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CDC Profiles School Killers

Multiple slayings up, but campuses still safe, study says

TUESDAY, Dec. 4, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Typical school-ground killers are suicidal renegades who live at polar ends of the social spectrum: They either have gang ties or are loners. They often have criminal records, regularly use alcohol or drugs, or both, and have trouble with their peers and authority.

And slightly more than half their murderous acts are preceded by a note, journal entry or other more direct tip-offs, says a new study by researchers who say that paying close attention to all these factors may defuse campus attacks.

"We definitely believe that most of these events can be prevented," says Dr. Mark Anderson, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and lead author of a study reported this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association. However, Anderson says no one yet knows exactly how important each risk factor is. "We don't really know how many of these signals are valid," he says.

The study results come in the wake of the latest episode of what could have been another school disaster. Earlier this month, authorities in New Bedford, Mass., foiled what appears to be a Columbine copycat plot by a group of students at a local high school to kill their classmates and then take their own lives. At Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colo., two young students killed 15 people -- 12 students, a teacher and then themselves -- on April 20, 1999.

The study analyzed 220 deadly school-ground attacks and suicides between 1994 and 1999 and found that while single killings are on the wane, multiple murders are becoming relatively more common. In 1999, 42 percent of school killings claimed more than one victim, up from none in 1992, the researchers say. This new JAMA study is an extension of an earlier CDC study that looked at school-linked violent deaths from 1992-'94.

Of the 253 deaths in the attacks, 172, or 68 percent, involved students, and 30 were suicides. Overall, America's schools remain extremely safe, with 0.068 deaths per 100,000 students each year, the study says.

Of the 279 known perpetrators, just under 37 percent were students, the researchers say. The rest were usually community residents (about 26 percent) or apparently random assailants (18 percent). A few scattered cases involved faculty and staff members, relatives of students and other people. Police shootings claimed five lives.

Boys were more than twice as likely as girls to be killed in school, and most deaths occurred in the suburbs, followed by urban and then rural campuses, the researchers say. But homicides, rather than suicides, were more common in cities, which may help explain why blacks were three times more likely than whites to die violently on campus, say the researchers.

Killings were 14 times more common at senior high schools and combined campuses than in elementary schools, and they tended to occur during transition times, such as before class, at lunch and at the end of the day.

The researchers say about 54 percent of the fatal events had a direct harbinger, such as a note, threat or other signal, and nearly half the cases of violence stemmed from a personal gripe. Signs of pending violence were more common for suicides than murders.

The study didn't analyze the data to determine if student killers were more likely than other assailants to offer clues about their deadly intent.

Anderson's group also tried to identify common behaviors that might be considered indirect omens of trouble. They developed a list of 15 factors, including being treated for depression, hanging out with the wrong crowd and belonging to gangs associated with violence. Perpetrators, for example, were more than twice as likely as their victims to have been bullied by fellow students, but they were much less likely to have participated in after-school programs.

Anderson cautions that parents shouldn't necessarily be worried if their children fall into one or more of these categories. "The intent is to provide a global picture of what the group of perpetrators looks like in a very broad stroke." But, he says the study might offer school officials a window onto which students are likely to become embroiled in violence.

With some factors, such as bullying, there are ways to reduce the problem, Anderson notes. In Europe, bullying prevention programs have cut the rate of aggressive behavior in certain schools by 50 percent, he says. A report earlier this year said 17 percent of American school children are bullied.

Anderson and his colleagues also recommend violence prevention programs, counseling, closer monitoring for flare-ups during especially crowded periods of the day and other interventions to help minimize friction between students.

But will a checklist of risk factors really help school officials and police prevent campus violence?

New Bedford Police Lt. Richard Spirlet says the would-be murderers in his city likely wouldn't have been discovered in time without the information of one of the alleged perpetrators, a girl who'd discussed the plan with a teacher she'd befriended. "We were hearing a little something but nothing concrete. That girl was very instrumental," as was the teacher, Spirlet says.

Spirlet says investigators were "quite astonished" at how much one of the alleged conspirators -- whose plot included setting off small explosives to drive their victims into the hallways where they'd be easier targets -- matched a recently released FBI profile of potential school killers. That profile includes more than two dozen suspicious behaviors, some of which have been criticized as being over-broad and normal.

Yet even with detailed portraits, Spirlet says there's no substitute for students who trust teachers enough to go to them with threats from their classmates, and for students who are receptive to the advice of school authorities. "There has to be two-way communication," he says.

Yet Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in Washington, D.C., says the numbers of children killed in schools each year are so small that declaring the existence of a trend is next to impossible. As a result, Schiraldi says, the findings are "virtually meaningless in terms of setting public policy."

Moreover, he says, it's not at all clear what policymakers should do to address the issue. "People have leapt to searches, metal detectors" and other technologies and approaches to make schools safer, "but assaults in schools are happening at about the same rate as they did in the 1970s," he says. And since murder rates outside the school yard are at 30 year lows, it doesn't seem that children are more bent on killing than they used to be.

It's possible that kids now have access to more sophisticated weaponry, he suggests, and that eliminating those guns would save lives. "That's one argument," says Schiraldi, but not one he prefers.

What To Do

To find out more about school violence and how to prevent it, try the Center for the Prevention of School Violence at North Carolina State University or the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

You can also check The National Campaign to End School Violence.

For more on violence in the media and its impact on children, try the Center for Media Education.

The Rocky Mountain News has a roundup report on the Columbine shootings.

SOURCES: Interviews with Mark Anderson, M.D., M.P.H., medical epidemiologist, CDC, Atlanta, Vincent Schiraldi, president, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Washington, D.C., and Lt. Richard M. Spirlet, spokesman, New Bedford, Mass., Police Department; Dec. 5, 2001 Journal of the American Medical Association
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