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Opinion on Current Events: Three Frightening Factors of Public School Shootings

Following the recent school shooting in Ohio, Joseph Grenny shared his thoughts about the media’s effect on these events. Tragically, we witnessed yet another shooting in Oakland, California this week.

Our mentor and friend, Albert Bandura—one of the greatest living and most influential psychologists of all time—continues the conversation by sharing his thoughts on the topic of violence in schools based on years of social science research.

The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are solely the opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of VitalSmarts.

Public-school shootings strike fear in the public at large. Such occurrences have three factors that make them especially frightening.

The first is unpredictability. There is no forewarning when or where a shooting might occur. This makes every student a potential victim.

The second feature is the gravity of the consequences. Shooting sprees leave in their wake many deaths and severely debilitated survivors. Easy access to semiautomatic handguns, magnified in killing power with large magazines, increase the risk and carnage of heavily-armed attacks.

The third feature is uncontrollability—a perceived helplessness to protect oneself against such an attack should it occur.

Over the years, I have studied the social modeling of unusual modes of violence. Airline hijacking is but one example of the contagion of violent means. Airline hijacking was unheard of in the United States until an airline was hijacked to Havana in 1961. Prior to that incident, Cubans were hijacking planes to Miami. These incidents were followed by a wave of hijackings, both in the United States and abroad, eventually including more than seventy nations. Hijackings were brought under control by an international agreement to suspend commercial flights to countries that permitted safe landings to terrorists.

D. B. Cooper temporarily revived a declining phenomenon in the United States as others became inspired by his successful example. He devised a clever extortion technique in which he exchanged passengers for a parachute and a sizeable bundle of money. He then parachuted from the tail of a Boeing 207 to avoid entanglement on the tail or stabilizers. The newscasts provided a lot of details on how to do it. Within a few months there were eighteen hijackings on Boeing 207’s modeled on the parachute-extortion technique. They continued until a mechanical door lock was installed so that the rear exit could only be opened from the outside. Cooper became a folk hero for eluding the FBI, celebrated in song, on t-shirts, and in fan clubs.

For reasons given earlier, public-school shootings are especially alarming. The media face a challenge on how to report violent acts without spreading what they are reporting. There are two ways they can minimize the contagion. The coverage should avoid providing details on how to do it. Nor should killings be widely publicized.

The Columbine massacre, which received massive coverage, was followed by a series of copycat school killings. Other teenagers were arrested for plotting a school shooting on the anniversary of the Columbine massacre. They had the guns, ammunition, and plans on how to disable the school camera system. They modeled themselves after the two Columbine killers to the point of wearing black trench coats.

Once an idea is planted it can be acted upon on some future occasion given sufficient psychosocial instigation to do so. For example, in his ranting video and manifesto, which was publicized by one of the networks, the Virginia Tech killer mentioned the two Columbine killers. In the electronic era, where anyone can post most anything online, mitigating detrimental contagion presents a more daunting challenge. As a society, we need to step up to and find a solution to this challenge.

Albert Bandura

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

3 thoughts on “Opinion on Current Events: Three Frightening Factors of Public School Shootings”

  1. Shirley Ledgerwood

    Free speech and civilized behavior have been rubbing up against one another forever, and our wide access to media has increased the friction. Bandura is right–we need to step up; the question is how to do that without destroying vital constitutional rights. Have the times we live in changed even the tenets of our constitution? Are we protecting outdated rights without requiring equally powerful responsibilties? I wish I knew. The old “fire in a crowded theater” doesn’t quite cover it anymore.

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