Adding up the risks for school shootings

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — The 2007 Virginia Tech shooting that killed 33 people points to a complex array of factors—from bullying to lack of parental support to ineffective mental health services—that can lead students to become violent.

The Virginia Tech gunman, 23-year-old student Seung-Hui Cho, had a host of risk factors that fall into a complicated framework of social systems, including family, school, friends, culture, and community services.

A study, reported in the Journal of Loss and Trauma, is one of the first to explore the potential risk factors faced by immigrants and minorities. The Korean-born gunman at Virginia Tech, for example, was allegedly taunted for his poor English skills and also faced cultural barriers to mental health services, according to the research.

“Despite the numerous explanations by the media, politicians, organizations, and researchers about the potential cause of the school shootings, we are not united in our understanding of the risk factors, particularly those relevant to racial minorities and immigrants,” says Hyunkag Cho, an assistant professor of social work at Michigan State University. (Hyunkag Cho is not related to Seung-Hui Cho.)

The study, Cho notes, comes on the heels of the Jan. 8 rampage in Tucson, Ariz., that left six dead and 13 wounded, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Jared Loughner, a 22-year-old former community college student from Arizona, has been charged with first-degree murder.

Cho says many of the risk factors are essentially universal to mass shootings in the United States, including access to guns, media exposure to gun violence, and the scientific finding that males are much more likely than females to perceive violence as a legitimate way to resolve conflicts. The vast majority of serial killers are male, he adds.

Cho says more attention should be given to prevention efforts. Among the study’s recommendations:

  • More education for parents, teachers, and school officials about the early signs of distorted gender images and misconceptions about mental health needs.
  • The inclusion of parent education programs that enhance pro-social parenting practices.
  • Systematic reporting system for bullying in school and a strengthening of multicultural curricula in the classroom. This can foster a sense of school connectedness among minority students and reduce their likelihood of becoming victimized in school, Cho says.

While some people may be predisposed to violence, Cho says the goal should be to reduce or eliminate the issues that can trigger that violence, such as peer victimization. Everyone can play a role, from fellow students to educators to policymakers who can bolster social services to assist immigrant youth and families in coping with these issues.

“Every person has their own responsibility to do whatever they can to prevent or reduce this kind of problem,” Cho says. “As they say, it takes an entire village to raise a child.”

Co-authors include researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Boston University.

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