Journal of Primary Prevention

, Volume 26, Issue 5, pp 419–438

Understanding Mass School Shootings: Links between Personhood and Power in the Competitive School Environment


    • Social Sciences and Community Psychology & Social Change ProgramsPennsylvania State University
    • Social Sciences and Community Psychology & Social Change ProgramsPennsylvania State University
    • Social Sciences and Community Psychology & Social Change ProgramsPennsylvania State University
    • Social Sciences and Community Psychology & Social Change ProgramsPennsylvania State University

DOI: 10.1007/s10935-005-0006-8

Cite this article as:
Thompson, S. & Kyle, K. J Primary Prevent (2005) 26: 419. doi:10.1007/s10935-005-0006-8

This paper explores perspectives about certain individual and social characteristics that may contribute to school shootings by students. It begins with perspectives on individual/environment fit, arguing first that persons marginalized by their caregivers during their upbringing, and by their peers, are lacking in the social interactions that help develop ethical behavior. Our argument contends that lacking such interactions may result in the failure to develop a sound moral philosophy. Further, we argue that when such persons enter the highly competitive environment found in some suburban and rural schools, some will be continually and consistently marginalized, finding their means of self-expression and sense of significance subdued. Their need for self-expression and a sense of significance as persons will surface, but without the benefit of a moral philosophy to guide that expression, this may result in deviant means of expression, such as violence— even extraordinary violence. We do not attempt to identify a list of specific traits of school shooters, which might lead to the development of a profile of school shooters. Rather, we are concerned with the characteristics of the environment in which shootings might occur, and how students not fully prepared for that environment might react. Thus, this paper is an overview of how seeds of the neglect of the basic needs of personhood, when sown early in life, and nurtured by peers, might come to fruition in the fertile field of the competitive school environment.


moral philosophyethicsschool shootingspreventionadolescent murder


As widespread familiarity with Littleton, Colorado, Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Santee, California attest, the 1990s witnessed an alarming number of mass school shootings in the US. But while the number of such incidents pales in comparison to the incidents of more typical school violence, these mass shootings raised public awareness of the problem of school violence generally, and school shootings specifically. Indeed, public emotion stirred by these events and the national media coverage of them has resulted in public calls for action, and responses by politicians at every level (Brezina & Wright, 2000).

For those committed to effecting positive social change through primary prevention efforts, the development of effective programs to prevent school shootings is crucial. Finding answers to a problem that seems to defy explanation requires an understanding of many issues associated with school shootings. It requires that we understand the similarities and dissimilarities between school shootings and commonplace school violence. And it requires that we take related social and psychological issues into account.

However, given the prevalence and public awareness of school violence in the US (see Elam, Rose, & Gallup, 1996; Regoli & Hewitt, 1991), some may be tempted to overemphasize the nature of school violence as they develop interventions (cf. Pollack, 2000). School shootings, incidents of mass-murder, attempted mass-murder resulting in significant injury, and mass-murder/suicide are extraordinary forms of school violence. For the purposes of this study, the heinous nature of these extraordinary forms of violence renders them different from general school violence. Hence, focusing attention specifically on such extraordinary forms of violence rather than general school violence is warranted. Indeed, prevention efforts directed at general school violence frequently emphasize a piece-meal approach addressing isolated variables; e.g., school fortification, censure of certain student behavior (see Heck, 2001; cf. Zinna, 1999) and instruction in communication and problem solving skills (Forrest, Zychowski, Stuhldreher, & Ryan, 2000; Hill & Drolet, 1999; cf. Lanata, 2003).

As Furlong and Morrison (2000) suggest, the various approaches implemented to date need to be synthesized into a coherent approach through research and program application. But even organized in a coherent fashion, such efforts still fail to address the underlying causes of mass school shootings. Underlying prevention efforts like school fortification is the assumption that there will always be students bent on committing mass school shootings, a position we are not willing to concede (cf. Kyle & Angelique, 2002). Of primary importance is finding the reasons why students willfully engage in extreme forms of violence (Brezina & Wright, 2000), and designing primary preventions to address them.

We contend that the gravity of horrific acts of violence like mass school shootings requires a more holistic primary prevention approach than behavioral censure and school fortification efforts. Such an approach would entail consideration of the ecological relationship between students and their school environment, and the contribution that an oppressive environment can make to high levels of violence. Moreover, it would entail critical analysis of the relationship between the development of adolescents’ personal moral philosophy, community environment, and school environment. Thus, we offer this analysis as a preliminary step toward a holistic primary prevention addressing mass school shootings in the US.

While desirable, to present a truly holistic approach to school shooters is beyond the scope of this article. Instead we focus on one potential factor, moral development, arguing that it must be taken into account with other factors in developing an effective primary prevention. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that many factors (e.g., socioeconomic background, gender, race, the prevalence of violence in the media, national/social identity, availability of guns) play a role in facilitating mass school shootings in the US (cf. Moore, 2003). For example, certain aspects of US national identity may make US youth with underdeveloped moral philosophies more prone than their peers in other countries to seek esteem and significance by committing mass school shootings.

Specifically, dominant US values (i.e., those primarily reflecting White, male, heterosexual, and middle class values) affirm the individual, the underdog, the risk-taker, and the defender of the truth. Taken together, these qualities can be read to validate the self-righteous acts of mass school shooters. Other cultures with different sets of values may not lend themselves as readily to such a reading (cf. Kyle, 2001a). Similarly, race seems to affect the form that school violence takes. To date all mass school shooters have been white, although their victims do not appear to have been racially selected. This suggests that racial identity, in this case Whiteness (cf. Frankenberg, 1997; Jackson, 1998), shapes the way that students with underdeveloped moral philosophies act to acquire significance and esteem. However, we contend that these factors are secondary to the model we develop.

Specifically, we develop an argument around moral philosophy and other related factors that appear to contribute to the phenomenon of school shootings. The premises of this argument follow an intensifying progression, in that each newly presented premise builds upon the former premise resulting in a sequence of contributing factors. When taken together, these contributing factors may lead to extraordinarily violent behavior. Out of this argument a partial model of mass school shootings may be developed, a model that takes a number of necessary, but not sufficient variables into account in explaining mass school shootings. We contend that the greater the knowledge of necessary conditions, the greater the promise of the primary interventions that take them into account.

In presenting this argument and model, we first develop the following premise. Children whose primary socialization through family interactions does not effectively encourage development of a personal system of ethics may have difficulty accepting and living within socially accepted ethical systems. Second, we explore the effects of peer associations on the moral development of children, and develop the premise that children deprived of positive peer group socialization may behave outside of socially accepted ethical systems. Third, we consider the possible results of poor socialization. We suggest that children from whom encouragement and esteem are consistently withheld suffer in their understanding of their own significance as persons. Accordingly, they may engage in increasingly aggressive and deviant ways to achieve some form of esteem. Fourth, we suggest that school environments that reflect the high levels of social competition and aggression extant in the larger society esteem students who best demonstrate societal norms, and withhold esteem from students who do not reflect societal norms. Thus, such school environments exacerbate the isolation and insignificance that some poorly socialized students with underdeveloped moral philosophies feel. In essence, such highly charged competitive environments provide fertile ground for extraordinary manifestations of violence. Finally, we present our model and outline its implications in terms of recommended primary interventions.


For purposes of this article, an acceptable ethical system entails possession of personal moral principles. Smetana (1999) defines morality as “an individual's prescriptive understanding of how individuals ought to behave towards each other” (p. 312). More specifically, we agree with Smetana, and others, that a moral system, or moral philosophy, is based upon concepts of welfare, trust, justice and rights (Smetana, 1995; Turiel, 1998; cf. Nucci, 2002). Smetana (1999) further suggests that moral judgments are “obligatory, universalisable, unalterable, impersonal, and determined by criteria other than agreement, consensus, or institutional convention” (p. 312). Thus, the responses to behaviors considered immoral will be based upon the responder's concern for the welfare of the victim of the observed immoral behavior. Further, Tisak and Tisak (1996) suggest that morality and aggression are related in that behavioral responses to each include concern for the welfare and rights of the individuals victimized by aggression, as well as immoral behavior. This association between moral— or immoral—behavior, and aggression, will have deep implications further in this paper as we discuss the possible behaviors of morally deficient adolescents working through issues of blocked personhood.

Differences between the behavior of adult mass-murderers and juvenile mass-murderers may offer evidence of the effects of an under- or undeveloped system of moral philosophy among juvenile mass school shooters. Nearly one-third of adult mass-murderers die immediately after committing their crime (Palermo, 1999). Of the eighty-five mass-murders perpetrated by adults studied by Palermo, twenty-eight committed suicide at the scene, or were killed by police. In contrast to the behavior of adult mass-murderers, juvenile mass-murderers rarely commit suicide after committing their crime (Palermo, 1999).

One strong potential explanation for this difference is that no matter the motivation leading adults to commit mass-murder, some sense of right and wrong causes deeper feelings of remorse or resentment after the crime, leading some of them to commit suicide, or choose death at the hands of police, rather than continue with life. Of course, if those adult mass-murderers who committed suicide at the scene had possessed an adequately developed sense of personal ethics, they might not have committed mass murder. However, if the presence of some level of a moral philosophy may lead to suicide by a murderer, perhaps an understanding of the dynamic of ethics can help primary care-givers and social institutions lead children in developing a sufficient ethical system so that they do not commit shootings.

Family and Moral Development

The terms “family” and “parent” can be understood in many ways, and require definition (Kyle, 2001b). For the purposes of this paper, family will be understood in broad terms, referring to familial units in which adults practice a primary socialization role in the life of a child, or in the lives of children, while living with them. Parents in familial units, whether solo or coupled, are the primary caregivers of the child or children in their charge. They may include, but not be limited to one or both natural parents, stepparents, adoptive parents, foster parents, grandparents, and other extended family members assuming the role of guardianship. Also, parents need not be heterosexual in their sexual orientation, and may or may not be in a domestic relationship. Thus, parent and parents are used synonymously with child/ren guardian and guardians. What is more important than who primary care givers may be, is the intent of primary care givers.

Debate over the development of moral philosophy in adolescents is driven by Kohlbergian stage development theory (see Kohlberg, 1969, 1981). Briefly, moral reasoning is said to develop in stages throughout individuals’ lives. Researchers aligned with Kohlberg's theory suggest that pro-social behavior is age related. This suggests that the changes taking place in persons during puberty are not only physical and cognitive, but include moral reasoning, empathy and related emotional responses, and perspective-taking (Fabes, 1999). From this perspective, children need both a sense of belonging and a sense of autonomy. As children move through early adolescence, they are presented with new and ever widening social opportunities allowing them to develop their moral reasoning.

Critics contend that stage development theory overemphasizes the role of factors outside the family in moral development (e.g., Walker, 1999). For many (Hart, Atkins, & Ford, 1999; Pratt, Arnold, Pratt, & Diessner, 1999; Walker & Hennig, 1999; White, 2000), family socialization processes in general—and parenting styles in particular—are highly influential in the development of children's moral reasoning. Accordingly, adolescents most likely to engage in deviant behaviors lack a close affective bond with their parents, may not be monitored or supervised effectively, or may not be disciplined in a consistent manner that would deter poorly reasoned behavior (Vazsonyi & Pickering, 2000). Such appears to be the case with mass school shooters. Lanata (2003) reports that

the vast majority of the school shooters came from broken and/or troubled families. Charles ‘Andy’ Williams, the shooter at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., lived with his father; his parents had been divorced for 10 years… Barry Loukaitais from Moses Lake, Wash., lived under the same roof with feuding parents who reportedly were planning divorce. The father of Luke Woodham of Pearl, Miss., reportedly left home when Luke was five. Kip Kinkel from Springfield, Ore., was small in stature, reportedly suffered from a learning disability and perhaps did not measure up to the athletic, academic or social standards of an achievement-oriented family. (p. 22)

Nevertheless, for both adherents and detractors of stage development theory, parents do influence the development of their children's pro-social behavior (Goetting, 1994). This influence comes from guardians’ role in: informing children about desirable behavior, providing models of appropriate behavior, encouraging appropriate behavior, punishing inappropriate behavior, and encouraging the development of empathy (Eisenberg & Murphy, 1995).

Peer Relationships

Research suggests that in early adolescence, peer relationships are significantly associated with moral reasoning (Bukowski & Sippola, 1996; Schonert-Reichl, 1990; Simmons & Blythe, 1987; Singer, 1999). Around the time adolescents attend middle school, they begin to select their peers by interest, rather than by convenience (Carlo, Fabes, Laible, & Kupanoff, 1999). And these new, self-selected relationships begin to play an important part in the development of self-esteem in children (Simmons & Blythe, 1987). This has important implications because those deprived of positive peer group socialization may rebel against or even reject socially accepted mores, values, and ethical systems. This was the case with the majority of the mass school shooters of the past two decades.

Too often, the shooters were either ‘loners’ or were involved in ‘outcast groups.’ Kroth, the group with which Luke Woodham was reportedly associated, immersed itself in a fantasy game very similar to ‘Dungeons and Dragons.’ A member of the group reportedly encouraged Woodham to torture and murder his family dog. Klebold and Harris [the Columbine shooters] had a negative impact on one another. “…They threatened classmates, criticized other groups, wore ‘Serial Killer’ T-shirts and spent more than a year together planning the deadly assault at Columbine” (Lanata, 2003, p. 23).

As adolescents interact with peers, their opportunities for learning pro-social behaviors arise through role taking within those peer relationships. For example, interacting within a peer network of friends who earn good grades in school, participate in extracurricular activities, and who do not engage in problematic behavior, allows adolescents to learn pro-social behaviors through those interactions. Pro-social behaviors, when demonstrated to peers, are often reinforced by peer responses, developing a cycle of pro-social behavior among them (Bukowski & Sippola, 1996; Carlo, Fabes, Laible, & Kupanoff, 1999).

Moreover, Schonert-Reichl (1999) reports that children with greater numbers of close friends exhibit a more developed sense of moral reasoning than those with fewer close friends. Of the children in their study, those perceived by peers to be socially withdrawn tended to measure lower in moral reasoning. Children who are socially unassertive, who do not participate in high levels of social interaction, and who avoid confrontation, may not acquire the necessary peer interaction that leads to moral growth. Children who are rejected by the social hierarchy often have fewer social interactions, resulting in fewer opportunities for cognitive disequilibria (Schonert-Reichl, 1999), i.e., challenges that children encounter as they interact with peers, and are important components in the development of moral reasoning (see Kohlberg, 1969). Thus, children withdrawn from or rejected by peers have fewer opportunities for cognitive disequilibria, and as a result they develop moral reasoning more slowly.

Personhood, Power, and Violent Behavior

At about four years of age, children begin to understand themselves as beings with extended selves, but it is not until adolescence that humans begin to think abstractly about their lives. During adolescence humans begin to construct narrative interpretations of their lives, only to continually revise and extend those narratives (McAdams, 1990). It is also during this time that humans begin to align themselves with the social identities available within their culture (Barresi, 1999). So long as the self-narratives adolescents devise are congruent with their society's predominant narratives, they are likely to receive positive social recognition. If self-constructed narratives are not congruent with the predominant narratives in their society, social identity, and even personhood, may not be recognized (Barresi, 1999).

However, according to May (1972), personhood exists in relationship with personal power, so the issue of the exercise of personal power must be considered. May (1972) suggests that there are five levels of power present as potentialities in every person's life: the power to be, self-affirmation, self-assertion, aggression, and violence. The power to be is given in the act of birth. This power is neither good nor evil. Neither is it neutral; it must be lived out. That is, power is active; for power to be neutral is for power to not exist. According to May (1972), for a person to exist is for that person to have power at some level. At the level of self-affirmation, the person's state of being must be affirmed. Questions of significance emerge from the quest for affirmation. Self-esteem or substitutes for it must be sought. Self-assertion occurs when self-affirmation meets resistance. This is a more overt form of self-affirmation, which demands attention. Aggression is yet a stronger form of self-assertion, which occurs when self-assertion has been blocked for a long time. Aggression moves beyond the person's own assertion or affirmation and enters the territory of others, and demands power for the self. Violence occurs when aggressive efforts toward self-assertion are ineffective (May, 1972). If the other phases of behavior are blocked, then explosion into violence may be the only way that individuals or groups can find release from unbearable tension and achieve a sense of significance (May, 1972).

If persons are not afforded the status of “normal” personhood by means of outside affirmation, then the expectation should be that their behavior may deviate from that considered normal by others. When persons are placed in a situation where a sense of personal significance is almost impossible to achieve, or worse, where open ridicule and humiliation are their “norm,” their only release from the tension of continually blocked behavior and their need to achieve that sense of significance may lead to violence (Klein, 1991; May, 1972).

In social groups, “when individuals find themselves participating in inequitable relationships, they become distressed. The more inequitable the relationship, the more distress individuals feel” (Deutsch, 1985, p. 15). Consequently, a person who perceives him/herself to be a victim of injustice due to some deprivation will likely experience some degree of anger and express that anger toward others who caused or profited from the injustice.

The views and actions of Harris and Klebold, the Columbine High School shooters, support this principle. One of their classmates described the social climate at Columbine High School: “Columbine is a clean and good place except for those rejects [referring to Harris and Klebold and their friends]. Most students didn't want them there” (Gibbs & Roche, 1999, p. 50). Stancato (2003) suggests that this social estrangement left these young men alone in a quest to find meaning in a world that had rejected them. They turned to the “Trench coat Mafia” for that meaning, and the cult of Nazi values that group embraced. In so doing, they found further estrangement from their larger social world.

Gibbs and Roche (1999), in a Time magazine article, quoted Harris and Klebold from actual tapes reportedly made shortly before the massacre. They are reported to have said, “Isn't it going to be fun to get the respect we are going to deserve?” (Gibbs & Roche, 1999, p. 44). That they reportedly expected that violence and death would bring them respect illustrates the point here that a loss of personhood through social estrangement may lead to a violent attempt to find it.

At this point the issue of bullying must be addressed. School violence literature is replete with studies about bullying and its effect on the bullies and the bullied (e.g., Bullock, 2002; Galloway, 1994; Olweus, 1991, 1993). That bullying is a significant issue in the study of everyday school violence is well documented and is certainly not challenged here. We do, however, challenge the notion that school shootings occur as a direct result of bullying. We argue that bullying certainly leads to hurt feelings and sometimes, violent responses, but mass school shootings are much more complex. We contend that the loss of personhood and the search for power that contribute to heinous violence and death is a separate issue from bullying. Indeed, the experts held by the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit acknowledge that bullying appeared to play a role in the lives of some, but not all, mass school shooters (Lanata, 2003). Therefore, bullying may be a factor, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient to explain mass school shootings.

Competition, Cliques, and the School Environment

School environments and school curricula may facilitate higher incidences of violence if insufficient attention is paid to the development of personal moral philosophy and interpersonal relationships learning (Stephens, 1995), and to the zero-sum logic— and its corresponding dog-eat-dog world view—communicated by many aspects of the school environment in the US today. Messerschmidt (1993) contends that today's school environment emphasizes sports and academic success. This environment encourages competition and fosters a sense of shame in losing. This celebration of the culture of sport success in US schools subordinates other interests that many not athletically inclined gravitate toward; e.g., debate, band, intellectual achievement (Kessler, Ashenden, Connell, & Dowsett, 1985).

Specifically, consider institutions as innocuous as junior high school and high school team sports such as football, basketball and baseball (Johnson, Giler, Kneeland, & Crawford, 2001). Many have pointed out that increasing competition, to the point of parents fighting amongst themselves at games, undercuts values such as cooperation (Riesman, 1954; cf. Sage, 1978; Staffo, 2001); and others have gone further, pointing to the connections between the sports and war metaphors (Shapiro, 1989).

As children grow and interact they learn from their interactions. School curricula can include components that assist children with their understanding of the consequences of their interactions and relationships, leading to occurrences of peace, rather than violence. Indeed, as Klein (1992) explains, our schools are

age-graded educational systems in which children and teachers have little choice of whether or not they work with one another and where the vast majority of students—those who aren't smart enough or adequately prepared – must live with the humiliating possibility of being treated as…failures. These systems are put together in such a way as to ensure the humiliation of repeated failure on the part of so-called disadvantaged children. (p. 265)

Among the factors to consider in unraveling mass school shootings is a school's internal environment, especially, its dominant culture and subculture dynamics. Indeed, Garrick-Duhaney (2000; cf. Shapiro, 1999) suggests that cultural factors remain underrated by persons responsible for formulating violence prevention programs. There are several cultural factors that schools should address in the classroom. She recommends that schools should focus on the cultural diversity of their students since heterogeneity is often a source of conflict, and it is sometimes a contributing factor to violence.

Whereas Garrick-Duhaney (2000) specifically addresses heterogeneous school environments, we contend that her insights are applicable to the predominantly White suburban and rural schools where mass school shootings have historically occurred. Cultures, subcultures, and cliques that develop in such schools may be as real and as divisive for students as those relationships across race and ethnicity in the larger society. When larger ethnic issues such as national origin or skin color are absent, issues of subcultural identification may become more important. In such situations, diversity may include socio-economic factors such as social class and family prestige, and include sub-cultural identities based on gender, religion, philosophy, academics, sports, avocation, or fashion. In essence, to the students interacting in such environments, the diversities present are their ecological reality. The preliminary responses to a nationwide survey of students and teachers conducted by Teaching Tolerance supports this. Early responses reveal that:
  • Of the first 1,000 students, 53% described their schools as quick to put people in categories;

  • According to the students, the top three factors that create group boundaries at school are style (60 percent), athletic achievement (53 percent) and appearance (52 percent); the students cited race and ethnicity at 25 percent and 18 percent respectively;

  • When asked about crossing boundaries, students rated those of appearance (17 percent) and style (16 percent) as the most difficult to get over (Carnes, 2003, p. 3).


What may begin as a deficiency in ethical development during primary socialization by parents and guardians may later be exacerbated by peers. Children who do not assert themselves socially, who do not participate in many social interactions, and who avoid confrontation, may not acquire the necessary peer interaction that leads to moral growth. Cognitive disequilibria (e.g., Kohlberg, 1969), as mentioned earlier, are described as the challenges that children encounter as they interact with peers and are important components in the development of moral reasoning. Children who are rejected by the social hierarchy have fewer social interactions, resulting in fewer opportunities for cognitive disequilibria (Schonert-Reichl, 1999). In such instances, children with ethical deficiencies will make interpretations about their interactions with peers based on less complete data than their peers. That is, these children will not have developed the breadth of knowledge available to children with greater experience. Their behavioral responses will likely reveal their deficiencies to their peers resulting in inequities in their relationships, thus eliciting ecological reactions (Walker, 2000). These ecological reactions may be interpreted as fair, or unfair, resulting in either mild tendencies towards conformity, or in further deviant behavior and marginalization. This process may spiral into power inequities and the marginalization of the less powerful; e.g., they may be bullied and or ostracized. Children on the unfortunate end of this spiral eventually find themselves ethically deficient, relatively powerless, and transitioning to secondary school, a place and time of great anxiety (Elias, Gara, & Ubriaco, 1985) where esteem and significance, too often, are awarded to those who best demonstrate the normal values of society—recall the comments of the Columbine shooters and their classmate reported earlier. Hence, such children are ill prepared to deal with the stress and potential humiliation of secondary school; and they may lash out in horrific ways like mass school shootings. This series of events/circumstances may be presented in the form of a partial model of mass school shootings (see Fig. 1).
Fig. 1.

A Partial Model of Mass School Shootings.

Given this possibility, a more holistic approach to school shootings would entail primary preventions addressing the variables outlined above. Specifically, this approach would involve a constellation of primary interventions directed at the family, at peer relationships, at improving self-esteem, at bullying, and at reducing conflict and competition in schools. However, given article length constraints, we offer only preliminary remarks concerning implications. Specifically, we highlight the need for further research, and we consider some general approaches and specific primary prevention efforts related to family and parenting skills, and to competition and conflict reduction in schools.

Further Research

The premises of our argument have followed an intensifying progression, describing a number of contributing factors that, when occurring in sequence, may result in mass school shootings. Our review of information on mass school shooters (see Gibbs & Roche, 1999; Lanata, 2003; Nicoletti, Zinna, & Spencer-Thomas, 1999; Stancato, 2003; Zinna, 1999) suggests that our model is accurate. However, our review focused primarily on others' analyses of primary data. Therefore, a review of our model in light of primary data seems appropriate. For example, transcripts of interviews with surviving shooters (or would-be shooters), of interviews with the parents, teachers, counselors and classmates of school shooters, personal diaries, and video recordings may be reviewed with an eye toward evaluating the contributing factors we emphasize, their sequence, etc. Still, based upon our analysis and review of the literature, we are confident that developing primary preventions directed at the family and at the school environment will likely reduce the chances of future acts of mass school violence.

Family Interventions

The literature presented here places much of the responsibility for the development of ethically rich children on their adult guardians. For example, Goetting (1994) points to “evidence that parenting factors may play a critical role in determining whether or not people misbehave as children and later as adults is one of the most replicated findings in the deviance literature” (p. 169). Hence, parenting styles in terms of socialization style, tone, tenor and emotional affect of communication, and consistency in applying discipline should be considered and evaluated. For example, Walker and Hennig (1999) suggest that the socialization style of parents influences how their children develop morally. Specifically, they found that parents who engage in Socratic-style dialogue with their children are more effective in assisting their children's moral development. In a Socratic-style dialogue, parents are interested in their child's opinions, and check their understanding with suitable questions. By contrast, parents who themselves demonstrate poor ego functioning by behaving defensively, who are insensitive and rigid, or who are hostile and critical, hinder the moral development of their children (Walker & Hennig, 1999).

It follows then, that successful interventions would focus on improving parenting. Indeed, more than being considered and evaluated, knowledge of such works and their findings need to be disseminated and acted upon by all child-guardians, not just by proactive guardians who take the time to investigate different parenting techniques and approaches. But how is this to be achieved? As a practical matter, improving parenting is problematic. Successful interventions would have to consider and overcome these problems. The complexity of human behaviors and their interactions renders standardized information useful for many circumstances, but can never consider every possible situation. Similarly, parent-training classes are limited by the parenting situations the training period addresses. Also, parent training classes are usually attended by those adult guardians concerned enough to seek out and attend those classes. Adult guardians who need the training the most, such as the unconcerned, self-centered, or incapable, are not likely to seek out such training. Thus, national public support for the establishment of proactive parent mentoring programs (see Strasz, 2003), perhaps even funded with tax dollars appears worthy of serious consideration. Such programs would revolve around a standard set of practices and general information conducive to healthy child-rearing, but would allow room for communities to interpret information independently in order to better address local needs. Participation in such programs might be encouraged through public service announcements and even with tax credits of some kind.

Another effort meriting consideration is the development and implementation of a curriculum on parenting for all high school students in the US. The issue of parent education has many important facets: promoting a sense of community between guardians and educators, addressing the apathy some guardians exhibit about their child-rearing responsibilities, raising awareness among guardians about informational resources available to them, and raising awareness about the benefits of engaging in peaceful conflict resolution at home. As a more specific example, this curriculum would introduce students to different models of parenting and various parenting techniques, and it would emphasize their apparent results as determined through social scientific evaluations and study (see Biglan & Taylor, 2000).

Like Biglan and Taylor (2000), we condone the application of “successful” parenting practices evaluated by social scientific methods. However, we are aware that this is only one part of a much larger response needed to address this issue. To expand upon Dennis Bryson's warning about technocratic approaches that focus narrowly on psychological solutions, emphasis on successful parenting practices may displace attention from the social inequities, societal conflicts, and modes of oppression that underlie problems like school violence (Bryson, 1998). This is not our intention, and we advocate a multi-level response that addresses school violence at the systemic, community, and psychological levels.

Such a curriculum would likely have many positive tangible outcomes. Ideally it would prepare future parents to be better parents; e.g., by making everyone aware of how and when moral development typically occurs in children and by warning of impediments to its development. Besides informing future parents, consideration of impediments like humiliation and the formation of cliques might provoke discussion in schools that may defuse violent situations in the here and now (e.g., Blezard, 2003). Teaching from this curriculum would likely make students, teachers, administrators and staff members aware of the possible consequences of highly charged, highly competitive school environments, thus leading to “grassroots” or indigenous efforts intended to ratchet down the intensity of the competitive school environment (cf. Bucher & Manning, 2003; Pelton, 2002; Sjostrom & Stein, 1996; STOP Violence Coalition, 2003).

School Environment Interventions

Among the population of adolescents may be children who have developed a propensity for violence. That propensity may result in the manifestation of violence as the opportunities for it occur. The best opportunity for controlling violence, then, may be to control the environments where the propensity for violence might be brought to fruition. Among such environments is the school environment. Whereas zero tolerance policies and fortifications are attempts by schools to control the school environment for actual outbreaks of violence, we contend that more is needed. We recommend primary prevention programs to change the school environment is such a way that the predilection for violence is abated. Although not explicitly addressed here, these recommendations need to be funded appropriately and overtly supported by school boards and the public at large.

Social interactions are self-perpetuating. Deutsch (1985) suggests that any given mode of interaction breeds itself, and that neither competition nor cooperation is natural, instead they are learned. Persons are socialized to compete against others, and the results are considered evidence of the inevitability of competition (Chikudate, 2000; Kohn, 1986).

Not all competition is harmful. The competition one engages in as one challenges oneself to perform better than before does not perpetuate a winner versus loser, “me versus them” or “us versus them” mentality. Instead, such competition may lead to personal growth and development coming at the expense of no others. Kohn holds that competition generalizes. What is learned in one context is not confined there. As competition spreads to other contexts and assumes other forms, along with it goes aggression (Kohn, 1986). There is good evidence of a causal link between competition and aggression (Kelly & Stahelski, 1970; May, 1937). Theorists (Deutsch, 1985; May, 1972) propose that competition generates a high level of arousal. In essence, because of our society's emphasis on competition, we may be predisposed to respond with aggression if frustrated by some action or behavior; e.g., losing a competition (cf. Hellem, 1990).

This has important implications for children because they already face frustration on a nearly daily basis as they run up against boundaries in their physical, cognitive and emotional development. Such frustration is likely to be exacerbated in highly charged, competitive school environments (Phelan, Yu, & Davidson, 1994), perhaps resulting in aggressive outbursts.

This is especially troubling when the difficulties of transitioning from school to school and grade level to grade level are considered. For example, research has repeatedly highlighted the difficulty of transition from elementary school to middle school for all students (Elias, Gara, & Ubriaco, 1985). Hellem (1990) reports that

[e]arly adolescents often lack the knowledge, experience, and self-confidence to negotiate successfully the predictable changes associated with their transition to middle school. These changes may be interpreted by some students as ‘challenges’ and by others as ‘threats.’ It is the student's personal assessment of the change that influences his or her level of stress and concomitant ability to cope. (p. 303)

Therefore policies and programs directed at ratcheting down competition in schools, at reducing bullying, monitoring and perhaps guiding the relationships between cliques, and at easing transitions between elementary school and middle school, and between middle school and high school appear warranted. We recognize that some group involvement is quite beneficial, particularly by providing some continuity for students as they negotiate the normal transitions of their school careers. Monitoring becomes important when students at the margins of, or outside these groups, form their own cliques founded upon despair, frustration, hatred, or revenge.

Of these recommendations, reducing competition in schools seems most difficult given political trends that favor school and student “accountability” as determined by standardized tests, “merit” pay for teachers whose students do well, etc. Such tests enshrine individual competition and promote the myth of merit while directing attention away from other possible education reforms. Ideally, reducing harmful competition in schools would entail doing away with many, if not most of today's predominant school arrangements. Failing such radical changes, an ongoing, overt, nation-wide campaign to communicate the negative consequences of unbridled competition with others seems appropriate. Such a campaign could be championed by school administrators in public school systems and disseminated by K-12 teachers in the classroom. It could also be made a mandatory part of all interscholastic and intramural sports, too.

Research has documented that a school's culture and its accepted norms affect students (Brown & Leigh, 1996; cf. Glisson, 2000). As Freiberg and Stein (1999) suggest: “The climate of a school can foster resilience or become a risk factor in the lives of people who work and learn in… school” (p. 11). Thus, it is important that faculty and staff acknowledge that their attitudes and responses to students can significantly affect the extent of bullying (cf. Bullock, 2002; Rupper & Mayer-Adams, 2002), and the formation and acceptance of cliques (Hallinan & Smith, 1989). Hence, we advocate that teachers and school administrators take a much more active role to stop bullying in K-12 and in disallowing clique formation in lower grade levels (see Paley, 1993). Of course, this would be asking yet another thing of many already over-taxed teachers and administrators. Thus, it would be advisable to reduce the teacher to student ratio overall, to employ additional teacher aids, etc.

Specifically, we recommend the expansion and replication of successful programs and policies that address bullying and clique formation. As examples, consider Coloroso's (2003). The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to High-School-How parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence, Beane's (1999) The Bully Free Classroom: Over 100 Tips and Strategies for Teachers K-8, Froschl, Sprung, and Mullin-Rindler's (1998)Quit It: A Teacher‘s Guide on Teasing and Bullying for Use with Students in Grades K-3, and Paley's (1993) You Can‘t Say You Can‘t Play.

Finally, we advocate the implementation of programs like the Northwest Center for Community Mental Health's “Sixth Grade Transition Groups” prevention program. This program designed to improve students’ sense of self-efficacy as they transition from elementary school to middle school hold promise (see Fields, 2002). As Hellem (1990) reports, its primary goal “includes introducing students to cognitive skills such as refuting negative ‘self-talk’ in order to build self-esteem and confidence” (p. 305). Such programs would help reduce student frustration at a critical time in student's lives.


Extraordinary incidents of mass murder and mass murder-suicide at school require extraordinary understanding and intervention. National news media attention on these incidents has blurred the issue, resulting in programs and policies that too often only attempt to further insulate schools from their environments. Lacking is consideration of those ideas that may reveal and resolve the reasons for mass murder committed by students. Those ideas lie in behavioral sciences literature about the development of a personal moral philosophy, and pro-social behavior in adolescents, and the struggle for power and significance in highly competitive suburban and some rural school environments.

Each of the premises of the argument presented in this paper centers around a psychological or social issue that, when taken together with the others, may be understood as a contributing factor to incidents of extraordinary violence. Each of the psychological and social issues presented as premises of this argument, when taken alone, may simply lead to maladjusted adolescents, and probably not to school shootings. More simply, many children are raised in home environments that are not conducive to the development of a sound, personal, moral philosophy; however, most of these children do not become school shooters. Likewise, many children are rejected and/or bullied by their peers, but their marginalization alone probably does not lead to school shootings. Nevertheless, we have developed an argument exploring possible contributing factors to the phenomenon of school shootings. The premises of this argument follow an intensifying progression, in that each newly presented premise builds upon the former premise resulting in a sequence of contributing factors that, when taken together, may lead to extraordinarily violent behavior.

The essence of the argument is that children will develop at different rates and to different levels depending upon the particular influences of their developmental process. Among the population of adolescents may be children who have developed a propensity for violence. That propensity for violence may result in the manifestation of violence as the opportunities for it occur. The best opportunity for controlling violence, then, may be to control the environments where the propensity for violence might be brought to fruition. Among such environments is the school environment. Zero tolerance policies and fortifications are attempts by schools to control the school environment for actual outbreaks of violence. The distinction proposed here is to control the school environment is such a way that the predilection for violence is abated.

This review further suggests that children who are not enabled to develop a strong personal system of ethics at home and who fail to develop significant relationships among their peers enter secondary school in need of a low-intensity, cooperative environment where they might work on building relationships conducive to moral development. If, instead, these students are subjected to a highly competitive school environment in which esteem is awarded to those most in compliance with societal expectations, and withheld from those least compliant, they may seek aggressive, and perhaps violent, means to achieve recognition and a sense of significance.

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© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2005