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Am J Crim Just (2016) 41:444–464
Studying School Shootings: Challenges
and Considerations for Research
H. Jaymi Elsass 1 & Jaclyn Schildkraut 2 &
Mark C. Stafford 1
Received: 4 June 2015 / Accepted: 19 October 2015 /
Published online: 29 October 2015
# Southern Criminal Justice Association 2015
Abstract Studying school shootings can be both a fruitful and challenging endeavor.
The random nature of these events provides a number of challenges for studying this
phenomenon. This paper explores these concerns as they relate to developing and
implementing studies, as well as interpreting related findings by drawing on previous
research that examined the effects of the 1999 Columbine High School, the 2007
Virginia Tech, and the 2008 Northern Illinois University shootings. Ways in which
these issues may be overcome and, more generally, the research can be moved forward
also are discussed.
Keywords School shootings . Research methodologies . Theoretical orientation .
Beginning in the mid-1990s, culminating with the 1999 shooting at Columbine High
School, and reiterated through more recent events, including Virginia Tech (2007) and
Sandy Hook (2012), school shootings have become characterized by many as a social
problem (Elsass et al. 2014; Schildkraut et al. 2015; see also BWashington Post-ABC
News Poll^ 2015). Each event is intentional, designed to cause numerous deaths, and is
highly publicized, particularly through the media (Addington 2003; Elsass et al. 2014;
Schildkraut 2014; Schildkraut and Muschert 2014). These events also have the potential to affect people who are both local and spatially distant from the shooting
(Addington 2003). Given their vast reach, coupled with varied responses by groups
within society (see, for example, Schildkraut and Hernandez 2014), understanding the
associated impacts of school shootings is particularly important.
Researchers have made strides in examining the effects of specific school shooting
events, including Columbine (Addington 2003; Brener et al. 2002; Stretesky and
* H. Jaymi Elsass
Texas State University, 601 University Drive, San Marcos, TX 78666, USA
State University of New York at Oswego, Oswego, NY, USA
Am J Crim Just (2016) 41:444–464
Hogan 2001) and Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University (NIU) in 2008
(Kaminski et al. 2010; see also Fallahi et al. 2009). Each of these studies makes an
important contribution to the limited, yet growing, body of literature on school
shootings. While each has yielded findings that prompt further inquiry, these studies
also share a number of limitations that require caution in the interpretation of their
results. Still, they provide an opportunity to advance the research on a rare
As such, this paper focuses on examining such challenges to studying school
shootings, as well as offers considerations for how research designs can be improved
in future studies. Specifically, these prior studies are examined, underscoring specific
methodological challenges encountered during the research process. From there, additional considerations are offered with regards to the interpretation of specific findings,
and methods through which these issues can be addressed. Finally, discussion is offered
about approaches to moving the larger body of research in school shootings forward to
provide a more comprehensive and robust analysis of these events.
Understanding the [Mediatized] Problem of School Shootings
Despite that crime rates in the United States are declining, and homicide specifically is
especially rare, many people believe that school shootings are becoming epidemic,
occurring more frequently than they actually are (Muschert and Ragnedda 2010;
Newman 2006; Schildkraut et al. 2015). In reality, however, there are approximately
10 events per year, on average (Schildkraut 2012). One of the main factors that drives
the disproportional beliefs about the frequency of school shootings is the amount of
attention they garner in the media (Elsass et al. 2014). Despite that these events
typically last for 10 min or less, media coverage often extends days, weeks, and, with
the most salient cases, a month or more (Muschert 2002; Schildkraut 2012, 2014;
Schildkraut and Muschert 2014).1 As Kellner (2003, 2008a, 2008b) notes, these events
become, at varying intensities, Bmedia spectacles,^ with every facet of the story
splashed across headlines or permeating television and computer screens. These spectacles essentially take relatively uncommon events, sensationalize them, and make the
events appear far more commonplace than they actually are (Kellner 2008a; Surette
When the story first broke of the Columbine High School shooting, for example,
CNN aired six hours of uninterrupted live coverage (Muschert 2002). Three major
news networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC – devoted more than half of their nightly news
airtime to coverage of the shooting over the following month (Robinson 2011), with 53
stories in the first week alone (Maguire et al. 2002). In total, 319 stories were aired over
all nightly news broadcasts throughout the remainder of 1999 (Robinson 2011).
Coverage of other highly salient events, including the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook
shootings, have followed similar patterns.
In addition to television news, disproportional coverage of school shooting events
also is evident through other media. In the year following Columbine, over 10,000
The 1999 Columbine High School shooting is a notable exception. It has been estimated that the total event
lasted just under 50 min (Columbine Review Commission 2001).
Am J Crim Just (2016) 41:444–464
articles were published about the shooting in the nation’s top 50 newspapers (Newman
2006), including 170 articles in The New York Times alone (Chyi and McCombs 2004;
Muschert and Carr 2006). The Times also published over 130 articles about both
Virginia Tech (Schildkraut 2012, 2014) and Sandy Hook (Schildkraut 2014;
Schildkraut and Muschert 2014) in the first 30 days after each shooting. While other
events, such as those at NIU in 2008 or Chardon High School in 2012, also have
captured national attention, they did so with lower frequencies of coverage (Elsass et al.
2014; Schildkraut 2014). Thus, while school shootings have been overrepresented in
the media, the disproportional coverage also is exacerbated by the focus on the most
extreme (and deadly) examples (Burns and Crawford 1999; Elsass et al. 2014;
Schildkraut and Muschert 2014; see also Maguire et al. 2002; Robinson 2011).
Cohen (1963) has noted that the media Bmay not be successful much of the time in
telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling people what to
think about^ (p. 13). Such a sentiment is particularly relevant as the media serves as the
main source of information for up to 95 % of the general public (Surette 1992). The
agenda-setting function of the media often is achieved through story selection decisions
and how they are framed (see, for example, McCombs 1997; McCombs and Shaw
1972). Specifically, researchers have found that up to 50 % of news coverage is
dedicated to stories about crime, and despite that property-related offenses are considerably more common, a disproportionate amount of this attention is focused on the
most serious and violent crimes (Chermak 1995; Gruenewald et al. 2009; Paulsen
2003; Schildkraut and Donley 2012). As such, the emphasis on Bhigh amplitude^ or
sensational cases, such as school shootings, both in the amount and prominence of the
coverage allocated, has the ability to shape public perceptions about a particular event
or phenomenon (Johnstone et al. 1994; see also Chermak 1994).
Previous Research on School Shootings
Though the body of research examining school shootings is limited, several researchers
have taken important first steps in studying the effects. At the time of the Columbine
shooting, researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) were conducting a
campus dating violence study (Stretesky and Hogan 2001). The researchers adapted
their study in order to examine the effects of Columbine on students' perceptions of
safety (Stretesky and Hogan 2001). The findings of the study indicated that, when
compared to those surveyed prior to the shootings, respondents' perceived safety was
significantly lower after Columbine (Stretesky and Hogan 2001). Despite methodological limitations, Stretesky and Hogan’s (2001) work provides one of the earliest
considerations of the impacts of such rare events.
Two other studies (Addington 2003; Brener et al. 2002) also examined the impact of
the Columbine shootings, but did so using national data sources. Addington (2003)
utilized the School Crime Supplement of the National Crime Victimization Survey
(NCVS-SCS), while Brener et al. (2002) employed data from the 1999 Youth Risk
Behavior Survey (YRBS). Aside from differences in study design and respective
challenges, these studies found similar patterns related to the effects of the shooting.
Addington (2003) found that students expressed greater fear while at school after
Columbine as compared to those surveyed prior to it, though the effect size was small.
Am J Crim Just (2016) 41:444–464
Similarly, Brener et al. (2002) found that following the shooting, many respondents
expressed being too fearful to attend school, and consequently, were more likely to
avoid school altogether.
Researchers also have examined the effects of shootings taking place on
college campuses. Fallahi et al. (2009) researched the effect of the 2007
Virginia Tech shootings on students at Central Connecticut State University.
They found that students who consumed more media coverage of the shooting
both were more fearful and more likely to believe a similar event would happen
again (Fallahi et al. 2009). These same respondents, however, were less inclined
to express the belief that a similar attack would happen on their campus
(Fallahi et al. 2009).
Similarly, Kaminski et al. (2010) examined the impact of both Virginia Tech and
2008 NIU shootings on students at the University of South Carolina (USC).
They found that students reported greater fear of murder and of being attacked
with a weapon following both shootings (Kaminski et al. 2010). Demographic
variables, such as gender, age, and race/ethnicity, also were significantly correlated with changes in fear, with females reporting being more fearful than
males (Kaminski et al. 2010; see also Fallahi et al. 2009). Additionally,
Kaminski et al. (2010) also found that older students and non-whites expressed
greater fear, as compared to younger respondents and whites, respectively.
Further, students living on campus expressed greater fear following the shootings (Kaminski et al. 2010).
While each of these studies makes an important contribution to the growing body of
research on school shootings, methodological issues present in each work, coupled with
the complexities inherent in studying a phenomenon that is extremely (and statistically)
rare in nature, produces a number of serious limitations. The careful examination of
such limitations allows for discussion about how to minimize their effects. Such a
discourse will assist school shootings researchers in better handling common methodological issues, thereby helping to propel the body of literature forward.
Defining the School Shootings Problem
Perhaps the biggest challenge in studying school shootings, particularly when
trying to determine their prevalence, is the absence of a precise definition for
the phenomenon. Both in the academic community and beyond, little agreement
has arisen with regard to how best to define these events. Specifically, a
number of different definitions, each with their own inherent limitations, have
been put forth by various agencies and organizations. In a joint report between
the U.S. Department of Education and the Secret Service, for example, the
researchers define Bincidents of targeted school violence,^ as a category which
includes (but is not limited to) school shootings, as.
Any incident where (i) a current student or recent former student attacked
someone at his or her school with lethal means (e.g., a gun or knife); and, (ii)
where the student attacker purposefully chose his or her school as the location of
the attack. (Vossekuil et al. 2002, p. 7)
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In the School-Associated Violent Death Study published by the Center for Disease
Control (CDC), in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S.
Department of Justice, criteria for inclusion in the report relies on defining events as.
A case is defined as a fatal injury (e.g., homicide, suicide, or legal intervention)
that occurs on school property, on the way to/from school, or during or on the
way to/from a school-sponsored event. Only violent deaths associated with U.S.
elementary and secondary schools, both public and private, are included. (Centers
for Disease Control 2014)
While the CDC does not claim that all events in the report are school shootings,
statistics reported are given in aggregates of total incidents; when used to explain
school shootings, they provide individuals with an overinflated perception of their
prevalence. In the same vein, the overly broad crafting of their definition suggests that
events such as a suicide at a bus stop involving a firearm essentially could be counted
as a school shooting.
Following the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Everytown for Gun Safety
(2014), a national advocacy group, purported that Bin the two years since the mass
shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, there have been at least 94 school shootings
including fatal and nonfatal assaults, suicides, and unintentional shootings – an average
of nearly one a week.^ This claim, however, was problematic based on the definition
the organization used to identify events:
Incidents were classified as school shootings when a firearm was discharged
inside a school building or on school or campus grounds, as documented by the
press or confirmed through further inquiries with law enforcement. Incidents in
which guns were brought into schools but not fired, or were fired off school
grounds after having been possessed in schools, were not included. (Everytown
for Gun Safety 2014)
As a result of this choice of wording, accidental weapons discharges were included
in their count, as were events that differed in motivation from school shootings, such as
those involving gangs. In sum, since there is no universally accepted definition, there is,
in turn, disagreement regarding the number of events that are (or are not occurring)
Theoretical Approaches to Studying School Shootings
For many researchers, utilizing a deductive approach to study a particular phenomenon
is beneficial as it offers theoretical propositions to help guide the research hypotheses to
be tested (Bryman 2012). For researchers studying school shootings, however, finding
an appropriate, and more importantly, testable, theory can present a challenge. Specifically, the majority of criminological theories – including biological, psychological,
strain, and learning– focus on understanding why individuals engage in delinquent or
criminal activities. While a case study approach can be used to look for common
attributes among school shooters, the majority commit suicide; therefore, the amount of
Am J Crim Just (2016) 41:444–464
available data is limited, as is the sample size, to test specific theoretical propositions.2
Similarly, understanding why people become victims of school shootings is limited by
a lack of theoretical insight; only one group of theories – routine activities – underscore
the opportunity for victimization to occur.
Instead, researchers commonly have focused on understanding individuals' responses to school shooting events (Addington 2003; Warr 2000). This broader examination is advantageous for several reasons. First, given the extensive reach of the
media, a greater number of people may indirectly become victims of these events
(Addington 2003; Skogan and Maxfield 1981; Warr 2000). As such, this provides the
opportunity to examine the effects of these events on a larger sample. Additionally, it is
these very responses that have one of the greatest abilities to influence policy decisions
that stem from the events. Most commonly, responses to school shootings as they relate
to fear of crime or perceived safety have been examined (Addington 2003; Brener et al.
2002; Fallahi et al. 2009; Kaminski et al. 2010; Stretesky and Hogan 2001). Other
outcomes, such as the use of avoidance behaviors (Addington 2003; Brener et al.
2002), also have been examined.
Perceptions of Safety and Fear of Crime
One area of inquiry that has been focused on by researchers is fear of crime, coupled
with associated perceptions of risk or safety, among the greater public. Although the
body of literature on fear of crime is ample, spanning over 40 years, these studies focus
on more ordinary crimes and, by design, are ill-suited to capture the effects of rare
crimes, such as school shootings (Warr 2000). Addington (2003) acknowledges this
challenge, noting that Bno theoretical or empirical precedent is available to predict
Columbine’s [or other similar events'] effect on fear [or perceived risk of
victimization]^ (p. 368). Therefore, studies examining the effects of Columbine and
other school shootings have placed greater emphasis on understanding individual
reactions to the event, rather than the causes of the event itself.
One issue that complicates this area of inquiry, however, stems from researchers'
handling of these outcome measures. Perceived risk and fear of crime are related, yet
distinct constructs, and, therefore, it is important to differentiate between them, as the
former is hypothesized to cause the latter (Warr 2000; Warr and Stafford 1983).
Highlighting this difference, Ferraro (1995) further contends that perceived risk is
cognitive, while fear of crime is emotional.
A number of the studies examining fear and perceived risk related to school shootings
assert that they are distinct constructs in their reviews of the literature, but fail to include
measures of each. Addington (2003) discussed the role of perceived risk and social distance
in her study of the effects of the Columbine High School shooting, but through no fault of
her own, was unable to include measures of perceived risk, as they are not available in the
NCVS-SCS. Stretesky and Hogan (2001) faced the opposite problem. Their survey instrument focused solely on perceived risk, which they referred to as Bperceptions of safety^
(Stretesky and Hogan 2001, p. 430). This forced the researchers to forgo an examination of
the prospective effects on fear of crime post-Columbine and instead focus on the potential
In a study examining the broader category of rampage shooters following Columbine, Schildkraut (2014)
found that 55 % of perpetrators in the study committed suicide.
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impact of the event on perceived risk. Since these constructs are measuring two different
outcomes, the results from Addington’s (2003) and Stretesky and Hogan’s (2001) studies are
not readily comparable. Instead, when possible, measures of both fear and perceived risk
should be included in order for researchers to glean a more complete understanding of
individuals' responses to such events.
The issue of understanding the impact of school shootings on fear of crime or
perceptions of risk further is exacerbated by the way in which these outcomes are
measured. Both are multifaceted constructs, and this complexity must be acknowledged
in its measurement to ensure validity. Addington (2003), for example, utilized two
questions from the NCVS-SCS to measure fear of crime, which in itself is problema ...