When kids kill

guns don't kill people, kids do

Seventy-six students died violently during two school years in the early 1990s. Here's some who, what and where info. (Note that the school grade is unknown for three students).
Data source: "School-Associated Violent Deaths" (see bibliography).

Update [16 APR 2009]
The Why Files has revisited school murders and adult shooting rampages.

Update [16 APR 2007]
Thirty two are reported dead, and about the same number injured, in a massacre at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Va. The campus was "in a state of panic," according to one student. There were apparently two separate shootings on the campus, which has 25,000 students. The incidents were separated by almost two hours. Students and faculty want to know why they were not warned after the first shooting so classes could be closed.

Update [21 APR 1999]
Thirteen people are dead and 23 wounded in the worst school massacre in American history. The killing spree began at 11:30 a.m. and two alleged gunmen lay among their victims inside Columbine High School in Littleton, a Denver suburb. The worst carnage occurred in the library, where 12 bodies were reportedly found. The killers reportedly focused their rage at non-whites and athletes. According to CNN, the suspects were "fascinated with World War II and the Nazis." The massacre occurred on Adolf Hitler's birthday.

School shootings
POSTED 11 JUNE 1998 It happened again on Thursday, May 21. An armed youth strode into his school and opened fire with three guns. In a bloody scene practically lifted from countless gory movies -- or an increasing number of real American tragedies -- the 15-year-old fired 51 bullets at hundreds of human beings. When it was over, two students were dead and 22 injured. Back home, the police found the boy's parents also shot dead.

number of students killed by raceIt soon turned out that accused assailant, Kipland Kinkel, had been arrested the day before for trying to buy a stolen weapon at Thurston High School, the same school where he sprayed gunfire May 21. Threatening revenge, he was released to his parents' custody.

What happened next is not clear, but Kinkel was reported to be calm during the shooting and police interrogation. Maybe that was due to the Prozac that, according to the Associated Press, he was taking to help manage his anger.

The latest multiple school murder came on the heels of the March 24 sniper murders of four students and one teacher in Jonesboro, Ark., and four multiple murders of schoolchildren, by schoolchildren, during 1997.

This week, The Why Files accepts the grim task of looking at these killings. How much murder is occurring in schools? Why are kids killing kids? And what can we do to prevent it?

How much murder in our schools?
Despite the recent string of incidents, murders are so rare in American schools that the National Center For Education Statistics did not even report them separately in its survey, Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996-97.

number of students killed by gradeHowever, a nationwide study of violent deaths in schools by S. Patrick Kachur of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control found that during a two-year period 105 people (including 76 students) had died on school grounds or while traveling between home and school (see "School-Associated Violent Deaths..." in the bibliography).

For comparison, in 1993 there were 23,000 homicides in the United States. In 1996, 43,000 Americans died in motor vehicle accidents.

The Kachur study also found that 81 percent of the school deaths were homicides, with the remainder being suicides or accidents. Seventy-seven percent of the school deaths were caused by firearms; knives accounted for 17 percent. Fifty-one percent of the murder victims, and 50 percent of the perpetrators, were black non-Hispanics.

Are our schools safe?
The average incidence amounted to about one death per million student-years. Since not all the dead were students, this means a child who spends 13 years in average public schools has one chance in about 107,000 of a violent death in school, on school property, or while commuting to school.

That's the average figure. But schools aren't average places: The homicide rate was nine times higher in urban schools as in rural ones.

number of students killed by school districtPerhaps the most unsurprising fact was that 83 percent of the school victims, and 96 percent of the offenders, were male. There's nothing new about "young boys especially committing egregious crimes," says Shawn Johnston, a forensic psychologist in San Rafael, Calif. "There's reason to believe that boys 12 to 14 have been involved in a fair amount of murder and highway banditry," he says, noting that Billy the Kid started his criminal career as young as 14.

Two facts uncovered during the Kachur study indicate that the current wave of mass murders in American schools is as new as its seems: Only two schools had murders with multiple victims (versus at least five in the past 12 months), and only 18 percent of the attacks were "random victim events in which the person killed was not a party to the initial altercation."

Those are exactly the characteristics -- multiple, random killings -- that distinguish today's wave of school killings. But the headline-grabbing multiple killings should not mask the fact that there's lots of gun violence and crime in schools.

We're called The Why Files. Why are these killing sprees taking place?

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The Why Files Staff includes: Terry Devitt, editor; Darrell Schulte, webmaster; Dave Tenenbaum, feature writer; Susan Trebach, team leader