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Why violence?

Flowers and remarks adorn a makeshift memorial at sunrise at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., Tuesday, March 6, 2001, for the victims of a shooting Monday at the school  

The Secret Service's findings on school shootings

March 6, 2001
Web posted at: 6:25 PM EST (2325 GMT)

In this story:

History of depression


Kathy Slobogin

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Secret Service study into school-shooting incidents found that most of the attackers were on what researchers called a "path to violence."


The report cautions adults to be alert to warning signs and to be on the lookout for the pattern of behavior described in the report.

The Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center began to look at school shooting incidents in September 1999. It examined 37 incidents involving 41 perpetrators. Besides reviewing case files, the Secret Service researchers interviewed 10 perpetrators in person.

The interim report, released in October, found incidents were not impulsive -- rarely were there cases where a student just "snapped." Instead, the incidents were the end results of an observable and understandable pattern of thinking and behavior.

More than half of the attackers planned their attack at least two days in advance. More than three-quarters of them told someone of their plans, usually a peer, and usually more than one person. However, even though friends, classmates or siblings often knew of the attacker's plans, rarely was this information brought to the attention of an adult.

History of depression

Although people often ask, "what kind of person does this type of thing?" the Secret Service report concludes that might be the wrong question to ask, since its survey of attackers did not yield a useful profile.

Although all the shooters were boys or young men, they ranged in age from 11 to 21 and their family backgrounds ranged from intact families to foster families with a history of neglect. Some perpetrators were excellent students; some were failing. Some were popular; some were socially isolated. Very few had ever been diagnosed with a mental illness.

There was one common theme: depression.

More than half of the young men had a history of feeling extremely depressed. Prior to the violent incident, three-quarters of them had either threatened to kill themselves, made a suicidal gesture or actually tried to kill themselves.

More than two-thirds felt persecuted or bullied by someone. The motive for the shooting was often revenge.

The Secret Service report does offer some hope: Since the shooters usually take some time to plan their attacks, there is time to intervene. Sometimes it might be only a few days, so the researchers warn it is necessary to move quickly.

One of the shooters interviewed by Secret Service researchers was Luke Woodham, who killed his mother and two students in Pearl, Mississippi, in 1997.

The Secret Service asked Woodham what it would have taken for a grown-up to know what he felt.

Woodham: Pay attention. Just sit down and talk with me.

Question: What advice do you have for adults?

Woodham: I think they should try to bond more with their students ... Talk to them ... It doesn't have to be about anything. Just have some kind of relationship with them.

Secret Service Safe School Initiative

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