Research Watch: Copy Cats that Could Kill

Diana Zuckerman
October 1, 2001

The media gives a lot of attention to school violence, and that attention can encourage more threats of violence, according to this study.

Threats of school violence have been rare in Pennsylvania, with estimates of one or two threats per year before the Columbine school killings in April 1999. But during the 50 days after the Columbine deaths, Pennsylvania school districts reported 354 threats of school violence.

The study would have been more persuasive if the researchers had collected comparable statistics just before the killings, but the pattern of incidents after Columbine is clear. None of the threats were made the day after Columbine, and most of the threats were made on or before day 10 after Columbine. Threats peaked on days eight, nine and 10.

The study also found that threats were more likely at schools with a greater proportion of white students and larger school enrollment. Threats were unrelated to other factors, such as size of classes, dropout rates, teacher salaries or state assessment scores. They did not seem to be an effort to avoid having to go to school, as most threats were made after school started in the morning.

Concerns about “copy cat” violence are not new, but this study shows that those concerns are justified. The findings are similar to earlier studies showing an increase in teen suicides after TV programs about teen suicide or news media coverage of a suicide. It is also important to note that the threats in Pennsylvania were widespread: Of the state’s 501 school districts, 172 reported at least one threat after Columbine.

The researchers focus on implications for the media, suggesting that they not give so much attention to these violent incidents and that they avoid portraying perpetrators as counterculture heroes. The implications for teachers, school administrators, counselors and other youth workers are not so clear. Should they talk to students about the incidents or does that just give more attention to them? Unfortunately, this study can’t answer that important question, but common sense suggests the need to discuss violent incidents in a way that does not glorify them.

Zuckerman, Diana. "Copy Cats that Could Kill." Research Watch review of “Threats of School Violence in Pennsylvania After Media Coverage of the Columbine High School Massacre.” Youth Today, October 2001, p. 26-27.

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