The aftermath of a mass shooting at a private Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee, that left three 9-year-old students and three school workers dead Monday has renewed debate about why shooters target schools.
There’s no simple answer for why shooters are drawn to schools, but because schools may have limited security and deaths of young people draw significant attention, they can be attractive targets for assailants, experts told USA TODAY.
Why do shootings happen at schools?
Robin M. Kowalski, a psychology professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, recently studied shootings at K-12 schools and colleges and other mass shootings. She and her colleagues found the majority of people who attack K-12 schools are white, male, have a median age of 15, feel marginalized or bullied, and use the event to take their own lives. And they tend to come from inside the school community, she said.
K-12 school attacks are “night and day” from college shootings, which are more likely to occur after interpersonal conflicts, Kowalski said. People who attack K-12 schools are more likely to have a history of psychological problems, long-term or acute rejection experiences like a recent breakup, or a fascination with death, guns and violence –including a fascination with school shootings, she said.
Because most school shootings are “lone-wolf attacks,” an act committed by one person, one would have to understand the mindset of the assailant, including their history, grievances and mental health status, to truly understand their motive, said Javed Ali, a former top official at the FBI and Department of Homeland Security and an associate professor of practice at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.
“Every shooter seems to be driven by different factors,” he said.
Covenant School shooting in Nashville: 3 children, 3 adults dead; victims’ names released
Did the Nashville shooter have a motive?
Authorities haven’t yet determined a clear motive for the shooting rampage in Nashville. Metro Nashville Police Department Chief John Drake said police officers found “writings” and a detailed map of the school left behind by suspect Audrey Elizabeth Hale, 28, which revealed plans to target the school. The suspect entered the school with an AR-style rifle, an AR-style pistol and another handgun, police said.
The suspect previously attended The Covenant School, and Drake told NBC News that Hale might have had “some resentment for having to go to that school.” Drake also said the suspect was being treated for an emotional disorder and had legally purchased seven firearms.
Police said the suspect originally planned to target another school in Nashville but was concerned about levels of high security.
The victims are 9-year-olds Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney and Hallie Scruggs and Mike Hill, 61, Katherine Koonce, 60, and Cynthia Peak, 61.
“In Nashville, we know the person went to the school, so the question is: ‘What drew them back to that school decades or so later?'” Ali said. “We’ll never know the answer to that because that person is dead.”
How many mass shootings have there been in 2023?
Including Monday’s shooting in Nashville, there have been 14 mass shootings in 2023. A USA TODAY database of mass shootings dating back to 2006 classifies mass shootings as cases where four or more people were shot and two or more killed dating back to 1988.
Another database from the Gun Violence Archive shows Monday’s attack is the 130th mass shooting in the United States this year. The archive defines a mass shooting as one in which at least four people are shot, excluding the shooter.
How many mass shootings have there been in schools?
There have been eight mass shootings at K-12 schools since 2006, including at The Covenant School in Nashville, Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Monday’s shooting at The Covenant School marks the 89th shooting on K-12 school grounds in 2023 – an average of one every day – according to a national K-12 School Shooting Database. That database counts any instance when a firearm is fired or pointed at someone in a school, or when a bullet hits school property.
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Schools face numerous shooting threats
Schools across the nation face constant threats of school shootings, and history shows those threats continue after mass shootings. In the days after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, for example, schools in the San Francisco Bay Area faced more than a handful of threats.
“The problem is so bottomless, and we’re seeing threats of violence at schools almost every day… It’s so challenging to know which one is going to be the one,” Marisa McKeown, Santa Clara County’s supervising deputy district attorney in the crime strategies unit, told The Mercury News at the time.
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Schools are hardening school buildings in response
Since the mass shooting that left 26 dead at Sandy Hook Elementary school more than a decade ago, several groups including the American Institute of Architects, the International Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design Association and the National Rifle Association have developed a slew of guidance on constructing and reconstructing schools to prevent such killings.
They recommend education leaders spend school funds on detours to delay visitors from easily entering schools, floor-to-ceiling windows built with impact-resistant glass that can shield against threats and allow anyone to see who’s coming onto campus and surveillance gates, among other safety features.
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Ali said he is advocating for U.S. Department of Homeland Security authorities to designate K-12 schools as critical infrastructure.
“We need to raise the bar in terms of security to either deter people from thinking about conducting attacks or minimize the impacts of attacks when one does indeed occur,” Ali said. “We need to make moves on school safety since we don’t seem to make progress on guns and mental health, or the combination of those two.”
Contributing: John Bacon, Jorge L. Ortiz, Chris Gadd, Terry Collins anGrace Hauck, USA TODAY
Contact Kayla Jimenez at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @kaylajjimenez.