Tragedies Reflect Patterns in School Violence

Last Updated: October 29, 2013

This article appeared in the October 2013 Rural Policy Matters.

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The school shooting in Sparks, Nevada bears many of the hallmarks of mass event school violence in the U.S.: a very young shooter, a teacher whose heroic actions helped protect nearby students, and easy access by the shooter to a gun.

The 12-year-old Sparks Middle School student wounded two classmates and killed teacher Mike Landsberry before fatally shooting himself. Landsberry had tried to persuade the boy to put the gun down enabling many nearby students to run to safety.

In the fraught aftermath of such events, it is difficult to determine whether the student had experienced bullying or other social difficulties at school. Some reports indicate he was shouting things like: “Why are you laughing at me?” Evidence available at this time does not seem to suggest the boy sought out individual victims.

Many districts across the country, including Wahoe County Schools where Sparks Middle is located, have implemented anti-bullying programs. These programs have emerged, in part, in response to a widely held idea that some school shooters are reacting to personal experiences of bullying, sometimes associated with a culture of bullying in the school.

Specific events at Sparks Middle School underscore the challenges of addressing the problem, especially for young adolescents. Authorities are looking into an anti-bullying video reportedly shown at the school earlier this month. The video is said to depict a bullied student threatening others with a gun.

The murder of Colleen Ritzer, who taught at Danvers High School in Massachusetts, reflects a more common form of deadly school violence: an incident in which one or two people are killed in an act that is not part of a mass violence attack.

Authorities, citing video surveillance and other evidence, have charged a 14-year-old student in the stabbing death. The 9th grader has pleaded not guilty. Ritzer had provided after-school tutoring to the student on the day of the murder.

At the time of this article, there were no reports of serious mental health issues, misconduct, or family difficulties for either student.

Patterns in deadly school violence

The tragedies in Sparks and Danvers are the latest incidents in a history of deadly violence in U.S. schools. In March, the Rural Trust released the report, Violence in U.S. K–12 Schools, 1974–2013: Patterns in Deadly Incidents and Mass Threat, which explores 800 incidents. (Download the pdf here.)

The report found 80 incidents it defines as “mass violence events.” Those incidents had three or more victims (injuries, deaths, suicide); or, the incident targeted victims randomly, had the potential to kill or inflict serious harm on multiple victims, and injured at least one person. The Sparks tragedy is the 81st incident of mass event violence. Those incidents have now claimed 157 lives.

The report found that most perpetrators of mass event violence in schools were students (56%), with 6% of perpetrators aged 13 or younger. (Age was unreported in another 14% of incidents.) Guns accounted for 99% of deaths in these incidents. Known histories of mental health problems and/or experiences of bullying or abuse among perpetrators indicate these issues were a factor in some, but not all, of the incidents.

Mass event violence, however, accounts for only about 25% of violent deaths in school. Violence in U.S. K–12 Schools found that nearly three times as many people, some 450 individuals, died in incidents the report defines as “single events.” These incidents include suicides and homicides that targeted one or two individuals and occurred during school hours on campus, buses, or at school events. Incidents in which one person dies at school are more difficult to track in media accounts than are mass violence incidents and are likely undercounted in the report.

Students and teens were the most common perpetrators (77%) in “single event” incidents in schools, with 33% of perpetrators aged 15 or younger. Stabbings accounted for 20% of deaths; gunshots accounted for 68%, and beatings accounted for 12%.

In August, a 20-year-old opened fire on a suburban Atlanta (Decatur) elementary school, prompting police fire in response. No one was injured after a school staff member talked the shooter into putting down his gun.

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Sparks, Nevada

Danvers, Massachusetts

Taft, California

Decatur, Georgia


Read more from the October 2013 Rural Policy Matters.