Today, there was yet another school shooting, this time in Wisconsin. A fifteen year old male special ed student, who had received a disciplinary note just a couple of days ago, shot the principal of his high school in the head, chest and leg. After several hours of surgery, it is being reported that the principal has died. This continues a deadly trend that seems to happen every year, but which never happened when I grew up.
Why is this?
It is tempting for some to blame the availability of guns, but that is exactly wrong. Guns were more available when I was a kid than they are now, what with background checks, limits on who can buy them and on sellers. Guns have always been readily available for those who want them, whether for good or evil, but the fact is that when I was a kid (mostly in the 1970's) no one thought about shooting anyone at school. In fact, when I was in ROTC in high school we had marksmanship and training with guns (and that isn't where I first learned to handle one either-- my father started taking me out shooting when I was seven.) But no one thought about shooting people at a school.
One could argue that media coverage of school shootings plays into why there are now more of them. In fact, just a few days before today's shooting, a deranged man in Colorado barged into a school and took six female hostages, molested all of them, and then killed one of them and himself. Did news coverage of that event lead today's shooter to consider a gun as a way to 'get back' at the principal for the disciplinary note? Perhaps, but not enough is known and the two cases are different other than the fact that they both involve guns in schools.
On the more general question of whether news coverage of school shootings has at least put the idea into the heads of disturbed kids who may then act on it, that does seem a rational explanation, but we have to be very careful then about not jumping to the simplistic conclusion that if the news would no longer cover these events then they wouldn't happen anymore.
For one thing, asking the media not to cover anything is risky. There are some cases in which information is left out of the news-- for example the rape shield exemption in which the victim of an alleged rape is not named, along with the reluctance of most news outlets to name minors accused of a crime (which may not apply in this case because the crime is murder), or if the information detrimental to national security (I've myself chosen not to discuss a couple of items I either know or have considered as possible threats on this blog because of security concerns, even though I would put the likelihood of terrorists actually reading Deep Thought as very low.) However, when we start asking the media to actually not even report that something has happened, then we enter a slippery slope towards censorship. Far better to try and figure out how to stop 'copycat crimes,' even when they are as serious as this, than that we move in any way towards a world in which news is not reported. That said, we could consider how important this news is.
A school shooting is certainly huge news in the community where it occurs and the people who live there deserve to know it, as do residents of surrounding communities which might be involved. But at a larger, national level is it really worth breaking into coverage of other TV programs for, as happened tonight? This is certainly a horrible thing for the citizens of a rural region in Wisconsin, but then so too is a fatal traffic accident or any other murder, but living in Arizona I don't hear about every traffic fatality nor every murder that occurs in the state of Wisconsin. And there is no reason why I should. If the scale of the murder is very large or if there are other issues (i.e. Columbine) then a school shooting rampage certainly does require a national discussion, but unless this is the case maybe the media does oversensationalize these particular crimes. But if they want to quit reporting them nationally, that is a decision that the media should make by themselves and not because Congress or anyone else tells them what to report on.
It is also unfair to just blame the media. There are a multitude of reasons why these crimes occur. And to start with, most kids by the time they are in high school know that as a historical fact there have been school shootings (they exist) but they themselves don't feel compelled to go get a gun and start firing. So the better question to ask is what makes the kids who do that different? What predictors can be used.
And we have several. In almost every case the shooter has been described as a 'loner,' and often has been the victim of bullying while in school. Schools as a result have become much more aggressive in combatting bullying than they used to, and that is a good thing. It is especially a good thing for the bullies, who often it turns out have an unstable home life and with the renewed emphasis it is in some cases allowing those families to be identified and get the help they need or in rare cases the kids to be removed from the home if it is unsuitable for raising children.
We have also seen that in a number of cases (as was the case here) the shooter has gotten into trouble at school. Perhaps conseling may be needed to help kids who get into trouble at school move forward with addressing their problems instead of just shuffling them off into detention or suspension and welcoming them back when it is over.
Many school shooters have written online or in emails to friends exactly what they are thinking. We need to be better adept at finding it on the web before it becomes reality.
There are many other reasons which are sometimes cited, though I cannot say which if any of them are valid-- some of them include violent video/computer games, violence on TV and the movies, drugs, abusive parents, difficulty with schoolwork, and the all-too-familiar 'That couldn't be MY kid, it's somebody else's' type parent.
We don't fully know yet how to prevent school shootings but certainly any ideas are welcome.