At Polychart we are passionate about visualizing data. This blog features product news, articles, as well as our own analyses and visualizations of datasets we find interesting.

Monday 21 January 2013

Why are people shooting up our schools?

School shootings are a gruesome thought - how could something so horrible happen to the places we idealize as centers of learning? They appear so often in the media that they have become a caricature. Is this attention justified - are these shootings happening more often and getting deadlier? For this blog post, we used data compiled by Jessie Klein for her new book, The Bully Society, on US school shootings from 1979 to 2011. Here's our analyses:

Surprise, surprise! School shootings are happening more often. We plotted the number of school shootings against time and found an upward trend. 18 school shootings happened in 2009 - more than double the number of any year before 2005.

When we split this chart by education level, we can see that high school and university shootings are happening more often. If its true that the media's promotion of school shootings is leading to their increase, it seems that these two venues are where new attacks are happening. The other education levels seem to be unaffected, they show a lack of growth.

Of course, shootings there still happen, a reminder that is hardly needed in the aftermath of Sandy Hill. Statistics and trends lose meaning at the incident level.

The motives for school shootings are varied.

Looking at the source, Anti-school motives are mostly developed from incidents where there is friction with teachers, councilors, or administration. Failed classes, ineffective counseling, and classroom discipline are all common examples. Anti-school motives occur even at the highest levels of education. One example includes Gang Lu who at 28 gunned down 4 professors and an administrator over the lack of a prestigious academic award for his doctoral thesis.

Dating related school shootings also dominate this list. Anger after breakups, cheating, and domestic violence have led to at least 19 shootings in this time period.

This graph dispels the myth at most school shooters have well defined mental health problems which cause them to strike out. For the most part, mental health plays a background role, the cause of only 11 out of 191 shootings.

How would this graph change if guns were outlawed? How would it change if everyone owned guns?

The typical school shooter is male, aged 15-25, and acts alone. This seems almost expected as so many of the motives for school shootings are directly motivated by masculinity or closely related reasons.

Around a quarter of the time, a school shooting ends with a suicide.

We end with a question: are school shootings getting deadlier? Are shooters given inspiration by media depictions of Columbine and Virginia Tech?

The majority of school shootings lead to the deaths of two people or less. Its the outliers that shock our nation and become canonized in popular culture. Such levels of violence are a recent phenomena, and the debate continues on how to prevent these mass murders.

In spite of all this, there are more than 100000 schools in the United States. While school shootings are becoming more common, against the behemoth that is the US education system the sum of all school shootings seem to be almost insignificant - a footnote in history more remembered more for its concept than its impact on student life. Perhaps its true that we give far too much media attention to these incidents, and that once the stage is gone shooters like the ones at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hill will no longer have a reason to strike out so furiously.

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