Eric Madfis, a North­eastern doc­toral can­di­date whose dis­ser­ta­tion focuses on exam­ining school shoot­ings, dis­cusses the latest tragedy in Ohio and how sim­ilar events in the future might be thwarted. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill

Ear­lier this week, a teenager was accused of killing three high school stu­dents after he opened fire at Chardon High School in Ohio. Eric Madfis, a doc­toral can­di­date in Northeastern’s Depart­ment of Soci­ology and Anthro­pology and a research asso­ciate at the Brud­nick Center on Vio­lence and Con­flict, has been working with crim­i­nology expert and pro­fessor Jack Levin to com­plete his dis­ser­ta­tion focused on school shoot­ings. We asked Madfis to ana­lyze this shooting, how it relates to past school shoot­ings and how sim­ilar tragedies in the future might be prevented.

Are there observ­able pat­terns that exist across school shootings? 

While the majority of single-​​victim school homi­cides actu­ally occur in urban areas with minority vic­tims and offenders, school ram­page shoot­ings such as these in which mul­tiple vic­tims are killed or injured are far more likely to occur in sub­urban and rural schools with white offenders and vic­tims. In terms of the offenders, no single uni­fying pro­file exists. They do tend to be boys, to expe­ri­ence chronic bul­lying and frus­tra­tion throughout their lives, to suffer from an acute prompt – which they per­ceive to be par­tic­u­larly dev­as­tating – and to plan their attacks far in advance. How­ever, pre­vious school ram­page shooters have grown up in a variety of diverse family sit­u­a­tions. They have also ranged from pop­ular stu­dents and loners, and had varying aca­d­emic success.

What cir­cum­stances might drive a stu­dent to this level of vio­lence and aggres­sion? Are the fac­tors more internal or external?

These extreme cases of vio­lence must be seen as resulting from a com­plex nexus of causes, at the indi­vidual, com­mu­nity and socio­cul­tural levels. At the indi­vidual level, depres­sion, per­son­ality dis­or­ders, psy­choses and other mental-​​health con­cerns have played a major role in some inci­dents, though numerous stu­dents who com­mitted school shoot­ings had no prior his­tory of mental ill­ness. At the com­mu­nity or microso­cial level, there has always been evi­dence of neg­a­tive rela­tion­ships and expe­ri­ences with school peers, family mem­bers, romantic inter­ests and/​or authority fig­ures. These neg­a­tive life cir­cum­stances – and in par­tic­ular, the per­cep­tion that such slights were cat­a­strophic – often led to vio­lent fan­tasies of revenge and grandiose dis­plays of vio­lence. Finally, at the macroso­ci­o­log­ical level, one must con­sider the role that per­va­sive notions of mas­culinity and the wide­spread access to guns and accep­tance of gun cul­ture play in rein­forcing and legit­imizing vio­lent solutions.

How can we as a society work to pre­vent tragedies like this in the future?

My dis­ser­ta­tion focuses on averted inci­dents of ram­page school shoot­ings, in which stu­dent plots came to the atten­tion of author­i­ties and thus were thwarted. I found nearly 200 of these suc­cess­fully pre­vented inci­dents across the United States during the last decade. One of the key find­ings to emerge from my research is that these inci­dents were not pre­vented through enhanced secu­rity mea­sures (such as metal detec­tors, random locker searches or sur­veil­lance cam­eras) or increas­ingly strict dis­ci­pline (such as “zero tol­er­ance” poli­cies with manda­tory arrests, sus­pen­sions and expul­sions), but instead by alert stu­dents and fac­ulty mem­bers coming for­ward with knowl­edge about a vio­lent plot being planned. In the vast majority of both com­pleted and averted school ram­page shoot­ings, the per­pe­tra­tors informed mul­tiple people about their plans in advance.

Given this, it is vital to encourage stu­dents to be more than pas­sive bystanders and actively speak up about threats made by their peers. Addi­tion­ally, antibul­lying pro­grams and increased sup­port for at-​​risk youth are cru­cial to help stu­dents cope with the trials of ado­les­cence before we are put in the much more dif­fi­cult posi­tion of trying to stop someone deter­mined to kill many people.