Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings

Newman, Katherine S.
Perseus Books Group, Boulder, CO

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Cover of book In 1997, Michael Carneal marched into his Kentucky school with a loaded rifle, quickly killing three students and wounding five others. The next year, Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson sat in a wooded hill overlooking their Arkansas schoolyard. With 200 people standing outside, they opened fire, killing three students and one teacher, and injuring ten others. A string of similar incidents transpired in the USA, including the massacre at Colorado's Columbine High School, whose horrifying image of the 'Trench Coat Mafia' stalking their classmates is now inscribed in popular culture.

These crimes went against the tide of broader societal trends, however. As Katherine Newman notes, most varieties of reported crime have declined across North America, including those in schools. Yet, one species rose in the late 1990s: 'rampage' school shootings. Newman defines rampages as an extraordinary kind of attack. Unlike simple cases of seeking personal revenge, they involve an assault on randomly selected, multiple parties, and thus represent an offensive on the entire institution. This violence, Newman argues, was epidemic in the late 90s, and not a mere by-product of media hype. While acknowledging that American schools remain relatively safe places, six school shootings occurred 1998 alone, with several more plots being fortunately foiled in later years.

Newman and her research team investigated the Kentucky and Arkansas incidents, visiting those communities, and conducting 163 interviews with families, students, teachers, administrators, journalists, and professionals. The book devotes detailed chapters to each case, and then several more to construct a sociological theory for the 25 rampage shootings that occurred in the USA between 1974 and 2002. In contrast to most popular explanations, no shooter suddenly 'snapped' in a psychotic rage. Rather, each perpetuator carefully planned their assault well in advance. Further, while American inner cities may be global symbols of violence and mayhem, almost all rampages occurred in small communities, those idealized by many as tight-knit, family-oriented, and relatively peaceable. Most shooters had histories of strained family lives, but few were products of single-parent homes. Newman thus set out to situate these facts in broad sociological context.

Her theory has several premises. First, school shootings are rare events. Millions of American teens endure all sorts of problems without resorting to violence. The key is to recognize that shootings occur only when several factors converge, all being necessary but none sufficient. Next, theories of violence derived from studies of impoverished inner cities do not apply well to school rampages, since only 2 of 25 incidents erupted in urban settings, and only a few involved racial minorities. Instead, rampages mostly erupted in relatively stable small towns with a variety of socioeconomic circumstances. While such locales are typically praised for their thick personal ties, Newman sees a dark side to this social capital. Densely interconnected networks of friends and family can be suffocating for youthful misfits, especially when school-based pecking orders are the only status game in town. When unpopular youth lack refuges from homogeneous peer groups, they experience an unbearable social claustrophobia. Finally, the gendered dimensions of these crimes must be recognized. All of the shooters were males who struggled to live up to masculine ideals, and in almost all cases, they acted to defy being labelled as ineffectual nerds or geeks. Since schools are one of the few public stages in small towns, they are natural symbolic targets of rage.

From these premises Newman forwards five necessary conditions for rampages. First, the shooter must see himself as marginal to his immediate social worlds, and as having lowly status in peer hierarchies. Some were victims of bullying and ridicule, but often they simply felt socially isolated, resentful, and desperate. Second, they suffer from a host of individual vulnerabilities that magnify the impact of this marginality, i.e. shooters' deteriorating mental states worsened their sense of isolation and paranoia. Rather than being impulsive or suddenly erratic, the shooters' great common fault was to ruminate and obsess over their social difficulties. Most had at least once attempted suicide. Third, all shooters had access to 'cultural scripts' that glorify armed attack. By venerating social blueprints that connect manhood to violence, guns, domination, and the thrill of terrifying the innocent, would-be shooters understood that outward aggression would somehow reinstate their status. In their own minds, these scripts offered a 'masculine exit' from social subordination.

Fourth, local surveillance systems failed to provide warnings. Most shooters were doing moderately well in school, and most lacked extensive histories of criminality. Yet, Newman argued that enough warning signs were present in each case. Shooters usually uttered threats leading to their rampages, but were not heard beyond their peers, or were ignored by adults. These would-be killers thus fell under the radar screen of adult networks. Due to a lack of official coordination between schools, law enforcement, and mental health agencies, no one individual had access to all the relevant information that would allow them to piece together the many warning signals that existed across the disparate spheres of school, family, or neighbourhood. Finally, each shooter had access to guns, the plentiful availability of guns in rural areas made them easily accessible to troubled youth.

Newman offers several recommendations to prevent future shootings. The most controversial is the call to extend access to disciplinary, counselling and academic records across bureaucratic boundaries to ease the identification of problem children. As they are at pains to concede, this involves a trade-off: schools have solid libertarian grounds to guard such information, which can potentially stigmatize students with troubled pasts. But, Newman contends that protecting the public via stronger problem-detection systems is an equally valid concern. This could be accomplished with more funds for 'resource officers' and mental health services in schools. Less controversially, Newman recommends that younger and hipper teachers be recruited as role models for misfit boys, and to celebrate student achievements in areas other than sports. Finally, they discuss ways to encourage more students to report seemingly minor incidents, and join a chorus of voices to call for stricter measures to combat bullying, and for greater gun control.

While some might fault Newman for failing to draw upon more conventional sources in criminology, she and her team are able to tap their expertise in other research traditions to provide a rich account of school violence. Some sociologists may read the book from a more comparative angle, and ponder the degree to which her cases reflect a stark fact: there is simply a greater availability of guns in the USA than in other nations. Newman briefly acknowledges a few shootings in other nations, including one each in Germany and Canada, but her focus is on the USA. A second issue revolves around the importance of evangelical religion. Several chapters reveal the key role of religion in shaping local reactions to these crimes. Again, the US heartland is somewhat exceptional in the power of evangelical Protestantism to provide a cultural script to the victims, if not to the perpetuators of violence. Finally, non-American sociologists may be surprised by her choice of theoretical frameworks to understand school violence. Many British or Canadian sociologists would no doubt turn dutifully to Foucault or various Feminist theories, but Newman's explanatory agenda leads her to draw on an eclectic blend, particular the New Institutional theory of organizations, which I find gratifying. Whereas the Foucaultian image of schools is that of the total institution, engaging in an all-encompassing surveillance over its minions, Newman draws on a rich research tradition that emphasizes the laxity of schools' various control systems, and how violence can erupt precisely because of its loosely coupled structure.

Questions of theory and national comparison aside, Newman has fully embraced the challenge of explaining rare but devastating events, and has done so in an entirely readable and unpretentious fashion. She reveals the social roots of school shootings by mixing detailed case studies with macro-level analyses, and by combining a warm empathy for their victims with a hard-nosed stance towards the facts.

Scott Davies
McMaster University