Why school shooters shoot

Katherine Newman's research offers insight into rampage school shootings, including the recent shooting at Perry Hall High School

During a lunch period Monday at Perry Hall High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, 15-year-old student Robert Wayne Gladden Jr. walked into the school cafeteria with a shotgun and began shooting. A 17-year-old student was struck in the back; he was flown to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he remained in critical condition Wednesday. Other students might have been injured or killed if not for the intervention of a school guidance counselor, who wrestled Gladden to the ground.

Why did Gladden do it? Why did he bring a shotgun with him on the first day of school, assemble it in a school bathroom, and fire at random into a crowded cafeteria? Katherine Newman, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, has some possible insight. She and a research team spent two years studying similar shootings that occurred in the late 1990s, and she co-authored Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, which was published in 2004.

After the shooting at Perry Hall High, Newman wrote about school shootings and the psychology of those who carry them out in an op-ed that appeared in The Baltimore Sun on Aug. 29. She wrote:

Looking at what we learned from a large body of evidence, we know a lot about why these things happen. It helps, of course, to carefully examine the kind of violence we are trying to understand: rampage shootings, which are different than targeted attacks. They are random in their impact, and the shooter often has no idea who has been hurt until he or she is sitting in a jail cell, if indeed the shooter survives at all. It is the institution or the group that is under assault: the school, the community, teens as a whole.

Sadly, the shooter is usually trying to solve what he (and it is virtually always a he) sees as a serious problem: social acceptance. Rampage shootings are generally the last act, not the first, in a series of attempts to change a damaged reputation. The shooter is rarely a loner. He is, rather, a "failed joiner," someone who has tried, time and again, to find a niche, a clique, a social group that will accept him, but his daily experience is one of rejection, friction and marginality. These experiences are amplified by social media: Facebook and its electronic cousins speed the damage done by teasing, stigma or outright bullying.

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