RPM Special Edition on School Violence:
The Distance Between

Last Updated: March 28, 2013

This article appeared in the RPM Special Edition on School Violence. The complete report is now available as a PDF; click here for details and to download or print.

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Special Edition on School Violence

For those of us who attended or worked in rural schools prior to Columbine, that watershed moment in American educational history, guns were around us. Usually a shotgun or a rifle. In a truck. In the parking lot. Unlocked.

We were no more afraid of the gun than we were of the kid who owned it.

Rural schools have tended to have some advantages when it comes to school violence. For one, rural schools have been smaller, closer to home, so if a family or a kid were in crisis or just volatile, someone would likely know and might be able to do something to ease the pressure. It’s usually this personal nature that is credited for the comparatively low levels of violence and discipline problems that rural schools have long enjoyed. (See the graph below for school violence data by locale.)

There is a widely held assumption that rural people have more experience with guns. Whether or not that assumption is actually true, many of us know proud stories of the local boy who proved the best shot in his army unit, the girl who can outshoot her father — skills honed shooting skeet and quail out in the field and hunting deer and squirrel and turkey and the occasional boar in the woods.

Experience breeds comfort and knowledge breeds trust. It was usually easy to trust both the good sense and the gun knowledge of the people we knew.

But even in those supposedly simpler times things weren’t always so clear cut when it came to guns. Rural areas of my home state were peppered with hunting lodges, big tracks of woodland and savannah owned or rented by the week or weekend to hunting clubs, groups of mostly men, mostly from suburbs and smallish cities. Lodges often bordered the property of full-time rural residents.

It was the presence of the lodges that caused many residents of rural communities to view deer season with a mix of anticipation and dread. Anticipation for the rituals of preparation, the fun of the hunt, the competition for the biggest rack, the venison stew, the holiday from school that opening day often brought.

And dread that their one degree of separation would evaporate. That one degree was the only distance between almost everyone and the victim of a hunting accident.

It wasn’t the occasional misfire or explosive malfunction or even lapse of judgment that so many rural people feared. Those kinds of gun accidents were generally considered to be in the unavoidable-risks-of-living-in-the-country category, the same category that housed tractor rollovers and highway collisions with log trucks.

What people feared was the stray bullet fired by a high-powered rifle, perhaps a mile or more away, by someone who did not and could not know they were there.

Out in the country the degree of separation was thin and the images stark: the teenager suddenly slumped over the backyard picnic table at a family dinner on a fine fall afternoon; an infant in her mother’s arms by the stove paralyzed for life with a bullet in her brain; a toddler ensconced in a safety seat between his parents driving down an interstate instantly, inexplicably gone; the bullet hole in the tee shirt hanging on the clothesline.

It wasn’t that some of the rural people who held these fears didn’t hunt with high-powered rifles themselves. It was more that they trusted the people with whom they hunted and knew, pretty much, where everyone was. Many of my friends tended, rightly or wrongly, to view the hunting lodgers, whom they didn’t know, as poorly trained, giddy with excitement, disrespectful of the woods and the land and the people who lived there, possessed of expensive weapons they didn’t need for the kinds of hunting they were doing, and likely to be a little bit drunk.

For sure, many out-of-town hunters were oblivious to the homes tucked into coves, perched along creeks, and nestled in clearings just out of sight.

I knew a fair number of rural residents who thought hunting licenses should be restricted until the seeker could demonstrate a level of knowledge and skill with a gun that suggested their ability to use it safely. “Like a driver’s license,” they’d say. I knew a lot more who flatly stated that rifles that could send a bullet much further than a person could see to shoot should only be allowed on designated ranges.

No one was trying to restrict anyone else’s freedom. And the conversations weren’t complicated by highly-charged ideas about the Second Amendment. I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning the Constitution one way or the other. But the conversations were about rights, stated along these lines: we live here and we have a right to be safe and free from worry about a bullet coming out of nowhere. Because, well, because we are here.

* * * * * * *

In preparing this special report, we pored through a thousand media accounts of school violence. We included 700 of those incidents, most of them involving death or mass threat, in our report. It was an arduous, frustrating, and endlessly heart-breaking task.

It’s true that kids are far safer in school than almost anywhere else, including their own homes or their parents’ cars. Many, many more children die in violent incidents outside of school than in school. But in some ways that balance makes the school accounts feel even more weighted.

The vast majority of assailants and victims in school violence are kids. Among the many striking aspects of the stories were how few of the kids who committed violence came across in reports as “evil.” There were, to be sure, some kids who planned their actions and some who seemed to have no insight or no remorse about what they had done. But far more common were stories that suggested a distraught kid, an agonizing loss — at least in his mind (and the majority were boys), tragic adult failures, a future perceived as hopeless.

All together we found about a hundred accounts of suicide. A few kids shot someone else first, but most suicides were individual acts of self-destruction carried out at school. A surprising number were kids who brought to school a small arsenal and a plan to “do a Columbine” and instead turned their weapons only on themselves.

Dozens of the stories included real heroes — a teacher who sacrificed her life trying to get kids out of harm’s way, a student who tackled or talked a classmate down, parents who called authorities because they feared what their own child might be planning.

Enough of the stories suggested an assailant who was seriously mentally ill, especially among adults who targeted elementary schools, to make it worthwhile to note the need for more and better mental health services. Lack of access to high quality and consistent mental health services is a long-standing problem in many rural communities and a likely factor is several rural violence incidents.

But most accounts did not indicate mental illness, and it would be irresponsible to suggest that addressing mental illness would be a sufficient way to address violence. The U.S.’s rate of mental illness is comparable to other countries; it’s our violent death rate that is outsized.

Far and away the most common school violence stories were also among the oldest of human stories: one person gets mad at another, picks up a weapon or throws a fist and in short order someone is dead.

One-on-one violence accounted for three-quarters of the deaths in the accounts that we compiled. It appears that kids’ impulses — rage, pride, jealousy, a real or perceived insult, a desire for self-assertion, revenge — were pretty much the same regardless of the weapon they used. And when students lashed out, people sometimes died.

The likelihood of death in one-one-one incidents, however, varied a lot, depending on the weapon. A little over 10% of victims who died were beaten; another 20% were stabbed or slashed; and 70% were shot. Whether or not the angry kid actually murdered someone depended to a large degree on what was at hand. Guns were not only more deadly as a weapon, they were, for many kids, both nearby and easy to get. In many accounts a student got mad, took a legal gun from a dresser drawer or closet, went to school and shot someone.

* * * * * * *

In most accounts in our survey, an assailant was known or a suspect was identified. But in a substantial 10% of deaths the assailant was unknown. Almost all of these unknown assailants (nearly 90%) killed their victims with a gun.

As we reviewed the accounts we began to see an interesting connection between these unknown assailants and what would seem to be their school violence opposite: the mass shooter.

Unknown assailants shot into crowds, caught their victims in crossfire, or targeted them randomly in hit-and-run style shootings — sometimes as a real or misidentified member of a rival gang. Unknown shooters rarely seemed to know or target their victims personally, and they disappeared into the distance from which they shot.

The mass shooters, at least those who did not commit suicide, were not trying to disappear. They may have shot randomly, but they wanted, it seems, to be personally identified with their actions.

In both cases, the assailants relied on distance to carry out their intents.

It is this distance that partially explains the impulse to put armed guards in schools, to use a gun to turn distance back into an advantage. We found a handful of accounts of school violence incidents that were ended by someone else with a gun. In a few cases a police officer shot the shooter. Sometimes the arrival of another gun convinced the shooter to drop his or prompted the suicide the shooter planned all along. There were a couple of cases where a civilian used his own gun to hold a fleeing shooter until police arrived.

There were also accounts of armed officers who shot a teen committing a non-violent crime or whom the officer mistakenly thought had a gun. There were a few accidents. The stories are complicated. Like the unlucky hunters in my home state, these officers did not intend to hurt anyone. The just couldn’t see; the distance was too great between themselves and the people they shot.

* * * * * * *

So much has changed since the days when we didn’t think twice about the shotgun in the vehicle out in the school parking lot. Now we fret that our nephew will get expelled if a shell leftover from a weekend hunting trip rolls out from under the seat of his truck. We worry that our thirteen-year-old will roll his eyes at a disrespectful teacher and find himself in the justice system for insubordination, either kid a victim of the zero tolerance policies that are supposed to protect them from what we fear most.

But the deepest change may be in the national narrative itself.

American school violence was a long way from its birth when two Colorado teenagers shot and bombed their way from their high school’s parking lot to its library. But Harris and Klebold captured the imagination of dozens of vulnerable teens in a new and powerful way, suggesting a twisted glamour and personal importance bestowed by acts of mass violence. The evidence of their particular influence is in the accounts of many would-be copycats whose plans have been averted.

Perhaps even more importantly, those two teens helped deliver into popular American culture a creeping sense that mass violence is so close that all we can do is take individual actions to protect ourselves. The despair at the heart of the narrative of self-protection is easily abetted by a parallel narrative that defines freedom as the right to shoot back and thus secure ourselves against personal threat on the street and in our homes and, increasingly — so goes one thread of the narrative — against the political threat of government takeover.

* * * * * * *

As we were working on this report, a man killed a school bus driver and kidnapped a five-year-old in Alabama. It was in so many ways a rural story: a dirt road, a veteran, a bus load of K–12 students, a teenage girl leading her younger schoolmates to safety, a person known to his neighbors.

In this incident there was almost no distance. No apparent degree of separation between the people involved. No distance to speak of between the shooter and his victim. An achingly small distance between the boy and his captor in the bunker and the special units, media, and community gathered outside.

And almost no distance between the crisis and the political statements: ugly online comments about rednecks and guns; hateful calls to shoot the captor — a man known to suffer PTSD resulting from military service, and the widely circulated tweet: we don’t need gun control, we need Jesus.

That tweet reflects so much: the urgency of the politics; the plea of a faithful person in a crisis situation; perhaps, a call to get the politics out of a crisis in which a child’s life is balanced.

The participation of so many people in the politics of the particular situation in Midland City makes clear that a debate about guns is fully underway. At a deeper level, it’s a sign that the way we explain gun violence to ourselves is changing. The narrative of self-protection has lost some of its hold on the popular American imagination, challenged by a Connecticut man, too young to buy beer, with access to a legal stash of weapons that he used in a school that did everything right.

* * * * * * *

When we began this report we wanted to understand a lot more than we did about the nature of violence in American schools, about how schools and kids are vulnerable, about how events unfold, and especially about factors that reduce the likelihood of tragedy striking.

We knew going in that violence perpetrated by intruders is relatively rare. But we discovered as we compiled incidents that intruders, when they strike, tend to target elementary schools. Only about 10% of all incidents occurred in elementary schools, but close to half of the ones that did involved an adult intruder (or an adult who shot from an off-campus location). Forty percent of adults who perpetrated violence in schools did so in elementary schools.

The situation in middle and high schools is somewhat different. Adults accounted for only about 10% of incidents in these schools. Most violence came from within the schools, from students.

As we have already noted, the majority of deaths resulted from gunshot wounds. It is likely that some of the shooters would have found another means by which to kill the person they were after, but in many accounts it appeared that without a deadly weapon at hand the adolescent moment of rage would have passed without serious injury.

No accounts of incidents suggested that shooters had difficulty obtaining their weapon. Many got them from home. In three of the incidents that we identified, the shooter took a weapon from his police officer father or grandfather and committed an act of mass violence at school.

So many kids ended other people’s lives and ruined their own because nothing stood between them and a deadly weapon. No lock. No administrative hoop. Nothing to slow the rush of impulse, the flood of rage, the torment of humiliation. No adult oversight. No distance.

* * * * * * *

The formal policy debate in the U.S. is focused on who can have access to what kinds of weaponry. But the larger conversation is not just about guns and the right to bear and use them to protect one’s own; it’s about how we understand ourselves as Americans.

As we followed leads on incidents we often found ourselves on some website or another devoted to spinning the political interpretation of the incident. No incident is more politically contested than the 1997 shooting at Pearl High School in Mississippi.

In that incident, a 16-year-old used his brother’s deer rifle to kill two students and wound another seven. He had stabbed his mother to death earlier that morning. Upon hearing the shots, an assistant principal, a man with military training, ran to his car, retrieved his personal gun, then held the fleeing sophomore, who crashed his mother’s vehicle into a tree in the school parking lot, until police arrived. At issue is whether the actions of the assistant principal serve as an example of why arming school personnel is a good idea.

Supporters of the idea contend that the assistant principal stopped the student from continuing his rampage at another school and that he could, potentially, have intervened during the shooting had he had easier access to his gun. Opponents of arming school personnel argue that the sequence of events in the parking lot is unclear and that one possible instance of an armed school official intervening is too little to counter other examples of accidents and miscalculations involving armed school personnel.

Often our investigations took us to websites devoted to pro- or anti-gun regulation. It was on some of these sites that we were forced to confront radical positions about guns. There was no surprise to us when the Southern Poverty Law Center, which systematically monitors the activities of hate groups around the U.S., reported a significant uptick in hate group activity in response to proposed assault weapons regulations introduced in Congress. (See ABC News coverage here.)

This backdrop of extremist activity makes inflated and misleading rhetoric, especially from lawmakers, dangerous. Extreme talk incites extreme action, and angry bullying backs people into corners from which they sometimes respond with violence. Everyone can understand this human reality; it’s been a much-publicized factor in several high-profile school shootings. And everyone can help scale back the tone of the conversation in the interests of reducing the likelihood of a violent outburst from someone.

If inflammatory rhetoric is irresponsible, then the more-or-less tacit endorsement of some lawmakers for the claim that Americans need personal military arsenals to defend against imminent takeover by their own government is something more. It is hypocritical to be sure; presumably no one is inviting their political opponents to take up arms against them. Much more insidious, those wink-and-nods suggest that the very thing that defines America — its form of government — cannot work.

At the core of American democracy, imperfectly as it is often practiced, are mechanisms for people to help shape policy — the rules that govern us. It’s the basic tenet, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Policy gets made and changed and made again. Few people ever get all they want, but then few issues are ever permanently settled.

The gun debate is so heated, in part, because it is a policy debate. It feels scary because the stakes seems so high and the sides so far apart.

Yet this is the kind of hotly contested concern for which our democratic processes are intended. We don’t have to be pushed into one ideological camp or another; we can be freer than that. Our ability to get to a place that makes everyone feel safer, and in fact to be safer, lies in our ability to bridge the distance between the sides.

And for this challenge we have the most American of rights: our right to participate. Any of us, all of us, can take part just because we’re here.

* * * * * * *

A big problem in school safety is that we have distance all wrong. In many schools, maybe even most, there’s too much distance between groups of kids, between students and adults, between schoolwork and meaningful activity, between where kids are right now and a future that they can see as worth living into. On the other hand, there’s too little distance between kids and crushing judgments of who they are and what they can become; between minor mistakes and irrational consequences; between overwhelming emotion or impulsive decisions and the means to do real harm.

This isn’t to say that schools haven’t taken serious actions to prevent violence. Most schools have engaged their students in monitoring potential threats revealed by their classmates, and students have taken the charge seriously.

For this report, we found about fifty incidents in which an event of mass violence was averted because someone noticed and reported a potential problem. These were not occasions in which a student made a menacing statement or even had a “hit list.” These were students who had means to carry out a significant act of violence through some combination of weaponry, ammunition, explosives, a written action plan, or an annotated floor plan of the school.

Communicating to kids that threats cannot be brushed off and that school safety is the shared concern of everyone is an important first step. But it is only a first step.

In recent decades, American education reform has been driven by policies that rank and compare schools, judge kids and teachers and schools by single measures — usually test scores, sanction and shame those who fail to meet the standard, and hamstring possibility by punishing any who resist or pursue an alternative vision. In many communities, these policies have forced deadening curricula and over-reliance on competition, sorting, standardization, and punishment. The resulting tensions are as palpable as the atmosphere of frustration and dread that permeates a significant number of U.S. schools.

It seems almost gratuitous to point out that the values of conformity, intimidation, shaming, and stacked competition that undergird current policy are the substance of bullying and ostracizing. But it nevertheless seems important to make the connection given that bullying and ostracizing have spawned the alienation and anger behind many acts of school violence.

We have a much better chance of giving our kids genuinely safe schools with policies that help schools cultivate the quality of their interpersonal relationships and provide schools with the flexibility they need to find the strategies that work in their circumstances.

Personalized schools, which are not the same as “individualized” programs that often leave kids too much on their own, don’t all look the same. But they share common attributes. They make sure everyone has something valuable to do; they reward kindness and inclusion; they rely more heavily on collaboration than competition; and, they encourage creative and personal exploration and expression.

Such schools are not naïve about discipline. They expect good behavior and teach students to manage and resolve conflict. When students mess up, they are required to take actions to repair the damage they have done. Punishment is used sparingly; suspensions and expulsions are reserved for the most egregious offenses; and students are exposed to the criminal justice system only when they have committed a real crime.

There’s solid evidence that the positive climate that results from these approaches dramatically improves both behavior and academic outcomes.

We also need policies that free schools to build productive relationships with their communities. This means, first, that schools need to be in communities where it’s possible for families and neighbors to stake an interest. Schools connected to their communities have a better chance of understanding and responding to problems and pressures on students early. They are better able to seize opportunities to pool resources to provide supports and services. Most importantly, communities can help create opportunities for students to do school work that makes a difference to people other than themselves. This helps students see their own lives as serious and meaningful. The community is another arena in which a young person can be known, valued, and assisted, those relationships another bridge, another layer of protection for everyone.

Many rural schools know a lot about what it takes to create this kind of environment. They can teach other schools how to use small size as an advantage and how to integrate curricula with meaningful community activity. But not if they are consolidated out of existence or sacrificed to a single measure of what a school is allowed to be.

* * * * * * *

Those of us who worked in rural schools, not so long ago, didn’t fear the kid whose gun was in the back of his truck — because we knew him. And because we knew him, we trusted him. And because we trusted him, he had faith in us. We could all respect that learning to use a gun responsibly was a coming-of-age rite in many families. And we were all vested in the responsibility.

We won’t go back to the days when kids left their shotguns in their vehicles. That kind of innocence is shattered. There are too many guns, too little knowledge of what causes a person to snap, too much taint in our collective imaginations.

But there is even more reason now to get to know the kid and build the trust between us that vests us all in the future.

While Americans enter what looks to be a long debate about guns and gun access and ammunition clips, we don’t have to sit on our hands in putative defeat about school safety. There are all kinds of productive things to do that have no direct relationship to weaponry of any kind. By getting started, we’ll begin a new narrative, a narrative rooted in strength, the strength of standing up to violence, the strength it takes to engage across our differences.

No interest group wants kids to die, not violently, not at school or anywhere else. No one wants to live under the constant threat of violence, random or targeted. This is our common ground. This is where we can stand together, where we begin to recognize that our best protection is not from each other but with each other and our shared commitment to our country and its children.

The United States has a difficult history with violence and kids and schools. Yet there’s plenty of reason to hope. And seventy million reasons to act.

And we can do it, because, well, because we are here.

Robin Lambert
May 2013


Read more from the RPM Special Edition on School Violence.