Between July 1, 1992, and June 30, 1999, there were 358 school-associated violent deaths in the United States, including 255 deaths of school-aged children, or about 51 such violent deaths each year. For the single year July 1, 1998, through June 30, 1999, there were forty-seven school-associated violent deaths in the United States. Thirty-eight were homicides, six were suicides, two involved suspects killed by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty, and one was unintentional.
Americans were shocked by the rash of school shootings in the 1990s and some parents were afraid to send their children to school. The Bi-Partisan Working Group on Youth Violence of the 106th Congress explored the issue and in February 2000 released its final report. It stated: "While it is important to carefully review the circumstances surrounding these horrifying incidents so that we may learn from them, we must also be cautious about inappropriately creating a cloud of fear over every student in every classroom across the country. In the case of youth violence, it is important to note that, statistically speaking, schools are among the safest places for children to be." The following section describes some of the most serious school incidents.
On May 21, 1998, fifteen-year-old Kip Kinkel walked into the crowded cafeteria at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, and opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle. Students Mikael Nickolauson and Ben Walker were killed, and twenty-two of their classmates were injured. Kinkel's parents were later found shot to death at their home. The year before, Kinkel's father had bought his son a Ruger .22 semiautomatic rifle under the condition that he would use it only under adult supervision.
On September 24, 1999, as part of a plea agreement, Kip Kinkel pleaded guilty to four counts of murder and twenty-six counts of attempted murder. On November 2, 1999, after a six-day sentencing hearing that included victim's statements and the testimony of psychiatrists and psychologists, Kip Kinkel, by then age seventeen, was sentenced to 111 years in prison without the possibility of parole.
Prompted by growing concerns over a rock-throwing incident that Kip had participated in and other behavioral problems, Faith Kinkel had taken her son to see a psychologist in January 1997, just over a year before the shootings. In this meeting, the psychologist concluded that Kinkel was depressed, had difficulty managing anger, and had expressed some angry acting out.
On April 20, 1999, at 11:10 A.M., eighteen-year-old senior Eric Harris arrived alone in the student parking lot at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. His seventeen-year-old classmate Dylan Klebold drove in a short time later in his 1982 black BMW. Together, they walked to the school cafeteria carrying two large duffel bags, each concealing a twenty-pound propane bomb set to detonate at exactly 11:17 A.M. After placing the duffel bags inconspicuously among hundreds of other backpacks and bags, Harris and Klebold went back out to the parking lot to wait for the bombs to explode. As they waited, pipe bombs they had planted earlier three miles southwest of the high school exploded, resulting in a grass fire intended to divert the resources of the Littleton Fire Department and Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.
Minutes later, Harris and Klebold returned to Columbine High School, this time to the west exterior steps, the highest point on campus with a view of the student parking lots and the cafeteria's entrances and exits. Both were wearing black trench coats that concealed 9mm semiautomatic weapons. They pulled out shotguns from a duffel bag and opened fire toward the west doors of the school, killing seventeen-year-old Rachel Scott. After entering the school, they killed twelve other victims, including a teacher, before finally killing themselves. Twenty-three persons were injured.
Within days, authorities had learned that three of the guns used in the massacre were purchased the year before by Dylan Klebold's girlfriend shortly after her eighteenth birthday. On May 3, felony charges were filed against twenty-two-year-old Mark E. Manes for admittedly selling to Eric Harris the TEC-DC9 semiautomatic handgun he used in the shooting. On August 18, Manes pleaded guilty to the charge. The facts of this case as outlined came from The Columbine High School Shootings: Jefferson County Sheriff Department's Investigation Report (released May 15, 2000, by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office).
THE COLUMBINE SHOOTERS. More than a year before the Columbine shootings, Harris and Klebold were arrested for breaking into a vehicle. In April 1998 both were placed in a juvenile diversion program and required to pay fines, attend anger management classes, and perform community service. Harris and Klebold successfully completed the diversion program and were released from the program on February 9, 1999, with their juvenile records cleared.
In March 1998 the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office responded to a suspicious incident report from Randy Brown. In the report, Brown alleged that his son, Brooks, had received death threats from Harris on the Internet. Brown alleged that on the same Web pages, Harris wrote about making and detonating pipe bombs and using them against people. The information was reviewed by the sheriff's investigators, but they could not gain access to Harris's Web site, and they were unable to substantiate reports of the pipe-bomb writings.
In the spring of 1998 Harris began a diary, later recovered by authorities. In it he wrote of his desire to kill. In the only entry for 1999, Harris wrote of his and Klebold's preparations for what would become the Columbine massacre, including a detailed accounting of weapons and bombs they intended to use.
After the Columbine shootings, Klebold's father, Tom Klebold, reported to investigators that his son never showed any fascination with guns. The Klebolds told authorities that their son had been accepted at the University of Arizona, where he planned to major in computer science. Investigators who interviewed friends and teachers of Kle-bold heard him described as a nice, normal teenager.
Harris and Klebold left behind three videotapes documenting their plans and philosophies. The third tape contained eight sessions taped from early April 1999 to the morning of the Columbine shootings on April 20, and showed some of their weapons and bombs, as well as recordings they had made of each other rehearsing for the shootings.
COLUMBINE LAWSUITS. In response to the Columbine shootings, five wrongful death lawsuits were filed in Jefferson County against the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, alleging that the department did not respond appropriately on the day of the shootings and that it did not fully investigate Eric Harris's Web site. Additional actions were filed in federal court in Denver, some naming other defendants such as the parents of killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and those who helped supply guns to them. One lawsuit filed by the family of slain teacher Dave Sanders and on behalf of other Columbine victims alleged that the makers and distributors of certain movies and video games (including "Doom") should have known their products could have led the gunmen to carry out the massacre.
On June 1, 2000, U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Babcock consolidated all Columbine-related lawsuits in federal court. He dismissed the case against the movie/video game makers, stating that there was no way the defendants could have foreseen that their products would cause the shooting at Columbine or any other violent acts. In May 2001 five homeowners insurers agreed to settle negligence claims related to the Columbine shooting case for $2.5 million.
In 2002 Mark Taylor, one of the students who was wounded at Columbine, filed suit against the maker of the antidepressant that Eric Harris had been prescribed and was taking at the time of the shooting. Taylor told Insight on the News: "I'm suing … because I believe that Eric Harris did what he did because of this drug" (September 23, 2002).
The FBI Looks at School Shooters
In 1999, after two years of research, the FBI issued a report on school shooters (Mary Ellen O'Toole, The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective). The report contended that there is no such thing as a "profile" of a school shooter, nor is it possible to compile a checklist of the danger signs pointing to the next school shooter. The report was intended to assist in assessing a threat and to keep it from being carried out. It lays out a four-pronged approach in assessing "the totality of the circumstances" known about a student in four major areas: personality of the student, family dynamics, school dynamics, and social dynamics.
"If an act of violence occurs at a school," the report stated, "the school becomes the scene of the crime. As in any violent crime, it is necessary to understand what it is about the school which might have influenced the student's decision to offend there rather than someplace else." The FBI set forth the following factors in making that determination:
- The student's attachment to school: The student appears to be "detached" from school, including other students, teachers, and school activities.
- Tolerance for disrespectful behavior: The school does little to prevent or punish disrespectful behavior between individual students or groups of students.
- Inequitable discipline: Discipline is inequitably applied (or has the perception of being inequitably applied) by students and/or staff.
- Inflexible culture: The school's culture is static, unyielding, and insensitive to changes in society and the changing needs of newer students and staff.
- Pecking order among students: Certain groups of students are officially or unofficially given more prestige and respect than others.
- Code of silence: Few feel they can safely tell teachers or administrators if they are concerned about another student's behavior or attitudes. Little trust exists between students and staff.
- Unsupervised computer access.
The report contended that news coverage creates a number of wrong or unverified impressions of school shooters. Among them are:
- All school shooters are alike.
- The school shooter is always a loner.
- School shootings are exclusively revenge motivated.
- Easy access to weapons is the most significant risk factor.
A Timeline of School Shootings
February 2, 2004: At Ballou Senior High in Washington, D.C., eighteen-year-old Thomas J. Boykin shot and killed seventeen-year-old James Richardson after an argument.
September 24, 2003: A fifteen-year-old student, John Jason McLaughlin, killed one student and wounded another at Rocori High School in Cold Spring, Minnesota.
October 28, 2002: A forty-one-year-old Gulf War veteran, a failing student at the University of Arizona nursing school, shot dead three of his professors before killing himself.
August 28, 2002: A professor and a graduate student who had been taking classes for ten years were shot to death at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville in an apparent murder-suicide. A briefcase found near the bodies held ninety rounds of ammunition and a letter telling the student he had been expelled from the graduate program.
January 26, 2002: A forty-three-year-old law student who had twice flunked out of the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia, opened fire with a handgun and killed the dean, a professor, and a student.
May 26, 2000: A thirteen-year-old honors student in Lake Worth, Florida, returned to school and fatally shot a teacher after being sent home on the last day of classes by another teacher for throwing water balloons.
February 29, 2000: A six-year-old Flint, Michigan, boy used a gun taken from his uncle's home to kill a six-year-old girl in her classroom in front of a teacher and twenty-two classmates.
December 6, 1999: A thirteen-year-old student in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, arrived at school and opened fire with his father's 9mm semiautomatic handgun, injuring four classmates.
November 19, 1999: A twelve-year-old boy shot and killed a female classmate at the end of lunch hour outside a middle school in Deming, New Mexico. The boy was wearing a camouflage jacket when he fired the single shot from a .22-caliber handgun.
May 20, 1999: A fifteen-year-old student walked into Heritage High School in Conyers, Georgia, and fired into a crowd of his classmates, injuring six.
April 20, 1999: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire in a suburban high school in Littleton, Colorado. Fifteen people were killed, including the two gunmen, and twenty-three were injured.
June 15, 1998: A male teacher and a female guidance counselor were shot in a hallway at a Richmond, Virginia, high school. The teacher suffered an injury to the abdomen, and the guidance counselor was grazed.
May 21, 1998: Fifteen-year-old Kip Kinkel of Springfield, Oregon, opened fire in the school cafeteria. Two students were killed. The suspect's parents were later found shot dead in their home.
May 21, 1998: A fifteen-year-old boy died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in Onalaska, Washington. Earlier in the day, the boy boarded a high school bus with a gun in hand, ordered his girlfriend off the bus, and took her to his home, where he shot himself.
May 21, 1998: A fifteen-year-old girl was shot and wounded at a suburban Houston high school when a gun in the backpack of a seventeen-year-old classmate went off in a biology class. The boy was charged with a third-degree felony for taking a gun to school.
May 19, 1998: Three days before his graduation, an eighteen-year-old honors student opened fire in a parking lot at Lincoln County High School in Fayetteville, Tennessee, killing a classmate who was dating his ex-girlfriend.
April 28, 1998: Two teenage boys were shot to death and a third was wounded as they played basketball at a Pomona, California, elementary school hours after classes had ended. A fourteen-year-old boy was charged in the shooting, which was blamed on rivalry between two groups of youths.
April 24, 1998: A forty-eight-year-old science teacher was shot to death in front of students at a graduation dance in Edinboro, Pennsylvania. A fourteen-year-old student at James W. Parker Middle School was charged.
March 24, 1998: Four girls and a teacher were shot to death and ten others were wounded during a false fire alarm at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, when two boys, ages eleven and thirteen, opened fire from the woods. Both were convicted in juvenile court of murder.
December 1, 1997: Three students were killed and five others were wounded while they took part in a prayer circle in a hallway at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky. A fourteen-year-old student pleaded guilty to murder but was found mentally ill and is serving life in prison. One of the wounded girls was left paralyzed.
October 1, 1997: A sixteen-year-old in Pearl, Mississippi, killed his mother then went to Pearl High School and shot nine students. Two of them died, including the killer's ex-girlfriend. The boy was sentenced to life in prison.
February 19, 1997: Evan Ramsey, age sixteen, opened fire with a shotgun in a common area at a Bethel, Alaska, high school, killing the principal and a student. Two other students were wounded. Ramsey was sentenced to two terms of ninety-nine years each.
February 2, 1996: A fourteen-year-old boy in Moses Lake, Washington, walked into a junior high school algebra class with a hunting rifle and allegedly opened fire, killing the teacher and two students. A third student was injured.