RPM Special Edition on School Violence:
Violence Begets Violence: Revenge, Copycatting, Triggers, and Threads

Last Updated: March 27, 2013

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Special Edition on School Violence

Violence is potent fuel for more violence. That reality was underscored repeatedly in media accounts of school incidents. We were, in fact, surprised by how frequently we saw incidents that were related in some way to a previous violent event.

We found four primary ways in which one incident of violence spurred another.

Revenge was the most obvious and most frequent way in which violence replicated itself. Whether the violent incident was a personal tit-for-tat, a neighborhood turf war, or a Mass Violence event, the accounts made clear that many assailants wanted to avenge some real or perceived injury or injustice to themselves or one of their own.

Copycatting took a surprising variety of forms. In a number of cases, the copycat incident was directly related to a precedent. For example, in 1992 a 14-year-old opened fire in his Napa, California junior high school just two weeks after a 20-year-old former student killed four and injured ten at nearby Lindhurst High School.

A mass shooting in Granite Hills, California in 2001 occurred less than three weeks after a mass shooting in Santee, just a few miles away. A teenage girl in a rural school stabbed a classmate to death; later that year in a rural school in the same region of the same state, another girl stabbed one of her classmates to death.

The first Columbine copycat opened fire at his school in Conyers, Georgia one month to the day later. Almost every year since students have been investigated for planning mass shootings styled after Columbine.

Adults appear at least as susceptible to copycatting as students. The first modern event of Mass Violence in an elementary school happened in 1979. In that case a 16-year-old girl opened fire on the elementary school playground across the street from her home. (She had received her gun as a Christmas present.) Within a decade, two more shooters, both of whom were in their 20s, had committed similar schoolyard massacres, shooting onto school playgrounds from off-campus locations. Altogether these incidents killed eight and injured 52 children plus several adults.

In 2000, a 55-year-old man walked into a Red Lion, Pennsylvania elementary school with a machete and slashed 13 children and teachers. A few weeks later, a 32-year-old man carried a machete onto the playground of an elementary school in Anchorage, Alaska and slashed at children, injuring four.

In some cases, the connections between incidents were less obvious, but nonetheless powerful. In 2006, a 32-year-old Pennsylvania truck driver began to assemble supplies and weapons to seize a school, molest and kill students, and commit suicide. Before he had completed his preparations, a 54-year-old in Colorado took a class of high school students hostage, molested a group of girls, killed one of them and then himself. News of the Colorado incident, however, was largely displaced when, several days later, the Pennsylvania truck driver committed one of the deadliest acts of modern elementary school violence prior to Newtown.

There were also incidents where one thing seemed to lead to another. For example, the well-known incident in Jonesboro, Arkansas in 1998 in which two 13-year-olds pulled the fire alarm and shot teachers and students as they exited the school building, killing five and injuring ten, was preceded three months earlier by an incident in Stamps, Arkansas in which a 14-year-old hid in the woods and fired sniper shots at students standing in the parking lot. The Stamps incident injured two and received far less media attention, although it is likely the Jonesboro assailants knew about it.

Triggering. Some incidents of school violence were not so much copied as triggered. They did not directly follow or mimic another incident, but they seemed to occur within a general atmosphere of heightened tension or anger, as if precipitated by a prior incident.

Threads. As we organized incidents chronologically and by location, we began to notice patterns between some incidents that had no direct connection.

For example, the sniper incident in Stamps was not the first shooting in that school. And the slashing incident in Red Lion was one of a number of violent incidents in southeastern Pennsylvania schools over several years. Likewise, the incident in Anchorage was also one of a number of injury incidents in that city. An on-campus adult domestic violence murder took place on the same campus several years after one of the rural stabbing incidents. A child committed suicide on the site of one of the playground massacres.

We also noticed that some places appeared more frequently in our collection of incidents than others. Of six accounts of fatal school shootings in Colorado, three occurred in the school district that is home to Columbine High. We found accounts of three school homicides in Tucson, the same number we found in Phoenix, a metropolitan area nearly ten times larger. These numbers are too small to draw any conclusions, but we note that Arizona is a state with a high gun violence rate.

The correlation between school homicides and general gun violence rates repeated itself. In South Carolina, for example, also a state with high gun violence rates, we found about 20 school incidents, as many as in Ohio, a much larger state, and 50% more than in Virginia, also a much larger state.

Breaking cycles. Research in sociology, family studies, and criminal justice makes clear that violent behavior is to a large extent learned behavior and that violence is more likely to occur in social and cultural contexts where it is tolerated or viewed as inevitable. Our collection of school incidents suggests that perpetrators of school violence are, in many cases, learning or at least getting ideas from each other.

The incidents also suggest that one risk factor for a violent school event is having already had a violent incident in the school or in a school nearby.

It is clear that schools cannot prevent all acts of violence. They often have little control over events outside their walls. But our sense of the accounts of school violence underscore the importance of schools being proactive to prevent violence and to disrupt further violence if something happens. Schools, with sufficient policy supports, can create supportive school environments and teach students non-violent ways to resolve conflict and handle aggressive emotions.

The accounts of school violence also suggest the need to help students make age-appropriate sense of violent events when they occur so that the events hold less of the fascination and perceived inevitability that invite re-enactment. Awareness might also help prompt quick response in the event of a copycat action. Schools face a delicate balancing act in this regard, however. While raising awareness might help prevent another incident, giving too much attention to violent events can also make them seem more common than they are and increase student preoccupation with violent activity.

Violence is not inevitable and rates of violent activity are not consistent within or across communities, demographic groups, or cultures. But violence seems to have a cyclical nature and it often escalates. Deliberate efforts to defuse specific conflicts and dial back an overall climate of hostility and blame are key steps toward reducing the likelihood of violent tragedy.

Smart school practices work to prevent tragedy and make intentional proactive responses if violence strikes.

See “Schools Inside and Out” for policy recommendations to support schools to reduce violence.


Read more from the RPM Special Edition on School Violence.