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School Shooters Are Rarely Female. What Does That Mean for Schools?

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Updated.

Police arrested a 12-year-old girl suspected of shooting two students in the classroom of Salvador Castro Middle School in Los Angeles Thursday morning. Later that evening, they said they believed the shooting was unintentional and that the student had been booked on charges of negligent discharge of a firearm, the Los Angeles Times reported.

But before police shared details of the shooting or the suspect's motive, her gender stood out in news reports.

School shooting suspects are almost always male. Why is that? And what does it mean for school safety?

Los Angeles School Shooting

For much of the day Thursday, the incident seemed like a typical school shooting, apart from the gender and young age of the suspected shooter.

A 15-year-old boy was in critical but stable condition with a gunshot wound to the head, and a 15-year-old girl was in fair condition after she was shot in the wrist, police said in a press conference Thursday afternoon. Three others, an adult and two students, suffered more minor abrasion injuries, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Police later said they believed the girl discharged the semiautomatic handgun unintentionally.

"​​​Someone decided to bring a gun, I guess someone was accidentally playing around with it," a student told the Times. "They thought it was a fake gun."

Police arrested the suspect and evacuated students from the school before launching an investigation. Officials had not named the suspect by Thursday evening.

Most Shooting Suspects Are Male

While it is rare, there have also been female suspects in intentional school shootings.

There's a common misconception that school attackers are all young, white, socially isolated men who play too many violent video games. But school safety experts have said that profile is far too narrow and that schools need to be responsive to the safety concerns and social and emotional needs presented by all students to create a safe environment.

But it is striking that most school shootings, and most mass shootings in general, are perpetrated by male suspects. An Education Week analysis of news reports found four incidents where at least one person was injured as the result of a shooting at a K-12 school or school-related event in 2018. Of those incidents, only the Los Angeles shooting involved a female suspect. The trend is even starker looking back through years of data collected by other organizations; only a handful of identified suspects are women or girls.

"Most violent crime is perpetrated by males," said Peter Langman, a psychologist who studies school shootings and has authored several books about them. "The fact that school shooters are typically male is part of the overall phenomenon of violence being a predominantly male phenomenon."

In the case of "rampage shootings," perpetrators often have a sense of "damaged masculinity," which Langman defines as a sense of failure or inadequacy in parts of their life that they have linked to male identity, like sexuality or physical strength, he said.

Some bullying researchers have also said concerns about heterosexual, masculine gender norms can feed bullying problems among male students. They've urged schools to adopt bullying policies that prohibit harassment on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.

Still, "mass shootings at schools are a rare phenomenon that cannot be accounted for by simplistic explanations," Langman concluded in a journal article on male school shooters. While "damaged masculinity" may be a contributing factor for many, it's not the only cause. (You can read more of Langman's work on prevention on his website.)

There Is No Such Thing as a 'Typical School Shooter'

"There is actually no stereotype," Dewey Cornell, the director of the Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia said in 2014. "There is a human tendency to look for predictive factors, but if we apply those to the general population, we will find many false positives."

Cornell spoke with Education Week after a Native American student shot five students in the cafeteria of his Washington state high school before turning the gun on himself. As I wrote at the time:

"A 2002 report by the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, prepared after the agency analyzed 37 school attacks that occurred between 1974 and 2000, concluded that "there is no accurate or useful 'profile' of students who engaged in targeted school violence."

Acts of school violence have been carried out by attackers of all races, ages, disciplinary histories, and family backgrounds. And, though perpetrators are typically male, women have also played roles in mass attacks, experts on such incidents say.

In the events analyzed, attackers fell all along the social spectrum, from popular students to "loners," the Secret Service report said.

While the agency didn't find common demographic threads, it did note some psychological trends among attackers: Many "felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack," many had a history of suicide attempts or feelings of depression or desperation, and most had no history of criminal behavior.

And, in 31 of the 37 events studied by the Secret Service, shooters told at least one person about their plans beforehand, the report said. Threat-assessment experts say that such "leakage" is common, and that attackers often leave more subtle clues that they are distressed, even if they don't explicitly detail their plans in conversations."

Prevention Efforts

So, while most shooters are male, schools should seek to be aware of the needs of all students, working to create a supportive environment and reduce social isolation, safety experts said. That's because school shooters don't usually "just snap," and often hint at their plans in advance. Addressing school climate concerns is important for the educational success of all students, even if they don't have a violent intent, researchers say.

Police provided very few details about the circumstances behind the Los Angeles shooting Thursday, and they did not say if the school had any previous concerns about the student they arrested, how she obtained the weapon, or how she came to fire it in school.

Cornell has worked to develop a threat-assessment model that schools can use to respond to such concerns. Education Week's Lisa Stark recently interviewed Cornell for this piece she did for the PBS Newshour about preventing school violence.

 Photo: Elizabeth Acevedo and her son Andres, 3, wait for news of her son, an 8th grade, after a school shooting in Los Angeles on Feb. 1.  Two students were shot and wounded inside a Los Angeles middle school classroom, and police took a female student into custody, authorities said. --Damian Dovarganes/AP


 Related reading on school shootings and school safety:

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