This week's shooting incident at Virginia Tech has spawned intense media coverage, much of which has served to perpetuate myths about school shootings.
The first myth is that this latest shooting is a point in an escalation of such incidents. Although rampage school shootings increased during the 1990s, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, school shootings virtually came to a halt. One explanation is that school officials have gotten better at foiling shooting plots before they materialize. Furthermore, since the 1970s, most types of school crime have declined or remained unchanged.
School is still one of the safest places for young people. In-school homicides and suicides account for only a small percentage of the total number of juvenile homicides and suicides.
The second myth concerns the effect of mass media on copycat shootings. Some have called for a toning down of the coverage of the shooting on the grounds that it may lead to copycat shootings. Sound arguments can be made for squelching the media hype (such as not wanting to create fear of school crime), but a concern over copycat killings is not one of them.
It is unlikely that watching footage of school shootings will increase the likelihood of violent crime. Unlike other forms of media violence (such as violent video games), the violence in the news is not glorified, and the shooter is not portrayed as a hero. Mass media may affect the modus operandi of those already bent on a shooting, but media attention is unlikely to lead otherwise law-abiding young people to commit school shootings. In addition, responsible journalism has the potential to reduce the number of school shootings by making students, teachers, school administrators and others more aware of the causes and warning signs and more likely to report a problem when they see one.
The third myth is that it is possible (or desirable) to isolate a single cause of school shootings. Many have singled out such explanations as a culture of violence, easy access to guns, violent video games, bullying and the use of prescription drugs, including antidepressants. Although all of these factors can likely be implicated in school shootings, it is usually impossible to identify a single factor that leads someone to commit a school shooting. This is because many students are affected by at least one of these factors, and yet the vast majority of students are not school shooters. Rather, attention should be paid to the cluster of factors that leads to school shootings.
The fourth myth is that it is possible to construct a criminal profile of a school shooter. Profiling of school shooters is notoriously difficult and unreliable. Because factors implicated in school shootings describe many students, any profile would necessarily produce a large number of "false positives." Fortunately, school shootings are rare events, and there are only a handful of cases on which to construct a valid profile. Also, criminal profiling is designed to predict who will commit crimes, not where they will commit them.
Another impediment to profiling, especially of adolescents, is that they not fully developed psychologically or emotionally, and it may be difficult to pin down the psychological and social characteristics of shooters if they change over time. Moreover, profiling may increase feelings of persecution on the part of a potential shooter, increasing the likelihood of an attack. Finally, many legal issues would arise in the use of profiles.
The fifth myth is that the shooter simply "cracked" or succumbed to a "trigger." In the immediate wake of Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui's rampage, some commentators pointed to possible romantic rejection as such a trigger. While school shooters (and mass murderers in general) have often had their masculinity called into question through rejection by girls, being teased for being "gay" or possessing feminine physical characteristics, a school shooting is not a spontaneous act. Rather, the idea tends to enter the shooter's mind long before he pulls the trigger, and many shooters take a great deal of pride in "putting on a show" to prove to others that they are not "wimps." The killing is one last attempt at solving the shooter's social problems.
The final myth involves the importance of mental illness. Although most school shooters have been diagnosed with mental disorders, in many cases, the diagnoses occurred after the shooting. School shooters are often portrayed as unpopular loners who suffer from psychological problems. However, school shooters are not typically without friends - although these friends are often members of unpopular or marginalized social groups.
Mental disorders in place before a shooting may prevent an individual from dealing with stressors - such as social isolation - with which mentally healthy young people would be able to cope, and may reduce inhibitions to violence. However, if we are to prevent school shootings, we need to move past individualistic explanations that rely on mental illness, and move toward a more comprehensive understanding of how society drives such individuals to kill.
Joseph Gasper is a doctoral student in sociology at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches courses on school violence. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.