The Sociology of School Shootings

Edited transcript and audio link of a recent Voice of America interview with Richard Arum of the SSRC and Edward Taylor of U. Minn., presented with the permission of VOA.

What triggered Cho Seung-hui's rampage killing at Virginia Tech on April 16? Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Edward Taylor, professor of social work at the University of Minnesota, appeared on an episode of Voice of America's Encounter to discuss lessons that could be drawn from the tragedy. The program was hosted by Kent Klein.

[Airdate: 22 April 2007]

KENT KLINE: One of our jobs here at VOA is to explain American culture to people throughout the world. For what happened in Blacksburg, Virginia, I'm not sure there is an explanation, but we'll do our best. On Monday April 16, 2007, 23-year-old Cho Seung-hui killed two people in a residence hall at Virginia Tech, that large university in Blacksburg, and hours later he gunned down 30 people across campus in a classroom building before committing suicide. Of course this tragedy raised numerous questions about how someone could go on such a rampage and how incidents like this can be prevented in future. To address these and other questions, I'm joined by Richard Arum , a professor of sociology and education at New York University, and by Edward Taylor, professor of social work at the University of Minnesota.

How did this happen and is there any sense that can be made of it?

ARUM: It's important to consider the larger social context from which this problem emerged. In many ways this incident is an unfortunate byproduct of many of the things that are most positive about U.S. society, particularly our embrace of individual freedom. In this country we have a right to bear arms, we have a right to privacy, we have a right to due process that's extended to students in our schools, we have rights to free speech, and we provide special protections to disabled students in our schools including individuals who are mentally impaired. Unfortunately, these freedoms make it very difficult for schools to respond to individual troubled youth. Here was a case of a college student who was very deeply troubled, but the school, because it was concerned about the youth's individual rights, had a very difficult time responding in common sense ways to the needs he'd expressed.

TAYLOR: I'm in agreement with Professor Arum that there is no one single cause. However, this individual clearly had a mental disorder that caused him to be delusional and to have a form of psychosis that causes the thinking processes to change. When a person has a paranoid delusion, he becomes obsessed over the idea that certain people are against him, or that individuals are after him, or that bad things are happening in our society. At some point, the problem-solving process in the brain suggests alternative solutions for how to respond, and the brain develops a plan on which the individual obsesses even more on until he finally carries it out. People often ask: what made this individual snap? But there's not just one event that occurs, then the person snaps and goes out and kills 30 people. Problems of this type happen over time.

ARUM: I agree and would just add that in the U.S. today there are cultural scripts that are violent in nature and have been popularized by the media and the entertainment industry. Boys in particular adopt these scripts -- boys who are socially marginalized, deeply disturbed and troubled -- as a way of restoring their masculinity. If you look at the history of school shootings in this country, many of them have this character. The images themselves seem to come out of popular culture.

That's something that many Americans particularly in our generation, middle aged and older folks, have complained about -- the violent themes in movies, music, and video games. Do you think this makes young people violent, or does this bring out the violence in someone who already had that tendency?

ARUM: It has more to do with how the violence is manifested. We've had violent images in our media for a long time. You go back to the '50s and '60s, we had westerns and war movies that were very violent. We also had guns readily available in this country in the '50s and '60s. These rampage school shootings, however, are a fairly recent phenomenon. There was one dramatic case in the '60s in the U.S. at a university in Texas. There was one case I know of in the '70s. But in the '80s and '90s, we started seeing these rampage school shootings occurring not just every year but now almost monthly in this country. So I think what's really changed in the last two decades is how schools have been affected by legislation and regulations that have made it very difficult for them to deal with troubled kids, both at the college level but also at the elementary and secondary levels.

TAYLOR: May I add that one of the things we see in people with mental disorders is that their delusions and hallucinations take on the wider cultural context. So what is a principal focus of youth at any given time will also manifest itself as the principal focus of the paranoid delusion or hallucination. In other words, violent movies and video games are one part of the puzzle. They're not the entire picture, though. It's important for us to keep in mind that the majority of people with mental disorders never commit any type of violent act.

So what happens? Why do some people do something as horrific as this, but others don't?

TAYLOR: I'll be interested in hearing Professor Arum's take on it, but from my point of view, you have different reasons people do it. One that I focus on is that individuals with a mental disorder become influenced by society -- the scripts that Dr. Arum was talking about -- and obsess about them and are unable to take in information and process alternative information. As they obsess, they finally come up with a plan and execute that plan. On the other hand, you have people who have difficulty with controlling their rage impulse -- certainly a mental health problem but not a major mental health disorder. Because of their impulse problems, such people sometimes commit an unthinkable act. After the act, those individuals have far different insight on what they have done than those with mental disorders.

ARUM: I would largely agree. It's very hard to predict which individuals will commit such acts. Policy to address violence in schools is better when it focuses on getting at the larger structural conditions that put larger and larger groups of young adults at risk for developing these tendencies. I would argue that we need to think about empowering our schools earlier to deal with these kids in effective ways, so that these conditions don't develop.

There were warning signs abounding with Cho Seung-hui. The police, mental health officials, university officials, professors, students, and perhaps even his parents -- it seems that all of them tried to do something, to get some help for this guy or stop him, but ultimately it didn't happen. Who's to blame here?

ARUM: The international listeners to this program would find it surprising the amount of rights that are extended to individuals on our college campuses. For example, rights to privacy prevent colleges from communicating often even with parents about troubled youth on their campuses, let alone communicating with local police authorities, mental health specialists, and the like. And, internal to the colleges, it's also often difficult to communicate across units. There are limits that have been put up, firewalls if you will, to protect the individual's privacy that make it very difficult for people to work together to address these problems.

Do you think this is likely to change in the wake of this tragedy at Virginia Tech?

ARUM: There's currently an active debate going on in this country about whether or not some of these rights, which were extended dramatically from the mid-70s onward, have perhaps gone too far. This includes for example the Supreme Court hearing just last month on a case around free speech rights for students in high schools.

Professor Taylor, does it seem that the mental health professionals who are working on cases like this have their hands tied when they make a recommendation?

TAYLOR: There's a problem inherent to the mental health program we have to keep in mind. While we know of numerous indicators that increase the likelihood of a person becoming violent, they're at best a crude screening tool. One risk factor, for example, is being male: statistically, violent crimes are more often committed by men than by women. In fact, the best indicator of a person's potential for violence is that they've been violent before. If the person has never been violent, then the indicators become very soft. It's very difficult to make the case for taking away an individual's civil liberties based upon flimsy scientific evidence.

ARUM: All of this suggests the importance of restoring the professional discretion of educators to respond on a case-by-case basis, to make professional judgments on what is in the best interest of the student. Unfortunately today, because of the increased regulation around schooling in this country, we often resort to blanket, zero-tolerance policies around weapons and drugs in schools, blanket policies around mental health screenings and the like. These policies tend to be counterproductive and poorly designed to meet the real needs of students facing these problems.

There was an opinion piece written by the president of George Washington University here in Washington, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, in the Washington Post, where he talked about a case at his university, I believe last year, where a student was expelled because of concerns about his or her mental health. There were numerous lawsuits brought against the university as a result. Is part of the problem here is that we're in such a litigious society?

TAYLOR: Once you're dealing with a student who's considered an adult (18 years or older), until that individual signs a consent form that gives the mental health worker the permission to share information, you cannot give even the family of that individual information about his or her mental status. The only exception is when the individual has made statements threatening the life of a family member or anyone in the community. Under those conditions, you can release the information. But most of the time, such as in this case, you do not have a clear statement that the individual plans to take lives before he commits the act.

ARUM: Much of my research is actually in the schools, looking at how educators interpret and think about the law. Even though the law sometimes does empower educators to make reasonable judgments, the fear of litigation is ever present, which paralyzes them. And again, when you think about the complex legal landscape -- students' rights to privacy, due process and free speech, as well as the special protections accorded to disabled students -- you can see it's very difficult to figure out the appropriate, legally permissible thing to do. It's interesting and ironic that one month prior to the Virginia Tech incident, the Virginia legislature passed a law that provided added protections to mentally ill students contemplating suicide on Virginia campuses, so that universities would have to provide added special protections to kids troubled in this way.

One criticism that was brought almost immediately from overseas was about the United States and our so-called gun culture. How valid is that criticism?

ARUM: Again, I would point to the fact that guns have been widely available in our society for a long time, and we didn't have this history of rampage school shootings. So I think looking solely at the gun culture as an explanation for this is a mistake. That being said, do I personally believe that guns are too readily available? Here we had a case where an individual with a history of mental illness was able to walk into a store and purchase a weapon. It would be hard to argue that this makes any rational sense at all.

Professor Taylor, do you foresee there being a whole new debate about gun control in the United States as a result of this?

TAYLOR: I think there will be. In my mind -- I'm not citing research here, it's my bias -- there's no doubt that we need to have better control over the purchase and ownership of guns at the national level. By the same token, those favoring gun control really overlook the fact that this is one piece of a very complex fabric of violence that occurs. Years ago, I worked for NIH in the heart institute. And one of the studies the institute did was on the role stress plays in heart attacks. What they found is that it accounts for about 7-8% of why a person has a heart attack. From a researcher's point of view to quantify eight percent is really a wonderful thing. But from the point of view of resolving the nation's cardiology problem, it's not such a big thing. I think that probably the gun issue is like that. It's part of the problem, and it would be helpful to get better control of it. But it's the cultural and mental health problems that we really need to look at.

ARUM: I would add that the history of our own country -- some of the terrible terrorist incidents that have occurred here as well as the rest of the world -- indicate that you can do damage of this scale and scope without guns.

Professor Arum, let me ask you just in our waning minutes here: what effect does media coverage have on this whole situation?

ARUM: The coverage of these incidents does lead to the dissemination of what I've called cultural scripts, making it even more likely that incidents like the Virginia Tech massacre will occur again. Now the media has a responsibility to cover these tragedies, but I hope that this coverage can be balanced with discussions like this, which get at the root cause and larger structural conditions that are responsible for such incidents.

Edited and condensed by Mary-Lea Cox.


Richard Arum, director of the SSRC's program on educational research and a NYU professor of sociology and education, is a leading expert on education reform and the author of Judging School Discipline: The Crisis of Moral Authority.


Edward Taylor, a professor of social work at the University of Minnesota, has done a survey of high school students on their fears about school violence. His current research looks at mental disorders and violence.

Published on: Sunday, April 22, 2007