The killing rampage at the Virginia Polytech Institute on Monday, in which 32 people were killed with handguns by a student before the student killed himself, is called the worst school mass murder in "modern U.S. history."
The qualification results from the fact that the record remains from a school bombing on May 18, 1927, in which 45 people were killed. That incident involved a man who killed his wife and burned his farm before blowing up a school and himself in Bath, Mich.
Andrew Kehoe had long been a vocal critic of high property taxes in the school district. He blamed the tax rate for the foreclosure proceedings against his farm.
The Bath, Mich., bombing resembled most later mass killings at school in that it was not a spur of the moment action. It had been well planned out. Explosives had been placed throughout the building over a period of months. The killing of one or more relatives before the school killings is a feature in some of the later school massacres.
(In reference to casualties in this column, the number of injured will not be listed, although there were non-fatal injuries in almost every case. Most, but not all, such incidents have occurred in the United States. Here we shall exclusively deal with incidents in the U.S. involving more than one fatality of an innocent victim.)
The Bath, Mich., bombing differed from the modern pattern of school killings in that it was an act by an adult non-student. The modern pattern of school murders involves one or two adolescent or young adult males killing students and staff at the school where they attend. Most involve copycat elements from previous killings.
The killers usually give non-subtle warnings of what is coming long before it happens. The killers are not true loners but rather failed joiners, taking revenge against an entire school system that they feel rejected them.
Among mass killings at schools since 1927, four do not fit the modern pattern described above.
In 1959, a father and his elementary school age son came to a school in Houston, Texas, where the child had been denied admission because of a lack of a birth certificate. The father brought a suitcase containing explosives which he detonated, killing himself, his son, two school staff members and two school children.
In 1976. a custodian at California State University in Fullerton, killed seven people in the university library.
In 1989. a disturbed drifter opened fire on an elementary school playground with a Chinese-made semi-automatic rifle, killing five children
In 2006, a man killed five girls at an Amish school in Pennsylvania before killing himself.
The University of Texas tower shooting in Austin in 1966 might be considered the first in the modern pattern, although the killer, Charles Whitman, had more adult experiences beyond school than others in that pattern.
He served in the Marines, held other jobs and married before becoming an engineering student at the University of Texas. He killed his mother and his wife before he took a small arsenal of weapons up to the top of a 26-story tower and killed 14 others. He was shot and killed by police officers.
The motive is uncertain. Whitman had a brain tumor which some neurologists believe may have been a factor. Whitman's father was known to be abusive toward his mother.
Whitman held the record of deaths by gunfire at a school until the Monday massacre in Virginia. Whitman did not apparently inspire copycats. The current epidemic of school shootings did not begin until decades later.
The first mass school killings by a student in the U.S, since the tower shootings in Austin, occurred at the University of Iowa in 1991. Gang Lu, a graduate physics student, killed four staff members and one fellow graduate student with a handgun before killing himself.
In 1997, a student at Pearl High School in Pearl, Miss., killed two students and his mother with a rifle.
Also in 1997, a 14-year-old student at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., killed three students.
In 1998, two middle school boys, ages 13 and 11, armed with rifles and handguns, killed four students and a teacher in Craighead County, Ark., near Jonesboro.
The worst school shooting by pre-college age students in the country's history occurred on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo. Two students killed twelve students and a teacher with an arsenal of weapons - including shotguns, a rifle and a handgun - before killing themselves.
In 2005 a Red Lake High School student in Red Lake Minn., killed his grandfather and his grandfather's girlfriend with a handgun before killing seven at school with a shotgun and a handgun. He then killed himself.
There is no way that we can avoid publicizing such events, even though it does motivate copycats. On the flip side is the fact that a well-informed public is more alert to the dangers posed by disturbed youth.
There have been numerous incidents over the last few years in which apparently serious plans of school killings have been thwarted.
The history of school killings indicate that the planners actually want to be stopped. They telegraph their intentions long before action is taken. Now such signals are not being ignored.
There are two challenges regarding the increased alertness. One is the need to have the knowledge and resources to deal with highly troubled youth when they are identified.
The reaction cannot simply be punitive. In one case, a student was suspended for bringing a firearm to school. A week later he returned with the firearm and committed murder.
The other challenge with the higher level of alertness is the danger of overreaction.
There have been cases in which schools have disciplined students or contacted the police because of idle threats, like those that have always been made by kids. In other cases, adults have panicked because of drawings of violence or drawings of weapons, always popular art subjects for young children, especially boys.
Students have even been assigned the task of writing scary stories and then are subsequently disciplined for writing about the scariest scenario kids know of.
As mentioned before, simply taking a punitive approach is not appropriate even when a disturbed youth is identified. The process of determining the degree of help needed should also serve to separate truly disturbed youth from those who simply display normal anger or normal fascination with topics that we are all fascinated with.