Rash Of School Shootings Leaves Violence Specialists Baffled

Atypically, two recent incidents were committed by adults.

The images from the past week were sadly familiar.

Frantic calls following reports of gunfire at rural schools and the horrifying stories of students or administrators murdered by revenge-seeking killers. But the grim post-Columbine legacy of school shootings took on a new face with two of the most recent incidents, in which it was adults who chose the most vulnerable victims.

The case of Eric Hainstock, a 15-year-old Wisconsin boy who killed his school's principal on September 29, fit the by-now-typical profile of a troubled male teen searching for attention, with court records showing evidence of physical abuse at home, taunting by classmates and reports that he had been disciplined for having tobacco at school the day before the shooting.

But the September 27 murder of a female student at a Colorado high school by 53-year-old drifter Duane Morrison — who sexually assaulted his female hostages before killing one and taking his own life — as well as Monday's rampage by 32-year-old Charles Roberts, who entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania heavily armed and tied up and murdered four young girls (a fifth died of her injuries a day later) before killing himself, added a frightening new wrinkle to the recent history of school violence.

The two incidents are among the rare recent occasions where outsiders chose schools as targets, and school-safety professionals said they were further evidence that in addition to schools taking responsibility for protecting their pupils, students also need to be actively aware of strangers in their midst and report any suspicious activity.

Mostly, though, experts are at a loss to explain what the most recent school shootings might mean. "We don't have a clue [about how to explain these incidents], to be perfectly honest," said Katherine Newman, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the 2004 book, "Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings."

Newman said that in the shootings she studied in her book, the killers — all male teens — were students who attacked schools for a similar reason. "In a small community, the school is the biggest public stage," she said. "If you're looking to hurt the community, that's where you go."

Like Pennsylvania officials, Newman suspected that Roberts' decision to attack the Amish school was more a crime of opportunity than a plot against that particular schoolhouse. Police announced on Tuesday that Roberts told his wife that he had molested two young family members, aged 3 or 4, more than 20 years ago and wrote in his suicide note that he had been plagued recently by dreams about the incidents. "It appears he was after a particular kind of victim," she said of Roberts, whose wife has told authorities that the father of three left behind a note indicating he was angry at God about the death of their premature daughter nine years ago and the unexplained, two-decades-old incident. "And those kinds of victims were at that school."

Newman said she tracked the modern spate of school shootings back to the mid 1970s, finding that they spiked in the 1990s, culminating with the April 1999 Columbine massacre, in which two disaffected teens killed 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves in the worst school massacre in U.S. history (see "Columbine Killers' Writings Show Genesis of Deadly Plot").

She said these shootings typically occur in small, rural towns and are carried out by a "marginal boy" who feels like a social failure and wants to change his reputation by turning himself into the kind of "alluring, violent male character" he sees portrayed in the media.

Though school shootings had been going on for years before, for some reason, Newman said the Columbine massacre has become a kind of morbid touchstone because of the intense media coverage and the slow unfolding of the story during the long standoff that played out on national television. "The number of incidents were creeping up before Columbine, but it was so emblematic in the media that it created a whole new category of murders," she said. "They went from being mass murders to school shootings."

William Lassiter, manager of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, which offers training for schools and students about violence awareness, said the two recent adult rampages don't fit any profile his organization has seen. In fact, out of 492 school-violence fatalities since 1992, only four have involved random, external people coming onto campuses they had no connection to. Eight students have died in the two most recent outsider shootings; 10 were killed in the previous four such incidents.

The string of disturbing shootings has spurred President Bush to action. Bush said that he will convene a meeting of law enforcement and education officials next week to try and find out what the federal government can do to help stem the tide of deadly incidents and help communities cope with the aftermath when they do occur.

Despite a large increase in security measures at schools across the country over the past decade, Lassiter said the two most recent adult killers may have chosen their targets because those locations lacked modern technology and tight security measures that might have prevented the attacks. "They were looking for young females to hurt and they knew these schools were unprotected, unlike a school in New York City, where you might find metal detectors and only one unlocked door," Lassiter said.

"Schools have been dealing with these threats to campus for a long time, but they've been mainly focused on internal threats, trying to identify students who might be planning something," he said. "There's no way for these schools to know that these outside individuals would target them, so there's less they can do to prevent it."

Some things Lassiter said schools can do is to lock more doors, have students wear ID badges and teach staff and students to challenge people who come on campus who don't look like they belong. "In the Colorado shooting, three or four students walked up to the individual and they knew he shouldn't be there, but they didn't do anything," Lassiter said. "Students have to be responsible for their own safety too. If you see something that doesn't look right, tell someone."