There have been many demands this week that colleges take pre-emptive action against odd-behaving students to prevent more mass slaughters like at Virginia Tech.
My initial reaction is that I have very little faith in college administrations' ability to identify the truly dangerous, and suspect new powers would mostly be used to further persecute the politically and socially unpopular and inconvenient.
Perhaps, though, I'm wrong. To evaluate proposed remedies for college shootings, it would be worth better understanding the causes of the rise and fall of high school shootings by students. These began primarily in the 1990s and notoriously culminated at Columbine in 1999, then continued onward for a couple of years.
In March 2001, I covered for UPI the Santana H.S. massacre in Santee outside of
And, yet ... after Santana, this whole bloody trend just seemed to peter out. The number of truly Columbine-style kids-shooting-kids massacres in the
How come? Did American schools actually start to do the right thing to prevent shootings? If so, what was it? Or did it just fade out as mysteriously as it started?
Here's an article I wrote for UPI a few weeks before Santana:
New strategy for preventing school shootings
By STEVE SAILER
UPI National Correspondent
Few subjects have inspired so many words and so few insights in recent years as murderous rampages. First, post office employees became notorious for running amok. Then it was middle class high school students. Lately, it's been disgruntled private sector workers. We're only beginning to uncover clues about what causes these small-scale but horrifying fads.
Other cultures have found themselves beset by a tendency for men to suddenly lash out in vicious, often suicidal attacks on the people around them. Running "amok" is the Malay term for man who responds to an insult or humiliation by frenziedly chopping up his neighbors with a machete knife. According to
The Postal Service commissioned a 2000 report on the killings by former Carter Cabinet Secretary Joseph Califano. His study downplayed the danger to postal employees. It showed that cab drivers were 150 times more likely to be murdered than post office workers. The report, however, sidestepped the question of whether U.S.P.S. workers were more likely to slaughter their coworkers than the average worker. Further, it did not explain why post office shootings suddenly began in 1986.
As postal employees suddenly became less violent at the end of the Nineties, corporate workers seemed to step in to take up the slack. The recent carnage at the Navistar plant in
In between the heydays of "going postal" and "going corporate," white Americans became obsessed by a series of school shootings, climaxing in the infamous 1999 Columbine H.S. slaughter in
Violence in the schools has long been a problem in neighborhoods where violence in the streets is common. But murderous rampages in middle class schools were quite rare until only a few years ago.
A Secret Service study of 37 Columbine-style incidents found that the first similar incident occurred in 1974. Then, in 1979 a schoolgirl in
Nonetheless, the great school-shooting spree did not begin until the later Nineties. This suggests a copycat mentality, probably spread by the overwhelming television coverage of school shootings. ABC, CBS, and NBC alone aired 296 stories on Columbine.
Even two weeks after that mass murder, one could still turn on the TV at almost any hour of the day and find anywhere from two to ten channels blaring about "Terror in the
The diversification of media channels due to cable TV and the Internet was supposed to lead to a greater variety of subjects being covered on the Information Superhighway. Instead, we seem to have entered the age of "one story at a time" journalism, where everything else going on in the world is dropped in favor of all the news channels simultaneously broadcasting live coverage of some poor high school kid's funeral.
Not surprisingly, Columbine in turn inspired a rash of planned shootings and bomb plots. Fortunately, many were headed off by newly paranoid police and school administrators.
In recent weeks, three school murder plots came to light when other teenagers snitched on the would-be murderers. Encouraging kids to squeal appears to be the most promising strategy for preventing school shootings. The Secret Service found, "In over three quarters of the cases, the attacker told someone before the attack about his interest in mounting an attack at the school. In over half of the incidents, the attacker told more than one person about his ideas/plans." While workplace murderers are generally stereotypical loners, school killers seem to crave attention and even psychological reinforcement from their peers.
In contrast, according to the Secret Service, the widespread attempts to develop an accurate profile of kids likely to become rampage killers has failed: "There is no accurate or useful profile of the 'the school shooter.'" Unlike workplace shooters, who tend to be fairly well educated middle aged failures with a history of mental problems, the only true common denominator of high school shooters is that they are all boys.
Further, while school slaughterers do tend to be somewhat alienated and in emotional turmoil, that vague profile would cover maybe half of all teenagers. The Secret Service concludes, "The great majority of students who fit any given profile will not actually pose a risk of targeted violence."
This wouldn't have worked at Virginia Tech, however, since the close-mouthed Cho seldom spoke to anybody.