Elementary School Shootings Are Very, Very Rare

A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Dec. 14 2012 2:29 PM

Elementary School Shootings Are Very, Very Rare

Newtown school shooting
In this photo provided by the Newtown Bee, Connecticut State Police lead children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., following a reported shooting there Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.

Photograph by Shannon Hicks, Newtown Bee.

Earlier this morning, a gunman opened fire at a Connecticut elementary school. According to the latest reports from the AP, an unnamed official says that 27 are dead, 18 of whom are children. The alleged shooter, said to be the father of one of the school’s students, is dead. If current reports hold up, this is one of the deadliest school attacks in American history, behind the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, which claimed 32 lives, and the Bath School bombings in 1927, which killed 45 people.

Attacks like this one at elementary schools are exceedingly rare. Jessie Klein, author of the 2012 book The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America's Schools, has compiled extensive data on 191 shootings that took place in American schools between 1979 and 2011. Just 18 of the 191 shootings (around 9 percent) were at elementary schools. In those 191 total shootings, 95 percent of the perpetrators were male but only around 25 percent of the killers were adults. (The CDC also has data on school-associated homicides perpetrated between July 1999 and June 2006. Just 25 of the 116 killed—22 percent—in those shootings were elementary of middle school students.)

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We don’t yet know much about the Newtown shooter, but history tells us he was likely very mentally disturbed.

In 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Spencer shot 11 people at a San Diego elementary school; when caught, she explained her crime with a terse “I don’t like Mondays.” In 1996, also on a Monday, 43-year-old Thomas Hamilton killed 17 people at Dunblane Primary School in Scotland; Hamilton, a notorious creep, had been suspected of making advances toward boys in his Scout troop. In 2006, a milk truck driver named Charles Roberts shot ten Amish girls at a one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Penn. Before he died, he called his wife and admitted to being wracked by guilt over having molested two young girls 20 years ago. (The confused relatives later denied they had ever been molested.)

In 1988, a deranged woman named Laurie Dann entered the Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka, Ill., and shot six young children, killing one. I was in second grade at the time, attending a school 15 miles north of Hubbard Woods. The incident is one of my earliest, most-vivid memories—your first experience with horror tends to stick with you. Dann escaped from the school, and there was a period when her whereabouts were unknown. I was absolutely terrified that she was making her way up Sheridan Road in search of more victims. The news of her suicide later that day didn’t help. Even today, I’m still freaked out by her name.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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