Category Archives: Cultural Dimensions

Responding Across Cultures: Are European school shooting responses different to American ones?

The previous blog post compared and contrasted a handful of European school shootings with American ones and found that there was not much difference in the motivations and actions of perpetrators. This post will follow up on that looking at the aftermath of school shootings across different cultures.

 

Starting with European incidents, the Jokela school shooting in 2007 was discussed at length in a blog post published on the 25th of September 2017. The aftermath of this school shooting involved a number of recommendations centring on creating a better school environment and helping students: improving student welfare and ensuring the relevant authorities (e.g. social work) cooperate; clarifying mental health disorders such as adolescent anxiety; devising and implementing school safety plans; formulating programs to tackle bullying. More importantly, a report by the Ministry of Justice in Finland acknowledged that the perpetrator ‘copied school killings perpetrated in the USA’ with his use of a firearm with him being a legal gun owner. Recommendations, therefore, centred on more stringent checking of who is permitted to have a gun permit and greater use of fixed-term permits. Another point raised in this report was the fact that the perpetrator engaged in online discussions about school shootings prior to his attack and also used the internet to promote his manifesto. It was advised that administrators of online communities should stage interventions in such cases and moderate content more closely. Looking at the German Winnenden school shooting (2009) finds that this lead to the passage of gun legislation intended to improve handgun security: a nation-wide registry of gun owners, increased age limits for purchasing guns and unannounced inspections at homes to check guns were stored securely. Since the perpetrator stole his firearm from his father, this case also led to a lawsuit being filed against the father. As it transpired, his father was found guilty of involuntary homicide caused by negligence with a weapon. Another example was the Dunblane school shooting in the United Kingdom in 1996, which led to a more or less ‘blanket ban’ on handguns in the UK. Current gun owners were encouraged to return their guns after the 1997 law was passed and the criteria on who was allowed to own a gun became very strict, with people requiring a valid reason for doing so.

 

Looking at the United States now finds that earlier school shootings in the 1990s (e.g. Heath High School, Pearl High School, Westside Middle School) led to a ‘Conference on School Safety’ held at the White House in 1998. Responses centred on anti-bullying programs, reducing youth violence more generally, greater parental involvement and creating networks of support within the community. When the Columbine school shooting occurred in 1999, this expanded the scope for debate to violent entertainment media, ‘goth culture’ and gun laws. There were some provisions in place regulating violent media for a while and schools began developing emergency management plans to deal with active shooter incidents. Zero tolerance disciplinary measures were also implemented across a number of schools for carrying weapons, wearing certain types of clothing or any other action deemed ‘risky.’ Proposals were raised around children and guns but these never gained traction in Congress. The main changes to guns came at the state-level following Columbine. School shootings since then have resulted in changes to mental health laws and some restrictions on guns at the state-level. Similar to the Winnenden school shooting, some incidents in the United States have resulted in the parents of victims filing lawsuits against the parents of the perpetrators (e.g. Columbine) or in some cases other targets like the film industry on the basis of it influencing the actions of the shooter (e.g. Heath High School).

 

Contrasting the responses to school shootings across cultures is indicative of the differences. The motivations of school shooters are rooted in feelings of marginalisation, possibly being bullied and the need to get ‘revenge’ against the institution, no matter which country the attack took place in. When it comes to the aftermath, however, European countries have taken overt steps to tighten gun laws in response to school shooting incidents. In the United States, this has not really been the case for the entire nation; any gun restrictions have arisen at the state-level only. The similarities between the U.S. and European countries have been to improve the school culture and provide assistance to students who are struggling with mental health or other personal problems. In ensuring that responses to school shootings help to avert and negate future attacks, countries should try working together and sharing strategies about what has worked best for them.

 

[This post was put together by reading about cases in Europe and the United States. The next blog will continue the global theme by examining patterns and motivations in Canadian school shootings.]

Cultures Apart? Does a European School Shooting Differ from an American One?

In a blog posted on the 1st of October 2014, the reasons why the United States has the highest number of school shootings in the world were outlined. A culture rooted in individualism, hyper-masculinity and high levels of private gun ownership were said to be contributing factors to an elevated rate of incidents. This post will compare and contrast trends in school shootings in the United States with those in Europe to determine whether cultural differences affect the motivations and unfolding of school shootings.

 

To narrow the selection from the high population of incidents, this post will only focus on a selection of those occurring from the 1990s onwards. Starting off with the European incidents, the Dunblane Primary School attack in 1996 was the only school shooting to have ever occurred in the United Kingdom. This involved an outside adult male perpetrator who killed sixteen children and their teacher. The perpetrator had been suspended from youth clubs he ran due to suspicions about his ‘intentions towards young boys’ and had felt extremely aggrieved by this, even writing to the Queen and his local politician to complain. It may be surmised that the primary school and a class of its youngest students aged five and six was targeted because they represented innocence. The other European school shootings have mainly taken place in Germany and Finland. Beginning with German incidents, the 2002 Erfurt massacre resulted in sixteen deaths, most of which were teachers. The perpetrator had recently been expelled from the school and this was an act of revenge against the institution. In the 2006 Emsdetten shooting five were killed by a student who felt he was ostracised and labelled a ‘loser’ at the school. The perpetrator posted an advanced warning about his intentions in an internet forum and also left material to be found after the massacre. Another German school shooting was in 2009 in Winnenden, where the perpetrator was a former student whose poor grades had meant he was unable to enter an apprenticeship. Twelve were killed at the school and the perpetrator then fled the scene and went onto shoot other people outside, ending up in a shootout with police in a car showroom. In Finland, the Jokela school shooting in 2007 resulted in eight murders. The perpetrator, who had been bullied at school, showed an intense interest in other school shooters and a hatred of humanity. He also uploaded his manifesto online prior to the massacre. Another high-profile incident resulting in ten victims took place in Finland in 2008 at a university in Kauhajoki. Similar to the Jokela attacker, the perpetrator admired school shooters and expressed hatred towards mankind.

 

Our attention will now turn to a handful of the incidents that have occurred in the United States from the 1990s onwards. One of the most shocking of these was the Westside Middle School massacre in 1998 in which five were murdered. The reason this was shocking was because the perpetrators themselves were aged eleven and thirteen and went to a degree of planning: letting off the fire alarm and then shooting people when they left the building. Another school shooting occurred in Heath High in 1997 and involved the perpetrator firing a gun into a prayer circle of girls. The Pearl High incident in 1997 resulted in the murder of the perpetrator’s mother and two girls at the school. In the case of these three incidents, perpetrators were said to have felt persecuted by other students and suffered from bullying. Additionally, they had their romantic advances spurred by girls: the Pearl High shooter killed his ex-girlfriend and the Heath High perpetrator shot a girl he had a crush on during his attack. The Columbine High School Shooting in 1999 is arguably the most infamous of all school shootings in the United States due to its shock nature and the fact that parts of it played out on live television. Another incident occurred in Red Lake High School in 2005, where the perpetrator killed his grandfather and companion at home and then went on to kill another seven at his school. The perpetrators of the Columbine and Red Lake school shootings had expressed disdain for mankind, admiration for extreme ideologies and believed they were superior to others in their intellect.

 

Comparing the motivations of the European school shooters with the United States ones finds these are relatively similar. The Finnish school shooters appeared to be admirers of the Columbine school shooters and shared similar ideas about humanity. If a difference had to be flagged, it could possibly be that a couple of the European cases involved expelled students and were perhaps more clear-cut examples of ‘revenge’ than some of the other cases. Overall, the themes of bullying, rejection, feeling like a ‘loser’ are prevalent throughout all the case studies discussed here.

 

[This blog compared a number of European and American case studies to determine whether there were any differences in motivations of school shooters. Information about individual cases was used. The next blog post will follow up on this by examining the responses to school shootings across different cultures.]

An exercise in misogyny: The EcolePolytechnique Shooting

Before the attack, the perpetrator, Marc Lepine, wrote a suicide note expressing strong contempt for feminists, stating that “they had always ruined his life.” Within the note, he listed nineteen women in Quebec that he wanted to kill. In particular, his rage appeared to be directed at women in three occupational groups: soldiers, police officers and engineers. Since these have traditionally been defined as ‘masculine’ roles, he perhaps extrapolated from this that females pursuing these jobs were ‘feminists’ trying to transgress gender expectations. Moreover, Lepine also had a personal connection to the military and engineering, both of which had rejected him. These rejections likely contributed to the fragility of his male identity (1).

 

During the attack, he ordered males and females to separate sides of the classroom and thereafter ordered the men to leave. Once alone with the females, he said to them “You’re all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists.” After he had shot these students, he walked through the building and killed another seven females. In total, he killed fourteen females in the university. Notably, the site of the attack being EcolePolytechnique University and its target of female students were significant, given this institution had turned down his application to an engineering course and instead accepted female students. Following the shooting, a number of surviving students, suffering from the events that they had witnessed, committed suicide with some of them citing the attack as the reason why they were doing so.

 

It could, therefore, be said that this school shooting was an exercise in misogyny intended to make a political statement about the role of women in society, particularly in what were traditionally ‘male roles.’ Despite this, news coverage after the shooting only focused on his mental health problems, portraying him as a ‘madman.’ Moreover, the attention paid to this incident in scholarly literature and the news media has been far less than other incidents. (2) It may be surmised that had the situation been reversed — a female school shooter expressing hatred against men and their role in society — the incident would have received greater coverage and public commentary. That does not mean, however, that the massacre has not had an impact. It could be argued that Lepine has become a ‘hero’ to some. For instance, a threat to execute the ‘deadliest school shooting ever’ was sent to Utah State University in 2014, because it planned to host a talk from a feminist vlogger. Within the threat letter, Marc Lepine was described as “a hero to men everywhere for standing up to the toxic influence of feminism on Western masculinity.” (3) There are also dedication pages to Lepine on the internet, for disenfranchised voices. Considering the fact that this massacre was almost thirty years ago, it gives credence to claims from gender theorists that masculinity is in ‘crisis.’ This would be even more the case in contemporary society with the advent of third wave feminism, focusing on complete equality with men for all women. (4)

 

The commonality throughout all school shootings is the fact that almost all perpetrators are male and the motivations of perpetrators are entrenched within understandings of what it means to be a ‘man.’ To that extent, the EcolePolytechnique University massacre exemplifies the ‘failed man crisis,’ entrenched within the perpetrator’s diminished prospects, a lack of success with females and other personal issues.

 

[This blog post was the beginning of a new theme on school shootings taking place outside the United States. The next post will examine an attack that occurred in Germany in 2002, where the perpetrator targeted staff members at his former school.]

 

References

  1. Larkin, R. W. (2010) “Masculinity, School Shooters and the Control of Violence.” In W. Heitmeyer, H. G. Haupt, S. Malthauner and A. Kirschner (eds.). Control of Violence. New York: Springer: 315-344.
  2. Danner, M. J. E. and D. C. Carmody. (2001) “Missing gender in cases of infamous school violence: investigating research and media explanations.” Justice Quarterly 18(1), 87-114; Tonso, K. L. (2009) “Violent Masculinities as Tropes for School Shooters: The Montreal Massacre, the Columbine Attacks and Rethinking Schools.” American Behavioral Scientist 52(9), 1266-1285.
  3. Ashley Csanady. (2014) ‘The bizarre love for Marc Lepine among men’s rights groups.’ com News, 15 October. Retrieved from: http://o.canada.com/news/the-bizarre-love-for-marc-lepine-among-mens-rights-groups
  4. See, for example, the following sources: Carrigan, T, B. Connell and J. Lee.(1987) “Towards a New Sociology of Masculinity.” In H. Brod (ed.) The Making of Masculinities: The New Men’s Studies. Winchester: Allen and Unwin, 63-100; Jefferson, T. (2002) “Subordinating hegemonic masculinity.” Theoretical Criminology 6(1), 63-88.

Thwarted attacks: the phenomenon of near-misses

This blog post will examine the phenomenon of thwarted school shooting attacks, bringing a conclusion to the theme of copycat attacks. As mentioned in the blog posted on the 26th May 2016, there tends to be a spike in threats following a high-profile school shooting. Sometimes these threats are fabrications intended to attract attention; other times, they are real and concrete, requiring intervention to prevent them becoming deadly attacks. The difficulty of trying to conduct research into thwarted school shootings is it will involve studying attacks that did not actually transpire. Probably the most effective approach is to only study incidents where there is some degree of proof that the incident would have taken place. (1) This post will look at some of the instances where copycat threats became thwarted school shootings.

 

Following the Columbine school shooting, there was a spike in copycat threats across the United States. Those which could actually be considered ‘thwarted,’ however, are the ones with some degree of planning involved. An example of this occurred less than a month after the Columbine school shooting, where a 15 year old boy at Kennedy High School was alleged to have plotted an incident: the plan was to handcuff a target list of people to desks and shoot off their hands or shoot them in the head and then go into the hallway and shoot other students. This planned massacre was thwarted because the boy told two students (which a third one overheard) at the school, threatening to kill them if they reported it; the three students thereafter came forward with the information. The preparation of the target list and the boy’s access to a rifle in his home showed that the likelihood of this attack taking place was higher than other copycat threats. Around this time, a copycat Columbine-style massacre plotted by four current and former students at Adams City High School was also impeded. The seriousness of the purported threat was documented in a written plan, drawings and a map of the school given to the authorities by an unnamed informant.

 

What can be taken from these examples is that following a high-profile school shooting like Columbine, staff members, law enforcement officers and students at the school have heightened awareness about the possibility of copycat attacks. This is positive in the sense that they are perhaps more likely to come forward with information pertaining to threats, no matter whether these are hoaxes or serious copycat attacks. Such a sense of attentiveness to threats will not be permanent, however, with it likely to fade when the high-profile school shooting begins to receive less media coverage and public and political attention. This highlights the need for permanent vigilance when hearing about potential school shooting threats, particularly those with detailed plans and other concrete actions (such as procuring a firearm).

  1. Daniels, J. A., A. Volungis, E. Pshenishny, P. Gandhi, A. Winkler, D. P. Cramer et al., (2010). ‘A qualitative investigation of averted school shooting rampages.’ The Counseling Psychologist 38 (1), 69–95; Daniels, J. A. and J. W. Page. (2013) ‘Averted School Shootings.’ In N. Bockler et al. (eds.) School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies and Concepts for Prevention. Springer Science-Business Media: New York, 421-439.

 

[This blog post was put together using school shooting literature and media reports about copycat threats. It concludes the thread on copycat attacks for the moment.]

Female School Shootings: A New Phenomenon?

The last few blogs have discussing the phenomenon of ‘copycatting’ in relation to school shootings. This post will look at the recent trend of females threatening to become school shooters — something rather unprecedented, considering almost all previous perpetrators have been male. As discussed in the blog posted on the 11th of June 2014, masculinity is one of the socio-cultural factors contributing to school shootings. This blog will explicate the details of female school shooting copycatters and critique whether this could be considered a new and worrying phenomenon.

In November 2014, a 17 year old girl at Radnor High School, Pennsylvania, had expressed a desire in her journal to become the ‘first female school shooter.’ When examining previous incidents, it becomes evident why she would have thought her massacre would be noteworthy. In 1979, a girl, Brenda Spencer, shot children walking to Cleveland Elementary School; there was also Laurie Dann who shot children in Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Illinois. It is questionable, however, whether these qualify as ‘school shootings’: the rationale for Spencer seemed to be the convenience of the victims, given she shot them from her bedroom window across the street; whilst Dann appeared to be attacking the school she believed her former sister-in-law’s children attended. For an event to be defined as a ‘school shooting,’ the attack should be against the institution itself, with victims targeted for their symbolic value. The closest to ‘female school shooters’ could be construed as Latina Williams, who killed two peers at Louisiana Technical College, and Professor Amy Bishop, who carried out an attack at the University of Alabama. Despite this, Professor Bishop targeted her colleagues because she had recently been denied tenure and Latina Williams did not leave any notes or other evidence explaining her motives; this suggests that perhaps they were not aspiring to become ‘school shooters.’

The planned attack at Radnor High School was thankfully thwarted. The girl in question had showed a fascination with the Columbine school shooting, writing to the parents of one of the perpetrators, Dylan Klebold, to describe her ‘emotional connection’ with him. Almost a year after this case, another story emerged about two teenage girls alleged to have planned a shooting at Mountain Vista High School, which is fewer than ten miles away from Columbine High School geographically. One of the girls involved wrote in her journal that she wished she could have participated in the Columbine school shooting and referenced the film Natural Born Killers, cited by the perpetrators of this massacre in their own writings. The fascination with the Columbine shooters has appeared in other school shootings, such as Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. The appeal of these perpetrators to females, however, is an emerging and worrying trend. Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan, said she has received mail in the past from girls who claim they love him and want to have his baby. Although these fan letters are not really anything new — some women have married death row prisoners in the past — the worry is that females fascinated by the Columbine or other school shooters, then take the next step of trying to ‘become them’ via a similar attack.

The implication of this for assessing threats is that those coming from females should be taken just as seriously as those from boys and men. The planned attack at Mountain Vista High School had involved the drawing up of a map of the school, denoting the locations of law enforcement — this exemplifies the seriousness of that threat. Gender is, therefore, something which must not be overlooked when assessing school shooting threats.

 

[This blog post was put together with research and pre-existing knowledge about actual and planned school shooting incidents. The next post will continue with the copycatting theme, by looking at thwarted attacks.]

Copycat Threats: Real or Fake?

As documented in the last blog post, the highly publicised nature of school shootings means that they are prone to creating ‘copycats.’ The amount of threats made tends to increase exponentially following a previous attack. Copycatters may try to ‘out-do’ the previous school shooting with the intention of gaining more media attention. (1) The purpose of this blog post is to explore the distinction between the threats that are empty in nature, with the sole intention of gaining attention or causing trouble; compared to those that do actually pose serious danger.

In the book The Copycat Effect, the author attributes copycatting to “thoughtless, sensational media,” claiming coverage of high-profile incidents like school shootings triggers a series of copycat attacks. Further to this, it is argued that the news media insidiously deflects any culpability for this, by instead discussing other ‘blame factors,’ such as violent video games or school culture. (2) The last blog post debated the extent to which the news media are to blame and questioned how credible this explanation really was when taken in isolation.

An important point to remember about the ‘copycat’ explanation is that the recognition to be ‘gained’ from media attention is not a sufficient enough reason for someone to carry out a school shooting. Notably, it is likely that carrying out an attack following a previous high-profile school shooting would keep the issue salient in the news for a while longer; yet, it would not guarantee particular notoriety for that particular incident. In fact, it would likely mean a discussion about school shootings in general or comparing and contrasting the two incidents that had occurred within a short period of time. Extrapolating from this means there must be additional motivating factors for copycatters whose massacres actually transpire; herein lies the basis for testing the credibility of threats made.

Every threat should be examined — even when claimed to be said in ‘humour’ or a moment of anger — because school shootings and other attacks do occur. When a copycat threat is made following a high profile incident, the threat itself, the context in which it was made and the threatener must all be critically assessed. Examining the content within the threat and its context gives some indication of its risk level: Does the threat give specific details, such as a location, methods (e.g. bombing or shooting), date and time? To who was the threat made and is this someone the threatener is likely to confide in? Was the threat said in a moment of emotional distress? Was the threat made repeatedly? Coupling this with information about the person(s) making the threat should provide a fuller picture: Does the threatener have the ability to carry out the threat? Is the threatener suffering from any personal problems and/or mental health issues that have been altering their recent behaviour? Do they have a motive and desire to follow through with the threat? Have those closest to the threatener noticed any changes in behaviour and/or similar threats being made? Is there any evidence of plans being plan to carry out the attack (e.g. purchasing firearms)?

Taking all that into consideration should go some way to fundamentally distinguishing between genuine and fake threats. A disingenuous copycat threat is likely to be said for a variety of reasons: gaining attention, attempting to be ‘humorous’ or controversial or perhaps intimidation of the school and people within it. A copycat threat where the threatener intends to follow through could be seen as a pre-warning to an attack.

[This blog was put together using relevant literature and threat assessment knowledge. The next post will continue this theme by looking at a recent case involving female copycatters.]

(1) Newman, K. S., Fox, C., Harding, D. J., Mehta, J. and Roth, W. (2004) Rampage: the social roots of school shootings. Basic Books: New York, 154, 250.
(2) Coleman, L. (2004) The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines. London, New York: Paraview Pocket Books.

The Copycat Effect: Is the Media to Blame?

‘Copycatting’ is the act of replicating something which was previously successful. In relation to school shootings, this would involve attempting to pull off a similar attack to a highly-publicised one. More problematically, the incidents with the higher death tolls tend to get more attention. This could be said to set a ‘bar’ by which future school shootings are measured, with copycatters aiming to go a step further with their attack. What will be debated in this blog post is whether the news media can be held accountable, given its saturated coverage can make an event infamous in the first place.

 

The former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, once said that “Publicity is the oxygen of terrorism.” As an event intended to generate infamy and publicity, this statement could also be applied to school shooting attacks. It could be argued that if these attacks were not covered in the news media, there would be no ‘script’ for future perpetrators to follow. The prominence given to the story is also pertinent, with school shootings generally gaining ‘front page’ status and saturated broadcast coverage. In the case of the Columbine school shooting, the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper declined to put the story on the front page in case it encouraged others. Likewise, the National Enquirer showed a colour photograph of the two shooters lying in a pool of blood in order to ‘de-glamourise’ their actions. Probably the most notable example of this link is the Virginia Tech school shooting, where the perpetrator sent a copy of his manifesto to broadcast news station NBC prior to the attack. This then led to the dilemma of whether to show this footage; in the end, NBC decided to broadcast it, arguing it was in the public’s interest to see it.

 

It is notable that threats for further school shooting attacks occur shortly after an incident and sometimes on the anniversaries of when they took place. Following the shooting at Columbine High School, bomb threats made at schools peaked over 5000. There were also numerous examples of individual incidents across the country. A 17 year old boy wore a trench coat and walked round his school pretending he had a gun in Houma, Louisiana. In Oxon Hill High School, Virginia, a 15 year old boy threatened to blow up the school if he continued to receive poor grades in algebra. These are just a couple of examples of the types of copycat hoaxes that transpired.

 

Overall, it is debatable to what extent the news media can be held responsible. On the one hand, if the media failed to report the story and to attach a degree of significance to it, they would fail in their duty as ‘public watchdogs.’ There is a danger, however, in portraying school shootings — particularly those with high death tolls — as a way to gain infamy. The advent of social media has made this particularly dangerous, with there being even greater potential for news of school shootings to spread widely and quickly. As an explanation for school shootings on its own, the news media and copycat correlation seems particularly rudimentary. A better way to look at it is that the media provides a platform for school shooters and threateners to promote a particular presentation of themselves, the extent of which is dependent on the amount of coverage generated. More will be said on the way school shooters ‘use’ the media in blog posts later in the year.

 

[This blog post was put together using readings about the Columbine and Virginia Tech school shootings. The next post will look at copycat threats in more detail and what action can be taken against them.]