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Unemployment and financial distress may trigger school shootings

  • Friday marks the 19th anniversary of the heartbreaking tragedy at Columbine High School and a day when students across the nation walked out of classrooms to protest continuing gun violence.
  • New research shows the correlation between increased unemployment and rising gun violence at schools.
Tyra Heman (R) a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, holds a sign that reads, 'Enough No Guns,' as she is hugged in front of the school where 17 people that were killed on February 14, on February 19, 2018 in Parkland, Florida.
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Tyra Heman (R) a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, holds a sign that reads, 'Enough No Guns,' as she is hugged in front of the school where 17 people that were killed on February 14, on February 19, 2018 in Parkland, Florida.

Friday marks the 19th anniversary of the heartbreaking tragedy at Columbine High School and a day when students across the nation walked out of classrooms to protest continuing gun violence. In the aftermath of Columbine, and the many other school shootings such as Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech, parents and educators nationwide are wondering what can be done to prevent such incidents.

My colleagues and I have shed new light on the correlation between increased unemployment and rising gun violence at schools through our research. As our article in Nature Human Behavior states, this correlation can be seen on the national, regional, and city level.

With a direct link established between economic distress and school gun violence, there is not only a probable cause or contributing factor, but also the potential for improving job prospects and financial advancement as a mitigating factor.

Tragic dimension

The relationship between economic insecurity and gun violence in schools adds a tragic dimension to what is already known about the impact of unemployment and financial stress on families. Economic insecurity intensifies feelings of frustration, anger, fear, hopelessness, as well as a lack of safety. Now, this new research indicates that economic security, with lost hope and diminished prospects for a job, may link directly to gun violence in schools.

Although there has been extensive study of school shootings, there are many contradictory claims. For example, some past studies have seen no significant increase over time, while others believe a "copycat effect" has led to increased frequently. Other studies have tried to identify sociological and risk factors related to shooters in hopes of understanding and preventing incidents.

In the past, society looked at various potential causes as well as causality, even heavy metal music and violent videogames, which have been largely debunked as inciting violence. Bullying and other social origins of school shootings also are thought to be contributing factors to the isolation and revenge fantasies of perpetrators.

Establishing a root cause of gun violence at schools required quality data. One of the initial problems encountered in this latest research was the lack of an established dataset, with the need to narrow down what could be defined as a school shooting.

The following guidelines were determined: a shooting must involve the discharge of a firearm (even by accident), it must occur on a school campus, and it must involve students or school employees. Of the 535 events that had happened between 1990 and 2013, only 379 events met these criteria. Further, only 6.6 percent of these events were the result of gang violence, and only 6.3 percent of these events had three or more deaths.

Examining the data

While the dataset included mass shootings, and many notable mass shootings took place at schools, the majority of these events did not take place on school campuses. Rather, most school-associated homicides, like other juvenile homicides, tend to be gang-related, drug-related, or otherwise linked to criminal activity or interpersonal disputes. The shooting occurs at a school because of the opportunity for attack.

In examining the data, there were distinct periods of time when school shootings were elevated, for example 1993 and 1994 and 2008-2010. This suggested that an outside factor could be considered a cause for the increases. Examining these periods of time, it became clear there was a congruence between periods of increased unemployment and more frequent episodes of school shootings.

The unemployment rate became a particular interest since it uniquely captures the difficulties faced by older students who struggle to get a job or who experience joblessness in their families. Unemployment is related to lowered self-esteem, diminished status and detrimental behavior, such as drug and alcohol abuse.

There is also evidence that minors whose parents are affected by high unemployment are more likely to believe that they will have difficulty getting jobs. Therefore, gun violence at schools may be a response, at least in part, to the lost hope for improving economic opportunities.

In addition to looking at unemployment, other proxies for economic insecurity include the home foreclosure rate, which has a significant financial and emotional impact on families, and consumer confidence.

The research also focused on the six cities with the most gun violence at schools: New York City, Detroit, Chicago, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Houston. As seen on the national and regional level, increases in the number of school shootings correlated with periods of higher unemployment in these cities.

23-year pattern

What matters is not that these incidents rise to the grievousness of Columbine or Parkland or even that they are well-known — it's unlikely that anyone living outside of the area at the time knows about the incident at Edward Tilden High School in Chicago (1992) or at Wayne State University in Detroit (1998) — but that when we examine the entire pattern in over 23 years, it is consistent in its relationship to economic insecurity.

Examining these findings, it appears that rising economic insecurity would have the most impact on students who are transitioning to the workplace. Diminished prospects for getting a job add to pressures that, as the data show, could lead to increased gun violence.

While gun violence at schools defies an easy solution, it appears logical that improving economic circumstances play an important role. As more students feel secure in their prospects for getting a job, shootings at the post-secondary level should decrease. For K-12 students, particularly those in urban areas, a lower unemployment rate may translate to the number of school shootings at least remaining stable.

More importantly, it's necessary to remain focused on deepening our understanding to address the root of these incidents. Recently the notion that all teachers should be armed as a preventative security measure has been advanced —unfortunately, this is a reactive measure that does nothing to address this issue.

While improving school security is a worthwhile effort in general, these improvements show no measurable impact on slowing the rate of these incidents when we examine incidents at K12 schools.

These incidents of gun violence are unlikely to be cured by increasing school security without understanding or addressing why these incidents occur, unless we go so far as to destroy our notion of an educational institution and turn our schools into replicas of jails.

Commentary by Adam Pah, professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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