Posted on 1/22/14

As I write this post, I can hear helicopters flying nearby and police sirens blaring outside my office window. Texts from the university where I work are periodically vibrating my phone. We’ve been asked to stay in our offices, safely locked behind heavy, ogre-proof doors. Exactly what’s happening, no one seems to know. Shots have been reported across the quad from my office. That’s all we know.

Although predicting the specifics of school violence, such as the rampage shootings at Virginia Tech or countless other massacres at American campuses, is impossible, there are some things that we can say about when and where such events are most likely to occur, at least at a very broad level.

Several years ago, Lindsey Osterman, Collin Barnes, and I collected and analyzed the timing and locations of over 100 incidents of school violence that had occurred in the U.S. between 1988 and 2008. We limited our analysis to cases in which the shooting happened immediately on a school campus (as opposed to, say, a bus stop where school children might have just happened to be waiting for a school bus to pick them up), and in which the shooter was either a student, former student, or employee of the school. We called these “prototypical school shootings” to separate them from random incidents of violence that just happened to occur on or near a school.

What we found was that there was, in fact, a modest pattern in the data regarding the timing of these prototypical school shootings. It appears that there are three months in the year when these rare events are slightly more likely to take place. Can you guess which months are the elevated-risk months? Two of them are probably not all that surprising: December and May, the months when most students have to endure the stressful ordeal of final exams, and when they are most likely to be faced with the prospect of having failed one or more classes. The risk elevation that we saw in these two months makes sense. But the other elevated-risk month might be less obvious. It’s February. February is not a particularly special month in the life of a student. For college students, at least, there might be a first round of spring exams in this month, but that’s also true in September (for schools that start in August) or October (for schools that start in September). So why February?

We surmised that what makes February “special,” leading to its elevated risk for school violence, has nothing to do with the school calendar, but rather the national calendar. February is the month when we celebrate Valentine’s Day. This day is supposed to be a celebration of romance and relationships, but for those who don’t have a romantic partner, or whose partner has recently “dumped” them, Valentine’s Day is like lemon juice in a paper cut. Some previous analyses of school shootings by other social scientists suggests that many of these tragic events seem to be precipitated by a “last straw” moment of bullying, or by a humiliating experience of romantic rejection. Perhaps especially for a boy, romantic rejection can strike at the heart of his sense of value as a man, which is so often encapsulated in whether or not he is recognized as having social status by members of the opposite sex. For this reason, we suspect, the month of February appears to be a more dangerous month than either January or March (or almost any other month) for school violence.

But what about location? Where are school shootings most likely to occur? Our data revealed an even more striking pattern regarding this question than they did with respect to timing. What we discovered was that prototypical school shootings were three times more likely to occur in Southern or Western states than they were to occur in Northern states. When we analyzed the data further, we found that this regional difference remained even after we statistically controlled for a host of other factors, such as average yearly temperature, economic factors, religiosity, and the availability of guns. Given the prevailing cultural emphasis on masculine honor in southern and western states in the U.S., this regional risk pattern should not come as a surprise, although the strength of the association between region and risk impressed even us. When a man in an honor culture feels his masculinity has been threatened or challenged, either by his own failures to fulfill the standards of the honor code or by the actions of other people in his social circle, the honor code compels him to respond. Sometimes the honor code drives him to respond to an honor challenge with violence toward others, which might help to explain why school shootings are especially prevalent in honor-oriented states in the South and the West.

We just received the “all clear” message from the university. Apparently, it is now safe to move about the cabin again. Because I work at a university located in the heart of an honor state, I take these reports of shootings on campus very seriously. School shootings are (thankfully) extremely rare events, so it doesn’t make rational sense to walk around paranoid all the time, listening for gun shots in the midst of a college campus nestled in a small, suburban town. Even so, when February rolls around (or December, or May), I must admit that I pay a little more attention to my surroundings. Valentine’s Day is just around the corner ...