percent of the gunmen had received a mental health evaluation, and less than one-fifth were ever diagnosed with a mental or behavioral disorder prior to their attack. Still, an equal number of the shooters said they engaged in the killing spree because they were depressed or suicidal. Additionally, some 10 percent failed to take the psychiatric medications legally prescribed to them. In fact, few shooters exhibited any form of substance abuse. Just a quarter of shooters in the study were known to have a history of alcohol or substance abuse.
However, one factor played a role in nearly every school shooting the researchers examined – some 98 percent of the school shooters experienced a major personal loss of some kind prior to the event, including 51 percent who recently experienced the loss of a loved one or the termination of a romantic relationship.
But more than half of shooters were found to have multiple motives for their attacks, including 34 percent of assailants who believed their actions would “solve a problem” of some kind. In fact, revenge played a role in 61 percent of attacks, and four out of five shooters were reported to hold grievances against either their targets or someone else prior to their attacks.
Critically for prevention efforts, more than two-thirds of shooters informed others about their hostilities before the actual shootings took place, the researchers found.
In four-fifths of school shootings, researchers found at least one person other than the shooter was aware of a planned attack, with two or more people aware of a plan in nearly two-thirds of attacks. But those who know of the impending attacks are rarely adults. In 93 percent of school shootings in which someone had prior knowledge, that person either a friend or sibling of the shooter.
Many shooters (44 percent) were influenced to attack their schools by friends. In several cases, researchers noted that friends of the attacker helped the assailant by acquiring firearms and ammunition, discussing tactics for entering the school undetected or gathering information about the location of potential targets.
In one case, researchers cite a school shooter that told his friends to meet at a mezzanine, so they would be out of the assailant’s line of fire. On the morning of the attack, two-dozen students convened at the spot, with one student reported to have a camera so that he could photograph the shooting as it transpired.
However, most assailants never confronted their intended targets prior to the attack. Only 17 percent of perpetrators threatened those whom they intended to harm before the shooting took place. Even so, an estimated 93 percent of school shooters were said to have engaged in behavior that caused concern for teachers, parents, friends and police before the attacks occurred. In 76 percent of school shootings, the report found that at least three people exhibited concerns about a shooter’s behavior prior to the shooting incidents. According to the researchers, common signs of school shooting ideation include attempts to acquire firearms, bomb building, and embedding school assignments with strong homicidal and suicidal undercurrents.
In nearly two-thirds of school shootings, researchers found attackers had extensive experience with firearms, and 44 percent demonstrated a “fascination” with weapons. In 68 percent of school shootings, researchers said, the firearms used in the attacks were either acquired in the gunman’s own home or from the home of a relative.
“Students who engaged in school-based attacks typically did not ‘just snap’ and then engage in impulsive or random acts of targeted school violence,” the report states -- one of 10 key findings on the phenomena of school shootings. “Instead, the attacks examined under the Safe School Initiative appeared to be the end result of a comprehensible process of thinking and behavior: behavior that typically began with an idea, progressed to the development of a plan, moved on to securing the means to carry out the plan and culminated in an attack.”
Researchers note that although this process is observable, the brief time from ideation to implementation, in addition to the unwillingness of individuals close to the attacker to give information to proper officials, routinely serves as an obstacle to preventing school shooting incidents.
Because evidence suggests that a “typical” school shooter does not exist, the report concludes that officials should instead focus on an individual’s behavior and communication with others, especially threat-making. “School administrators should respond to all students who make threats,” the report states. “The lack of response could be taken by the threatener as permission to proceed with carrying out the threat.”
Researchers pinpointed two pivotal strategies in school shooting prevention: developing the capacity to find and evaluate and information indicative of a school-targeted attack, and the use of risk evaluations and threat assessments - described in the report as “a fact-based and analytical approach” that focuses on individual behavior instead of perceived similarities with previous school shooters - as preventative measures.
“Localities and states may wish to explore such options for supporting threat assessment components in schools and facilitating sharing information across school, law enforcement and community systems participating in the threat assessment process,” the report concludes.
“Once such an environment is created, it will remain important that the adults in that environment listen to students and handle the information they receive in a fair and responsible manner.”