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Now it's outsiders shooting in schools
Monday's rampage at an Amish school in Pennsylvania was another in a series of attacks in which four non-urban schools were targeted in the past several weeks by intruders committing murder, mayhem and sexual assaults.
Charles Carl Roberts, a milk-truck driver, entered a one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County on Monday and shot students and a teacher's aide to death. He wounded others, and then killed himself. It was the nation's third deadly school shooting in less than a week.
Col. Jeffery B. Miller, commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police, said Roberts, 32 — armed with a semiautomatic handgun, a rifle, a shotgun and a stun gun — apparently was motivated by rage over a long-ago incident unconnected to the school or the Amish.
Save for a disturbed teenager killing a principal in a rural Wisconsin school on Friday, the recent rash of shootings were done by outsiders going against a decade-long trend of insular school violence committed mostly by students.
A drifter terrorizing a Colorado school kills a fleeing teen girl, then himself. A deranged ex-student invades a high school in North Carolina, wounding two after first killing his father. A gunman looking for an old girlfriend bursts into a Vermont elementary school and kills a teacher. And then came Monday's shooting.
"It's a disturbing change," said William Lassiter, manager for the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in North Carolina. "We've never seen anything like this."
Of the 400-plus deaths in school violence in the past 12 years, only a handful were at the hands of intruders, experts say. Now, just in the past month, at least five people have been killed and several injured by intruders shooting in schools.
A list of some other fatal shootings at U.S. schools in recent years:
Friday: 15-year-old Eric Hainstock brought two guns to a school in rural Cazenovia, Wis., and fatally shot the principal, a day after the principal gave him a disciplinary warning for having tobacco, police say.
Last Tuesday: Duane Morrison, 53, took six girls hostage at a Bailey, Colo., high school, sexually assaulting them before fatally shooting one girl and killing himself.
Aug. 30, 2006: Alvaro Rafael Castillo, 19, arrested for firing a rifle at a Hillsborough, N.C., high school, later said he killed his father and was charged with murder.
Aug. 24, 2006: Christopher Williams, 27, went to an elementary school in Essex, Vt., looking for his ex-girlfriend, a teacher. He fatally shot one teacher and wounded another, police said.
March 21, 2005: Sixteen-year-old Jeff Weise shot and killed five schoolmates, a teacher and a guard at a high school on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota before taking his own life.
May 26, 2000: 13-year-old Nathaniel Brazill killed his English teacher in Lake Worth, Fla., after the teacher refused to let him talk with two girls.
April 20, 1999: Students Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded 23 before killing themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
May 21, 1998: Two teenagers were killed and more than 20 people hurt when Kip Kinkel, 17, opened fire at a high school in Springfield, Ore., after killing his parents.
The Associated Press
"This is like somebody coming to your front door, holding your house hostage, and killing people," said Ronald Stephens, director of the nonprofit National School Safety Center in California.
"It's a whole different level of crime," he said. "It means schools are so vulnerable that anyone can walk in off the street and do something so heinous. What is the next wave of shock we can get?"
Experts can only speculate as to motives. Maybe they are copycat cases. Maybe schools are just easy targets. Maybe the incidents just reflect the violence of the society around them.
The shootings in the past month have occurred in small towns outside big cities or in rural areas where trust among residents is high and few precautions are taken at school sites.
"You have ... what I call the 'Mayberry Syndrome,' " said Jared Lewis, a Wisconsin author who has reviewed school shootings nationwide. "People think, 'It can't happen here.' "
Smaller schools such as the one-room schoolhouse in Pennsylvania rarely have the metal detectors or elaborate security found in schools in big cities.
But there can be warning signs.
In last week's shooting in Colorado, the gunman was on campus the previous day and was asking students questions, experts noted.
"The best preparation is a well-trained and highly alert staff and student body," said Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services consulting firm in Cleveland, which trains schools in safety measures.
Still, Trump said: "In the case of a roaming monster walking around a school, you have to be realistic. There are some incidents you're not going to be able to prevent."
James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University, said a similar wave of shootings occurred after two students from Columbine High School in Colorado killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher in 1999.
A study of subsequent shootings in the months after Columbine found that "all involved white kids in small towns," Fox said. "The copycat effect would be most pronounced when there is a similarity between the perpetrator and the ones they are idolizing and modeling.
"Ninety-nine point nine percent of schoolchildren identified with the victims," Fox said. "But a small percentage identified with the shooters because, not only did they get even with bullies and nasty teachers, but they got famous for it."
Fox, the author of "The Will to Kill: Explaining Senseless Murder" and "Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder," said schools carry a symbolic power as targets.
"If you want to find young kids and get even with society — a school is an ideal place for doing that," he said. "They represent a place where people may have felt unhappy, their self-esteem was threatened, where they were bullied, and where they decide to get revenge."
The majority of attackers in school settings are motivated by revenge, according to the 2002 "Safe School Initiative," the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education, which examined targeted school violence between 1974 and 2000.
"The copycat theory must be considered since these attacks happened in such close proximity to each other," said Deborah Prothrow-Smith, assistant dean at the Harvard School of Public Health and author of "Murder Is No Accident." "But the copycat theory tends to minimize the true cultural aspects of this."
Prothrow-Smith said, "You've got a socially toxic environment that glamorizes guns and violence."
Video games, television, films and news constantly project images of people "justifying their wrongs or emotions with violence," she said. "You mix guns in a culture where people are not good at handling difficult emotions like anger, fear, guilt and grief ... and you have a toxic social environment."
Advocates of wider gun controls argue that the availability of guns has made it easier for people to commit murder in schools.
"It is extremely easy, whether you are a juvenile or a convicted felon or a domestic abuser, to purchase a firearm legally or illegally," Peter Hamm of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence told Reuters.
Compiled from The Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Reuters
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company