Why do mass shooters target K-12 schools? Here's what we know after Nashville shooting
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story omitted some of the partners in the USA TODAY, Associated Press and Northeastern University mass killings database
The aftermath of a mass shooting at a private Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee, that left three 9-year-olds and three school workers dead Monday has renewed debate about why shooters target schools.
There's no simple answer, but because schools may have limited security and the deaths of young people draw significant attention, they can be attractive targets for assailants, experts told USA TODAY.
Why do shootings happen at schools?
Robin M. Kowalski, a psychology professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, recently studied shootings at K-12 schools and colleges and other mass killings. She and her colleagues found the majority of people who attack K-12 schools are white, male, have a median age of 15, feel marginalized or bullied and use the events to take their own lives.
And they tend to come from inside the school community, she said.
K-12 school attacks are "night and day" from college shootings, which are more likely to occur after interpersonal conflicts, Kowalski said. People who attack K-12 schools are more likely to have a history of psychological problems, long-term or acute rejection experiences like a recent breakup, or a fascination with death, guns and violence – including a fascination with school shootings, she said.
"The individuals behind the Sandy Hook and Columbine shootings, among others, had been diagnosed with an assortment of psychological conditions," Kowalski wrote for the Brookings Institution.
Because most school shootings are "lone-wolf attacks," an act committed by one person, one would have to understand the mindset of the assailant, including their history, grievances and mental health status, to truly understand their motive, said Javed Ali, a former top official at the FBI and Department of Homeland Security and an associate professor of practice at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.
"Every shooter seems to be driven by different factors," he said.
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Did the Nashville shooter have a motive?
Authorities haven't yet determined a clear motive for the shooting rampage in Nashville. Metro Nashville Police Department Chief John Drake said police officers found "writings" and a detailed map of the school left behind by suspect Audrey Elizabeth Hale, 28, which revealed plans to target the school. The suspect entered the school with an AR-style rifle, an AR-style pistol and another handgun, police said.
The shooter previously attended The Covenant School, and Drake told NBC News that Hale might have had "some resentment for having to go to that school." Drake also said the suspect was being treated for an emotional disorder and had legally purchased seven firearms.
Police said the suspect originally planned to target another school in Nashville but was concerned it would be more difficult because of a higher level of security.
The victims are 9-year-olds Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney and Hallie Scruggs and Mike Hill, 61, the school's leader Katherine Koonce, 60, and Cynthia Peak, 61.
"In Nashville, we know the person went to the school, so the question is: 'What drew them back to that school decades or so later?'" Ali said. "We’ll never know the answer to that because that person is dead."
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How many mass shootings have there been in 2023?
Including Monday's shooting in Nashville, there have been 14 mass shootings in 2023. A USA TODAY, Associated Press and Northeastern University database dating back to 2006 captures any incident in which four or more people are killed by any means within 24 hours.
Another database from the Gun Violence Archive shows Monday's attack is the 130th mass shooting in the United States this year. The archive defines a mass shooting as one in which at least four people are shot, excluding the shooter.
How many mass shootings have occurred at schools?
There have been eight mass shootings at K-12 schools since 2006, including this week in Nashville,, Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Monday’s shooting marks the 89th incident in 2023 in which a firearm was fired or pointed at someone on the grounds of a K-12 school, or when a bullet hit school property – an average of one every day – according to the national K-12 School Shooting Database.
Mass killing database: Revealing trends, details and anguish of every US event since 2006
Schools face numerous shooting threats
Schools across the nation face frequent shooting threats , and history shows those threats continue after mass shootings. In the days after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, for example, schools in the San Francisco Bay Area faced more than a handful of threats.
“The problem is so bottomless, and we’re seeing threats of violence at schools almost every day... It’s so challenging to know which one is going to be the one," Marisa McKeown, Santa Clara County’s supervising deputy district attorney in the crime strategies unit, told The Mercury News at the time.
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Schools harden buildings in response
Since the mass shooting that left 26 dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School more than a decade ago, groups including the American Institute of Architects, the International Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design Association and the National Rifle Association have developed a guidance on constructing and reconstructing schools to prevent such killings.
They recommend education leaders spend school funds on detours to delay visitors from easily entering schools, floor-to-ceiling windows built with impact-resistant glass that can shield against threats and allow anyone to see who’s coming onto campus and surveillance gates, among other safety features.
How America's schools have changed: Since deadliest mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary
Ali said he is advocating for U.S. Department of Homeland Security authorities to designate K-12 schools as critical infrastructure.
"We need to raise the bar in terms of security to either deter people from thinking about conducting attacks or minimize the impacts of attacks when one does indeed occur," Ali said. "We need to make moves on school safety since we don’t seem to make progress on guns and mental health, or the combination of those two."
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Contributing: John Bacon, Jorge L. Ortiz, Chris Gadd, Terry Collins and Grace Hauck
Contact Kayla Jimenez at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @kaylajjimenez.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why do mass shooters target schools? What we know after Nashville