School Shootings

According to school violence statistics, school shooting incidents have increased dramatically. This article contains some statistics on school shootings, a profile of people who have participated in school shootings, and tips on what to do about school violence.

School shootings make up a small percentage of youth violence, but they are traumatic events for students, communities, and the nation. Beginning in the 1970s, school shootings have increased and have affected communities across the nation. School shooters do not have a single profile, nor a single reason for their attacks, but there are some ways that adults and students can reduce the chances of an attack occurring.

Schools are sometimes just the place where violence happens, such as in drug or gang related attacks, but in some cases they are the place chosen for an attack. Attackers may target a particular person, a particular group, or the school itself. The U.S. Secret Service did a study on incidents of targeted school shootings, and, as of 2000, found 37 such incidents, beginning in 1974, with the number of incidents increasing each decade. They report that the odds of a high school teen being killed at school in a school shooting for the previous decade were 1 in one million.

In their study of school shootings, the Secret Service found:

  • Most school shootings occur during the school day, with some happening before or after
  • All of the attackers were males
  • Most of the attackers used guns; some used more than one
  • Most attacks were done alone, with a few involving more than one shooter or another person helping in the planning of the school shooting
  • The study also found that such attacks are almost always planned. The attackers usually did not threaten their victims beforehand, but other students knew that the attacker was planning something. In over half of the cases, a peer influenced or encouraged the shooter in their plans. Also, in most cases adults noticed behavior prior to the attack that worried them.

There is no single profile that describes the attackers. They come from a variety of ethnic groups, family situations, social groups at school, and levels of academic achievement. Many were part of the mainstream social group and had excellent grades. Most had never been in trouble at school or with the law or acted violently before. A small percentage had previously been diagnosed with mental health problems. The attackers did have some things in common:

  • The attackers were males, 11 to 21, most between 13 and 18
  • Almost all, 98 percent, suffered a loss of some sort before the attack and failed to cope with it well, becoming depressed or suicidal, and thinking of retaliation. The loss could be one of status, relationship, job, or health of the attacker or a loved one.
  • Many attackers had been bullied, or felt injured or persecuted by others. In some cases the bullying was severe, and bullying seems to have been a factor in at least some of the attacks
  • Most attackers had previous access to weapons and had used them before
  • Most of the school shooting attackers were current students at the school, a few were former students
  • Most showed no or few academic or behavioral changes before the attack, or even improved school performance
  • One quarter were known to have abused alcohol or other drugs
  • Over half of the attackers showed an interest in violence through books, movies, video games or, especially, their own creative works, such as stories or poetry
  • Usually the attackers chose a specific target or targets ahead of time.
  • School staff, faculty, or administrators were slightly more likely than fellow students to be chosen as targets
  • The targets were among the victims in about half of the cases
  • Over half of the non-target victims were students.
  • Most attackers had multiple motivations, including: revenge, seeking attention or recognition, trying to fix a perceived problem, or suicide

At least some school shootings may be preventable if students and adults know what to watch for. School administrators, faculty, and law enforcement should move quickly if there is an indication of a potential school shooting, because the amount of time spent planning can be very short. Students and peers are often the ones who known about a potential attack, so they should be encouraged to be part of the prevention process.

Adults should take seriously any information they receive from students about a potential attack, and should make sure students feel comfortable coming forward.

Peers who have contact with the potential attacker should be contacted by adults if there is a concern about a student planning an attack. Inquiries should be handled carefully so the student of concern is not further isolated or made to feel harassed.

  • Adults should focus on behaviors and not profiles to identify potential shooters.
  • While many students will face losses and failures, few will pose a threat to others as a result. Educators should be trained to recognize signs that a student is not coping well with a loss or failure.
  • Bullying in schools, while not always a factor in attacks, should be prevented by adults.
  • Access to weapons is an important factor in an attack. Students should be aware guns will not be tolerated on campus, and adults should have a plan in place to deal with guns brought to school. Adults should be aware of student attempts to acquire weapons, and parents should restrict access to weapons in the home, such as by removing guns or keeping them securely locked where a teen cannot access them.
  • Parents and other adults should be aware of influences in a student’s life, since friends are often a factor in planning an attack.
  • Schools should have a plan in place for dealing with an attack.


Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Reddy, M., Borum, R., & Modzeleski, W.,

The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the

Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. U.S. Department of Education,

Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools

Program and U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center, Washington, D.C., 2002.

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