School Shootings and School Violence

When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999, and killed twelve students and one teacher, the United States reacted with horror and disbelief that such a thing could happen in American schools. The nature of violence in schools seemed to change overnight from isolated acts of disaffected students or gang power struggles to premeditated acts of terrorism. But violence in schools did not emerge as a phenomenon of the late twentieth century. School violence is as old as schools.

From at least the seventeenth century, schoolchildren in Europe were armed. Primarily of the aristocracy and nobility, they routinely wore swords and carried guns to school. In the early eighteenth century, the King of France was forced to dispatch troops to the University of Paris to disarm violent students. In England, there were student mutinies and rebellions throughout the eighteenth century at such well-respected schools as Rugby and Eton, prestigious private schools, where pupils set fire to their books and desks, requiring army troops to disband them. By the late eighteenth century, the most prevalent and popular form of school misrule was barring out the master. This practice originated in England when students would demand a holiday or other treat. If the master refused, students would bar him from entering the school, damaging school furniture, barricading windows and doors, and robbing neighbors in marauding sorties to gain provisions to sustain the siege.

In the United States, this practice of misrule was more benign. Taking over the schoolhouse and barring the master from entrance was a time-honored tradition in many nineteenth-century rural schools, but in most cases, barrings-out were confined to symbolic subversion of authority and to symbolic violence. Typical of this symbolic violence was a barring-out in Tennessee, in which students barricaded themselves inside the schoolhouse and denied the master entrance until their demands–for two bushels of apples and five pounds of candy–were met. Presenting no resistance whatsoever, the master ordered two of the smaller boys to run to town and get two bushels of apples and ten pounds of candy. Staying long enough to distribute the candy and apples, he then wished them a Merry Christmas and went home. Real violence was a mistake, an unintended consequence that occurred when the master refused to acquiesce and met resistance with force, as in the 1830s case of a Tennessee school in which the teacher was stabbed and dropped into a well (he lived) and the schoolhouse burned down.

There was nothing symbolic about another common form of nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century school violence in the United States. Attacks on teachers by older male students were a familiar part of nineteenth-century school practice. Teachers in these often rural schools literally fought to prove their right to their positions and often resorted to extreme uses of corporal punishment to maintain them. Unlike the carnivalesque aspects of barrings-out, violent attacks were a direct challenge to the schoolmaster's authority. While the application of physical domination was one way in which male teachers established their clear and unchallenged authority, women teachers also experienced physical and psychological intimidation that required courage and determination to withstand. In many instances, parents did not interfere in the pupils' attempts to run the teacher out of town and did not punish them when they did.

By the early twentieth century, the institutionalization of schools had transformed the autonomous nature of many of these rural and local school districts into a more centralized and bureaucratized structure that made acts of violence against either the master or the schoolhouse ill-advised. Parental sentiment, which in the nineteenth century had condoned and even encouraged such behaviors, had now changed. The disruption of authority was no longer seen as a boisterous acting out of ADOLESCENCE, but as a decidedlyillegal activity.

The twentieth century saw both the type and the focus of school violence change. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the master or the school itself was the target of violence, with the students often acting in concert as the perpetrators. By the twentieth century, student-on-student violence had become the norm. Parents began to fear for the safety of their children as violence escalated from sticks and fists in the 1920s to bricks, bats, and chains in the 1940s, knives in the 1960s, and guns in the 1980s and 1990s. The intensification of the means of violence reflected greater social changes. Gang violence rocked schools in the 1960s and 1970s. Schools were considered gang turf and the violence resulted from issues of crime as well as control. Vandalism and schoolboy fights gave way to assault, armed robbery, rape, and murder.

The late 1990s saw another transformation of the nature of school violence. While the majority of earlier incidences took place in urban and inner-city schools, this new wave of violence took place in suburban, largely white, middle-class neighborhoods. Individual disaffected students sought to purge their particular demons by shooting schoolmates and teachers in calculated acts of violence. Between October 1997 and May 1998 there were five school shootings in which children as young as eleven shot and killed fourteen students and teachers and wounded twenty-nine others. The Columbine shootings in 1999 sparked a flurry of other shootings. From April 1999 through March of 2001, nine additional school shootings occurred. Six people, ranging in age from a six-year-old girl to a thirty-five-year-old teacher, were killed, including one student shooter. Twenty-four were wounded. These incidents have caused the court system in the United States to rethink juvenile crime. Thirteen-year old Nathaniel Brazill, who shot and killed his teacher in May 2000, was tried as an adult, found guilty of second-degree murder, and sentenced to twenty-eight years in prison.

The nature of violence in higher education has also evolved over the years in the United States. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when college students were primarily the children of wealthy or influential Americans, a common type of violence derived from perceived affronts to individual honor, often resulting in duels. Students periodically rebelled against the authority of their faculty at such diverse schools as Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, and North Carolina. Barrings-out were a "standing frolic" at Princeton, among others, into the 1850s. Misrule in twentieth-century colleges included freshman hazing, which in some cases were brutal physical trials that led to loss of life. Some acts of violence took on a more sexual meaning, ranging from the relatively benign panty-raid to the criminal act of date-rape.

See also: Charivari; Delinquency; Discipline; Education, Europe; Education, United States; Violence Against Children; Youth Gangs.


Ariès, Philippe. 1962. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Trans. Robert Baldick. New York: Vintage Books.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. 1971. "The Reasons of Misrule: Youth Groups and Charivaris in Sixteenth-Century France." Past and Present 50 (February): 41–75.

Knox, George W., David L. Laske, and Edward D. Tromanhauser. 1992. Schools Under Siege. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Rudolph, Frederick. 1962. The American College and University: A History. New York: Knopf.

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. 1986. Honor and Violence in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press.