The media gives a lot of attention to school shootings when they happen, and that attention has resulted in a deadly trend. When the media focuses on a violent event, it can inspire others to copy the crime. Since the murders at Columbine High School, the number of school shootings has drastically escalated, with each new episode echoing past shootings.
On April 20, 1999 18-year-old Eric Harris and 17-year-old Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and one teacher and wounded 23 others before turning the guns on themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. They wore trench coats and spoke German as they reenacted scenes from the movies The Matrix and The Basketball Diaries. In the month that followed, 400 related incidents were reported across the U.S. Students called in bomb threats, wore trench coats to school, and praised Harris and Klebold’s actions. Some schools feared additional shootings so much that they shut down temporarily.
These copycats were not limited to the US; countries across the world began to experience similar shootings. A week after Columbine, Canada suffered a fatal shooting, their first in 20 years. By 2002, Europe experienced its first school shootings. Because Europe has strict gun control laws, this is especially significant. In Efurt, Germany a student wounded 10, killed 13 teachers, two students, and one police officer before turning the gun on himself. Three days later a 17-year-old in Bosnia Herzegovina killed a teacher before committing suicide.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 monopolized the media’s attention for some time, which meant that school violence fell off of the public’s radar. Not surprisingly, virtually no shootings occurred during the 2001-2002 school year.1
The 2007 Virginia Tech school shooting represents the greatest number of deaths by a single gunman in American history, and brought school violence to the nation’s attention after a period of relative calm. Perpetrator Cho Seung-Hui killed 32 college students and faculty before committing suicide. Evidently, he idolized the Columbine killers and underwent a psychiatric evaluation in 1999 after expressing a desire to repeat Columbine to his teachers and art therapist. In a media spectacle, over 600 reporters were sent to Virginia Tech, setting the stage for a wave of copycat killers. Since then, many shooters have cited Cho Seung-Hui as a model for their actions, while many others have made threats to outdo the 32 people Seung-Hui killed.
As long as the media continue to focus on violent incidents, it is likely that copycats will continue to imitate other violent acts. The implications for the media and for teachers, school administrators, counselors, and parents are not so clear. Should the media ignore these tragic stories, knowing that information about these incidents can help provide clues to prevent future tragedies but also might encourage copycats? Should adults talk to students about these incidents, or does that just give more attention to them? Common sense suggests the need to discuss violent incidents in a way that does not glorify them or encourage imitation.
1 Coleman, L. (2004). The Copycat Effect. New York: Paraview Pocket Books
2 Flynn, C., & Heitzmann D. (2008). Tragedy at Virginia Tech: Trauma and Its Aftermath. The Counseling Psychologist. 20 (10): 1-11
3 Agger, B., & Luke, T. W. (2008). There is a Gunman on Campus: Tragedy and Terror at Virginia Tech. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.