School Violence and the Media
Sept. 18, 2001 -- A new study -- the first of its kind to look at threats of violence following the Columbine High School massacre two years ago -- suggests they increased after the highly publicized incident and that the media could have contributed to the rise.
In Pennsylvania alone, schools reported more than 350 such threats -- mostly in affluent, suburban schools, says study author Paul A. Kettl, MD, chairman of psychiatry at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pa. His paper appears in the September issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.
"We saw a dramatic increase in bomb threats, especially in larger schools in suburban areas, areas that had less ethnic diversity than inner city schools," Kettl tells WebMD.
The report mentions, however, that the researchers were unable to get information about how many violent threats were made before the Columbine incident. Though the investigators asked nearly a dozen state and federal agencies, no information was available. The authors mention that based on one school official's own career experience, threats of school violence had seemed to be a rare occurrence in Pennsylvania over the past two decades before the tragedy.
The study notes that after Columbine, Pennsylvania instructed its schools to begin to report all threats of violence against schools, students, or faculty. Information was to be sent to the state's Emergency Management Association, one of the offices that was unable to provide the researchers with such statistics about threats made before the Columbine incident. So there is no way to make direct comparisons between the numbers of threats made before and after the tragedy happened.
Still, in their study, Kettl and colleagues found numerous incidents happened after Columbine: 62 counties in Pennsylvania had at least one reported threat. Six counties -- some suburban, some rural -- had 15 or more threats, which accounted for greater than one-third of total bomb threats after the Columbine incident.
Four of the six counties were suburban schools outside of Philadelphia, says Kettl.
More than half of the threats occurred on or before day 10, and more than one-third occurred on days 8, 9, and 10, researchers found, suggesting the reports were tied to media coverage during that time.
In their report, the investigators note that although there is no prior information available about school threats, research has established a tie between media coverage of a suicide and "copycat" suicides. That has the authors concerned about how tragic stories in general are covered in the press.
"I believe that the media have responsibility for the content of their product," Kettl tells WebMD. "These violent episodes can be imitated by susceptible youth. Am I saying they should not be reported? No ... but along with that right comes responsibility to help."