School Violence and the Media

From the WebMD Archives

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."

He recommends that specifically, the media should "not say exactly what happened" and they should not give "how-to instructions of exactly how bombs are made, exactly where they were placed, how you can get around metal detectors in schools."

By downplaying the "glory factor" -- and offering solutions -- news accounts would better serve troubled kids, he says.

"The individuals who perpetrate these acts should not be ... presented as counter-culture heroes," Kettl tells WebMD. "Rather, they should be described realistically as being troubled."

News accounts "should also include information on how troubled teens and others could get help -- calling crisis intervention centers, the local mental health association, etc.," he says.

How schools react to these incidents is another way to curb threats, he says.

Also, larger schools should try to personalize the attention they give children after these well-publicized incidents. "Some schools may divide classes into teams," he says. "However they want to do it is fine, but what's most critical is letting the child feel that he or she individually is important, especially if the children are feeling alienated.

"Kids who are having more behavioral difficulties are more likely to be violent, and are worthy of special attention when a dramatic event like this takes place," he tells WebMD.

Other experts agree with the report.

"This study confirms what I've been saying for at least 15 years," says Irwin Hyman, PhD, professor of school psychology and director of the National Center for Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives at Temple University.

"Media coverage of these events vastly exaggerates the extent of this kind of incident," Hyman tells WebMD. "It scares kids, makes them afraid to go to school. And it makes the kids who tend to be alienated more likely to make threats."

The culture of large, suburban schools places tremendous pressure on kids -- to achieve academically or in sports, says Hyman. "If you don't fit into either of those categories, you feel alienated. Alienated kids will hang out with each other and set up their own set of values, which are counter to the school's values."

"We can't control the media, but we can take a closer look at how educators and peers cause this atmosphere," Hyman says. "Teachers can both reinforce and subtly encourage the treatment of kids as outsiders. They put kids down, subject them to sarcasm, ridicule, and they can also ignore or trivialize bullying."

He advocates "looking at the climate in the school, the level of alienation, and developing programs to handle it. It's not hard to do; there are anti-bullying programs, sensitivity programs. But most administrators will deny there is a problem. Or they think they know the problem, and they really don't."

Parents also have a responsibility "to keep track of the kids, know what's going on, know if their kids feel alienated," says Hyman. "I've worked with a number of kids with the potential to do real harm, kids who were bullied, and it was trivialized by their teachers. Fortunately, I've been able to work with parents to calm the kids down, to make sure the parents really understand the seriousness of it, which sometimes they don't."