Male Role Models and Recent School Shootings

When we blame recent school shootings on “evil,” we ignore the developmental challenges, harmful social expectations and lack of positive father figures young men face.

| March/April 2013

  • Illustration of a young boy with an invisible face wearing a backpack.
    In her book, “The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons,” former Newsweek staffer Peg Tyre reports “that from the moment they step into the classroom, boys begin to struggle.”
    Illustration By Stefan Zsaitsits

  • Illustration of a young boy with an invisible face wearing a backpack.

We marry the words senseless and killing for good reason. Multiply by 28—including 20 first graders, one mom and six valiant teachers—and the reach for instant explanation or obvious blame can get the better of anyone.

We have seen these pictures and felt this bewilderment and outrage before: Jonesboro, Arkansas (1998). Red Lake, Minnesota (2006). Columbine, Colorado (1999). Blacksburg, Virginia (2007). And once more, only somehow even worse, Newtown, Connecticut.

As a man and a father, I’ve stopped waiting for sound reporting or the killer’s own social media trail to lead me to insight or understanding. Each specific incident, instead, leaves me with a more general inquiry: Why do so many of America’s young males reach a point of no return? And what about those young men otherwise in distress or danger, albeit of a different kind?

Recent School Shootings: Profile of a Young Killer

In 2002, the U.S. Secret service completed the “Safe School Initiative,” a study of school shootings and other school-based attacks. The study examined school shootings in the United States as far back as 1974, through the end of the school year in 2000, analyzing a total of 37 incidents involving 41 student attackers.

The study involved extensive review of police records, school records, court documents and other source materials, and included interviews with 10 school shooters. The Secret Service focused on the pre-attack behaviors and communications of these young killers, with the goal of offering some preventative intelligence. Among its findings, the study concluded that school shootings are rarely impulsive acts. The young killers plan. They acquire weapons. They tell others what they are planning. These young men take a long, considered, public path toward violence.

The final report says that peers, in many instances, knew something, if not the actual details of the shooting—but chose to not alert an adult. The young men who carried out the attacks differed from one another in numerous ways. However, almost every attacker had engaged in behavior before the shooting that seriously concerned at least one adult—and for many had concerned three or more different adults.

Nanka Castulik
3/16/2013 2:43:04 PM

Boys struggle long before they enter school. From the moment children are born, gender expectations shape everything in children's lives: the ways we talk to and about them, the clothes put on them, things they are encouraged to do and discouraged from doing, toys they are given and denied. For generations, all of us have been formed by the strictures of a sexist society that was structured centuries ago in response to an environment that no longer exists. For 20+ years, I have been involved with agencies working to stop gender violence and mitigate its effects. The roots of gender roles are deep and destructive, and I am happy to see the changes in our society that are recognizing this and changing our future.

3/14/2013 6:39:25 AM

Too true! Let's not forget the lenient legal system that is more concerned about the rights of criminals than the rights of victims or future victims as well.

Michelle Miller
3/13/2013 10:59:31 PM

Not too long ago, this newsletter had an article about a link between senseless violence and anti depressant medication. The online magazine that the article came from had a link to a Welsh psychiatrist's website "SSRI Stories", a collection of articles from newspapers, scientific journals, etc. All of the articles feature incidents of violence (often coming on suddenly without warning), and all of them reference an anti depressant, mostly SSRIs. The sheer number of articles is mind boggling. We really need to start considering the adverse effects of anti depressants as a catalyst in these horrific killings. And lest you think I'm some anti psychiatric drug crusader, anti depressants have saved my Mother from a life of debilitating depression.

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