Gender is the proverbial elephant in the room when it comes to school shootings. The gender-neutral term of ‘school shooter’ or ‘perpetrator’ is commonly used in public discourse to describe the attackers of these tragic incidents. Despite this, save a handful of incidents like Brenda Spencer and her ‘I just don’t like Mondays’ attack on Cleveland Elementary School in 1979, school shootings are perpetrated by males. Studies examining the patterns within the psycho-social characteristics of school shooters have found the commonality of a fragile sense of masculinity. In this sense, masculinity acts as a descriptive element of the cultural ideologies and observed behaviours of men. It is socially constructed and exists within the gender ideals, which have been circumscribed within a particular social, historical and cultural context.
Applying Erich Fromm’s socio-psychological argument that individual problems are influenced by the social structures in society finds that the cultural environment of the school itself in the case of contributed to the ‘crisis of masculinity’ felt by internal attackers in middle and high schools. The theorist Jessie Klein drew upon Pierre Bourdieu’s original conceptualisation of ‘cultural capital’ relating to one’s position in the habitus (world) and their perception of it, to devise a model of popularity for male students in U.S. high and middle schools: proving one’s manhood, athletic prowess, sophisticated social skills (also known as ‘savoir-faire’), romantic success with females and high socio-economic class. This also involves the display of prescribed ‘masculine’ traits, such as toughness, challenging authority, belligerence, and dominance over others, whilst repressing emotions and avoiding any behaviour considered ‘feminine’ in nature.
School shooters at Columbine High, Heath High and Pearl High were called ‘gay’ by their peers, despite there being no actual evidence to suggest they were homosexual. Relating this to gender theory finds a hierarchical positioning exists of heterosexual (dominant) and homosexual (subordinate) men. In this sense, the use of derogatory terms like ‘gay,’ ‘fag’ and rumours in the school that school shooters had male lovers suggests that perpetrators were not considered ‘masculine’ enough by their peers. Further ‘threatening’ their masculinity is the fact that the shooters suffered from girlfriend problems or rejection by girls. The girlfriend of the Red Lake school shooter had just broken up with him; the Pearl High perpetrator had also had a relationship come to an end and wrote in his journal: “With this writing, I do swear, that I shall never get myself in a position where I can be hurt by a woman ever again.” The Westside Middle School, Heath High and Columbine High shooters were all rejected by female students at their school. A disturbing element of this frustration was demonstrated in a diary entry written by one of the Columbine High shooters describing fantasies in which he raped females in his class at school.
When school shooters equate violence and aggression with ‘masculinity,’ the attacks themselves become the ‘tool’ to ‘gain’ masculinity. This generally begins with the perpetrators conflating guns with feelings of strength and power: one of the Columbine High shooters said “I feel more confident, stronger and more God-like” when using guns; the Heath High attacker claimed: “More guns is [sic] better. You have more power.” These notions of masculinity then translate into a ‘cultural script’ of vengeance prescribing violence and killing: once this has been infiltrated into the public sphere vis-à-vis the news media and other outlets, potential school shooters then have a framework of action to carry out. A commonality of school shooting attacks has been the targeting of girls who rejected the perpetrators and hence ‘threatened’ their masculinity. The Pearl High and Westside Middle School perpetrators all targeted their former girlfriends in their shooting attacks, whilst the Heath High shooter killed two girls who spurned his advances. The relationship between guns, power, violence and the misogynistic view that females who spurred their advances must be ‘punished’ to ‘performing’ and ‘asserting’ masculinity is a dangerous one for fuelling school shooting attacks.
[Gender theories, previous studies relating to school shooters and assessment of journal writings of the school shooting perpetrators cited were used to put together this post. A longer version of it appears as a chapter in the edited book volume Exploring the Facets of Revenge.]