Teasing, rejection, and violence: case studies of the school shootings

Teasing, Rejection, and Violence: Case Studies
of the School Shootings
Mark R. Leary*1 Robin M. Kowalski,2 Laura Smith,1 and Stephen Phillips1

1Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina2Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : Media commentators have suggested that recent school shootings were precipitated by social rejection,but no empirical research has examined this claim. Case studies were conducted of 15 school shootingsbetween 1995 and 2001 to examine the possible role of social rejection in school violence. Acute orchronic rejection—in the form of ostracism, bullying, and/or romantic rejection—was present in all buttwo of the incidents. In addition, the shooters tended to be characterized by one or more of three otherrisk factors—an interest in firearms or bombs, a fascination with death or Satanism, or psychologicalproblems involving depression, impulse control, or sadistic tendencies. Implications for understandingand preventing school violence are discussed. Aggr. Behav. 29:202–214, 2003. r Wiley-Liss, Inc.
: : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : Key words: school violence; rejection; peer aggression Students, teachers, parents, and school administrators have become increasingly concerned inrecent years about the rising tide of school violence. Since 1996, nearly 40 students have beenkilled and several dozen others have been injured in shootings that occurred at school. Thespate of school violence has led to much discussion of the causes of such episodes, which havevariously been attributed to lax gun control laws, society-wide moral decline, the influence ofaspects of popular culture that glamorize death (such as aggressive song lyrics and the so-called ‘‘Goth’’ movement), violent video games, and even the failure to display the tencommandments in school buildings [e.g., Chua-eoan, 1997; Gibbs and Roche, 1999]. Withoutdiscounting any of the other proposed causes, our interest in this article is specifically in therole that interpersonal rejection may play in school violence.
In analyzing the attack at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, several commentators suggested that at least some of the school shootings, including the one atColumbine, may have been precipitated by rejection by schoolmates or others. Onenewspaper noted that the perpetrators of school shootings ‘‘uniformly have felt like outsiderstaunted by peers’’ [Peterson, 1999, p. 3], and testimony presented to the House JudiciaryCommittee after the Columbine shootings suggested that a typical school shooter feels‘‘lonely and isolated. They are highly sensitive to teasing and bullying, and are deeply nCorrespondence to: Mark R. Leary, Department of Psychology, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem,NC 27109. E-mail: leary@wfu.edu Received 23 April 2001; amended version accepted 14 December 2001 Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI:10.1002/ab.10061 resentful, ruminating over perceived injustices’’ [Cornell, 1999]. When students in Marylandmet to discuss the causes of school violence, the most commonly reported causal factor was‘‘failing to fit in’’ [Perlstein, 1999, p. B02].
Psychological theory and research support the speculation that social rejection may be associated with aggression. Several studies of children have documented a relationshipbetween peer rejection and aggressive behavior [Marano, 1998; Pakaslahti and Keltikangas,1998; Waas, 1987; for reviews, see Coie et al., 1990; McDougall et al., 2001]. For example,although average and rejected boys become equally angered and aggressive when provoked,rejected boys respond more aggressively without justification [Coie et al., 1990]. Furthermore,once aggression has started, children who are generally rejected by their peers are moreinclined to intensify their aggression and less likely to submit than nonrejected children [Coieet al., 1991]. Of course, cross-sectional designs do not allow us to determine whether rejectionleads to aggression, or behaving aggressively increases the likelihood of being rejected.
However, a longitudinal study of 880 elementary and middle-school students showed notonly that peer rejection was a consistently powerful predictor of aggression and otherexternalizing problems, but that as rejection increased over time, so did the risk of aggressivebehavior [Kupersmidt et al., 1995]. Similarly, rejection by parents is also associated withhigher aggression in childhood [Pemberton and Benady, 1973]. In fact, one study concludedthat parental rejection ‘‘was the most prominent predictor of synchronous aggression,predicting well for both boys and girls’’ [Lefkowitz et al., 1973, p. 39].
Among adults, a great deal of anger and aggression also appears to be precipitated by real, perceived, or threatened rejection. Research on unrequited love shows that anger is acommon response to having one’s romantic desires thwarted [Baumeister et al., 1993], andboth empirical and anecdotal evidence suggest that people who are ostracized often becomeangry and lash out at those who ignore them [Williams, 1997; Williams and Zudro, 2001].
People who feel that another individual does not value their relationship as much as theywould like often become hurt and angry, and sometimes behave aggressively [Leary andSpringer, 2001; Leary et al., 1998]. Many cases of domestic violence occur when one partnerdoes not feel adequately valued by the other [Gelles and Straus, 1988]; people are oftenassaulted or killed by their lovers in a fit of jealous rage that was provoked by a real orimagined rejection [Pinker, 1997; Tangney and Salovey, 1999]. Recent experimental researchalso shows that real or imagined rejection increases the urge to aggress toward both therejector and other people [Buckley, unpublished data; Twenge et al., 2001]. In brief, extantresearch showing a link between interpersonal rejection and aggressive behavior providessupport for the hypothesis that school shootings may be provoked by real or imaginedinterpersonal rejection.
Among adolescents, rejection tends to occurs in one of three forms—teasing, ostracism, and romantic rejection. First, disliked and unpopular individuals may be bullied, taunted,and maliciously teased [Kindlon and Thompson, 1999; Marano, 1998; Olweus, 1984].1 Peoplewho are the victims of bullying and teasing receive a clear message that the perpetrators donot like, value, or accept them. Furthermore, bullying and teasing typically occur in thepresence of other people, thereby providing an element of public humiliation as well. Publicattacks may connote even greater interpersonal rejection than private ones because theperpetrator communicates not only that he or she dislikes the victim but is willing to publicly 1In this article, all mentions of teasing refer to malicious teasing. Some instances of teasing may be good-natured andevoke positive responses in the target [Kowalski, 2003; Sharkey, 1992].
let the rejection be known. In the case of the Columbine shootings, media reports widelyacknowledged that the shooters had been taunted and humiliated by other students, raisingthe question of whether bullying is a common feature of school shootings.
Second, certain individuals may be routinely ostracized and ignored by large segments of their peer groups. In many instances, being relegated to the periphery of social life is neithermalicious nor intentional, but rather the result of simple disinterest. Individuals who areparticularly shy or eccentric, who possess undesirable social characteristics, or who do notshare other students’ interests may simply be ignored. Of course, in other instances, peoplemay be purposefully excluded from social activities (and even informed that they are beingleft out). William James [1890] was among the first to suggest that this sort of widespreadrejection may precipitate rage: ‘‘If no one turned round when we entered, answered when wespoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met ‘cut us dead,’ and acted as if wewere non-existing things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would ere long well up in us,from which the cruelest bodily torture would be a relief’’ [p. 281]. Presumably, it would nothave surprised James to learn that the shooters in Littleton were reputed to have beenostracized by many students at Columbine High School [Gibbs and Roche, 1999].
Third, romantic rejections—in the form of both unrequited love or the breakup of an existing relationship—are common in adolescence. These events are typically distressing andhurtful, but they may also provoke intense anger and resentment, if not overt aggression[Baumeister et al., 1993].
In brief, many converging pieces of empirical and anecdotal evidence support the idea that various forms of rejection cause anger and may lead to aggression. Our primary interest inthe present study was in documenting whether rejection was in fact involved in recent schoolshootings and in identifying other possible contributors to school violence among people whohave been rejected. After all, most students who experience rejection, even those who arebullied and ostracized, do not resort to lethal violence. Thus, it seems likely that other riskfactors must be present in addition to social rejection.
Our approach to this question necessarily involved a case study method. Although case studies cannot provide strong evidence relevant to the validity of a particular hypothesis, theycan nonetheless provide data that is either consistent or inconsistent with it. Finding evidenceof an unusual degree of rejection in the lives of those who perpetrated school shootings wouldlend support to the hypothesis that rejection may have been involved, and, conversely, failingto find consistent evidence of rejection would lead us to question the connection. Theevidence from such case studies is by no means as convincing as that obtained fromcontrolled experimentation, but it is the method of choice for a low-frequency phenomenonsuch as school violence for which experimental research is impossible.
The focus of the study was on all well-documented cases of school violence in the United States from January, 1995 to March, 2001. We began with 1995 because that was the year inwhich school shootings began to receive national attention. There has always been sporadicviolence in schools but, because the cases were infrequent, they were not covered by themedia in sufficient depth to permit the kind of analysis we desired.
To be included in our sample, a shooting incident must have occurred at a school during the school day. Shootings that occurred after school hours, for example at school dances and athletic events, were not included. (For example, in 1998, a 14-year-old student used asemiautomatic pistol to kill a teacher and injure three other people at a high school dance inEdinboro, PA.). In addition, the shooting must have been perpetrated by students andresulted in injury or death to at least one student. Cases in which shots were fired but no onewas injured were excluded because the perpetrators may have intended to impress orintimidate their peers rather than harm them (and, thus, would not constitute acts ofaggression). Furthermore, incidents in which the only victims were nonstudents were notconsidered (such as the shooting of an assistant principal in Greensboro, NC) because wewere explicitly concerned only with students’ aggression toward their peers.
We set out to obtain information about these incidents of school violence that would permit us to test the hypothesis that rejection preceded each school shooting. Several sourcesof information were consulted. First, national news media were scoured for information. Inparticular, we consulted three news magazines—Time, Newsweek, and US News and WorldReport—and three widely circulated newspapers—USA Today, The New York Times, andThe Washington Post for articles about the school shootings in question. For many of theshootings, these sources provided sufficient information. If not, newspapers from the localarea in which the shooting occurred were consulted. We also explored several world wide websites that deal with school shootings but relied on information obtained there only if the sitewas maintained by a reputable news organization (such as CNN, the Associated Press, or alocal newspaper).
For each incident, information was recorded regarding the identities and ages of the perpetrator(s) and victim(s), as well as details regarding how the shooting occurred. Mostcentral to our interests, evidence was recorded regarding whether the perpetrator(s) hadexperienced a pattern of ongoing, chronic ostracism, bullying, or malicious teasing and/or anexperience of acute rejection (such as a romantic breakup or a particularly humiliatingexperience) prior to the shooting. Raters also recorded any indication that the perpetrator(a) had conveyed an intense interest in guns, bombs, or explosives (such as owning a gun orbuilding bombs), (b) seemed to be fascinated by death (such as listening to music with death-related themes, practicing Satanism, or developing a death-related web site), or (c) showedevidence of a psychological disorder prior to the shooting.
Three raters read every available report of the school shootings and independently recorded information relevant to these issues. In compiling the collected information,collaboration was sought for all points, and disagreements regarding details were resolved bya fourth individual. In all, we identified 15 cases that met the selection criteria and for whichsufficient information could be obtained from our sources. We identified five other episodesfor which we could not find enough information relevant to our target questions, often nomore than the fact that a shooting had occurred, and those cases were not included in ouranalysis.2 Before summarizing our findings relative to rejection and school violence, we will describe each of the shooting episodes to provide a fuller picture of the nature of the episodes.
2Shootings for which we could not locate sufficient information included incidents in Richmond, VA (1995),St. Louis, MO (1996), Los Angeles, CA (1996), West Palm Beach, FL (1997), and Norwalk, CT (1997).
Moses Lake, WA (2/2/96). Barry Lockaitis, age 14, used a .30 caliber rifle to kill a teacher and two boys, and injure one girl. He was reportedly severely depressed at the time and wasdescribed as having an inferiority complex. He had been teased by one of the victims, whowas an athlete.
Bethel, AK (2/19/97). Evan Ramsey, age 16, killed his principal and a student, and injured two other people. He had been teased by the student he killed. There may have beensome short-term forethought involved because authorities accused two other students ofknowing that the shootings would take place.
Pearl, Mississippi (10/1/97). Sixteen-year-old Luke Woodham killed two students and his mother with a hunting rifle, and injured seven others. One of the victims was a girl he oncedated, another was a friend of his ex-girlfriend, and the rest of the injured appeared to berandomly chosen. He was described as a chubby kid who was often teased. Woodhamreportedly said ‘‘I killed because people like me are mistreated every day.’’ He allegedlyworshiped Satan and was fascinated with the Gothic lifestyle.
West Paducah, KY (12/1/97). Armed with a semiautomatic pistol, Michael Carneal, age 14, killed three classmates and injured five others at a prayer meeting before school. Anongoing pattern of rejection was clear; he was regularly teased as a ‘‘dweeb’’ or ‘‘faggot,’’ hadbeen called ‘‘gay’’ in the school paper, and was regularly bullied. Carneal had alsoexperienced a recent episode of unrequited love; the girl with whom he was infatuated was thefirst person he shot. He also had a history of psychological problems and was eventuallyjudged ‘‘guilty but mentally ill.’’ After his arrest, Carneal said that he had grown tired ofbeing teased and was quoted as saying ‘‘people respect me now.’’ Stamps, AR (12/15/97). Jason ‘‘Colt’’ Todd, 14 years old, wounded two students with a sniper’s rifle. He claimed that he was tired of being picked on and that some of hisschoolmates had extorted money from him in exchange for not hurting him.
Jonesboro, AR (4/24/98). Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, opened fire with handguns and rifles on Westside Middle School, killing 5 people and injuring 11 others.
Johnson, clearly the leader in the episode, was allegedly angry about being rejected by a girl,telling friends that he ‘‘had a lot of killing to do.’’ He also had been repeatedlyteased for being fat. He also bragged about using drugs and killing animals, allegedly hadattempted suicide, and had been accused of molesting a 2-year-old girl. His parents weredistant, often calling the police looking for their son. Golden came from a supportive familybut, like Johnson, had also been rejected by a girlfriend. He was described as tough andmean-spirited.
Fayetteville, TN (5/19/98). Honor student Jacob Davis, age 18, killed a male classmate who was dating his ex-girlfriend, who had recently broken up with Davis. The perpetratorand victim had recently had an argument about the girl.
Springfield, OR (5/21/98). Kipland Kinkel, age 15, used a semiautomatic rifle and a pistol to kill two classmates and injure 22 others, in addition to killing his parents. In hisjournal, he had written about being rejected by a girl, and had recently been suspended fromschool for possessing a firearm and stolen property. He believed that he had embarrassed hisparents and was reportedly upset over teasing from other students. He abused animals,showed interest in making bombs, was under treatment for depression, and was voted ‘‘mostlikely to start World War III’’ by other students. Evidence presented at his trial suggestedthat he was possibly schizophrenic.
Littleton, CO (4/20/1999). Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, opened fire on classmates at Columbine High School using semiautomatic weapons, shotguns, and rifles,then committed suicide. At least 21 people were injured, and 13 people (12 students, oneteacher) were killed. The attack had been planned for more than a year. Both boys had beenostracized, taunted, and bullied by other students, particularly athletes. In addition, Harrishad been rejected from the Marines a week before the attack and was turned down by a girlwhom he had asked to the prom. He was on medication for depression. Klebold reportedlyadmired Hitler and hurled insults at minorities. Evidence collected after the shootingssuggested that the incident was, in part, retribution for how they had been treated by otherstudents. In the videotapes that the killers made prior to their rampage, the boys recountedepisodes of teasing and ostracism. ‘‘I’m going to kill you all,’’ Klebold said. ‘‘You’ve beengiving us shit for years’’ [Gibbs and Roche, 1999].
Conyers, GA (5/20/99). T. J. Solomon, 15, used a handgun and .22 caliber rifle stolen from his parents to injure six people. He had reportedly been depressed after a break-up withhis girlfriend, claiming that he had ‘‘no reason to live anymore.’’ He apparently aimed lowintentionally and never intended to kill anyone. Solomon had been picked on by a footballplayer, and feared becoming the school ‘‘wuss.’’ He had been treated for depression, andbomb recipes were found at his home, yet people described him as normal.
Ft. Gibson, OK (12/6/99). Seth Trickey, 13, walked up to a group of students at his middle school and started firing with a 9 mm handgun. He didn’t seem to know the childrenhe shot and said he did not know why he did it. Trickey was described as a honor studentwho others regarded as funny, nice, and good-natured. He was popular and well-liked, andclearly not a loner. Trickey has never provided a plausible reason for his actions.
Mount Morris Township, MI. (2/29/00). A six-year-old boy pointed a gun at a fellow first-grader, said ‘‘I don’t like you,’’ and killed her. The day before the shooting, the twochildren had argued with one another, and the victim had purportedly slapped theperpetrator. Reportedly, he wanted to get revenge by scaring her with the gun. The boy hadbeen left in the care of an uncle, who lived in a suspected crack house, so that his mothercould work two jobs.
Santee, CA (03/05/01). Having boasted to his friends about the fact that he was going to cause trouble at his school, Andy Williams, age 15, shot two students to death and wounded13 others. He had been maliciously bullied by his schoolmates and desired simply to ‘‘fit in.’’His parents divorced early in his life. He rarely saw his mother and although he lived with hisfather, did not have a close relationship with him.
Williamsport, PA (03/07/01). In the only school shooting reported here that was perpetrated by a female, Catherine Bush, 14, shot the head cheerleader at her schoolin the shoulder. Catherine had been teased and harassed at her previous school,leading her parents to transfer her to a smaller, private school, where she was similarlytormented. She felt betrayed by the victim, who ostensibly had revealed to other students thecontents of e-mails Catherine had sent her. Catherine also suffered from periods ofdepression.
Table I presents a summary of our findings for the 15 shootings. Clear evidence for or against the presence of rejection and other risk factors is indicated. Blank cells in the tableindicate that no information about the item was found in published reports and, thus, is presumed not to be a factor in the shooting. As can be seen from the table and thedescriptions above, interpersonal rejection was clearly indicated in most of the 15 shootings.
In at least 12 of the 15 incidents, the perpetrator(s) had been subject to a pattern of maliciousteasing or bullying—for example, teased for their weight or appearance, maliciously tauntedand humiliated (regularly called a ‘‘nerd,’’ ‘‘dweeb,’’ or ‘‘faggot,’’ for example), or otherwisepicked on. In addition, many cases involved ongoing ostracism that left the perpetrator onthe periphery of the school’s social life. Importantly, in many of the incidents, the victimsincluded those individuals who had teased, bullied, or rejected the shooter. In about half ofthe episodes, the perpetrator had also experienced a recent rejecting event, most commonly aromantic breakup or unrequited love, and the victims often included the particularindividuals who had spurned them. In only two cases (Ft. Gibson, OK and Deming, NM)was there no evidence whatsoever that the perpetrator had been rejected or mistreated byother people.
Although rejection in one form or another was implicated in most of the episodes, the shooters also tended to be characterized by one or more of the three other risk factorsthat we investigated—psychological problems, an interest in guns and explosives, and afascination with death. First, at least 10 of the 15 incidents involved a perpetrator who hadshown previous evidence of having psychological problems, including depression, hyperag-gressiveness, or sadistic tendencies. At least half were known by other students and people inthe community as troubled individuals. Second, six of the cases involved individuals whowere familiar with, if not fascinated by, guns and bombs. At least four perpetrators wereinterested in making explosives, as evidenced by the fact that they possessed home-madebombs or recipes for making them. Third, four of the incidents involved individuals whoshowed an interest in death and other ‘‘dark’’ topics, such as death-rock music and Satanicworship.
Our analyses of cases of school violence since 1995 support the hypothesis that social rejection was involved in most cases of lethal school violence. Twelve of the cases involved anongoing pattern of teasing, bullying, or ostracism, and at least six of the perpetrators hadexperienced a recent romantic rejection. In only two of the incidents did we find no clearevidence of rejection; Seth Trichey, who wounded four students in Ft. Gibson, OK, was anhonor student that other students liked, his victims were randomly chosen, and he seemedunable to explain his actions. Even so, he did not appear remorseful (unlike, for example, theshooters in Fayetteville, TN, and Conyers, GA), which suggests either that he thought thatthe victims deserved their fate or that he was psychologically incapable of empathy. VictorCordova, who killed a female student in Deming, NM, also had no history of rejection, buthe had been deeply depressed for some time. These findings are consistent with thoseobtained by the U.S. Secret Service and reported in their Safe School Initiative. In theiranalysis of school shootings that have occurred in recent years, they found evidence forbullying, ostracism, and social rejection in over two-thirds of the cases [Vossekuil et al.,2000].
Several of the perpetrators explicitly explained their actions as a response to being mistreated by other students. For example, the perpetrator of the Pearl, Mississippi shootingsaid that he killed because ‘‘people like me are mistreated every day. No one ever really cared about me’’ [Chua-eoan, 1997]. Similarly, one of the Jonesboro, Arkansas shooters hadvowed to kill all of the girls who had broken up with him [Blake et al., 1998], and theColumbine killers’ rage appeared to come from their rejection and mistreatment by otherpeople. Of course, a murderer’s stated reason for his behavior may reflect nothing more thana self-serving justification. However, independent evidence from other students and teacherscorroborates the presence of rejection in most of the cases. It is also noteworthy that, to ourknowledge, few of the perpetrators attributed their violent behavior to other equally plausiblecauses, such as disinterested parents, a broken home, child abuse, academic failure, orpsychological problems.
Few individuals navigate their way through adolescence without being teased, bullied, or rejected in some manner, but the vast majority do not exact retribution on their classmates.
Rejection may be frustrating, angering, even maddening [Buckley, unpublished data; Twengeet al., 2001], but it is rarely sufficient to provoke premeditated violence even if the victim feelslike killing people. Thus, rejection alone, while a possible contributor, does not necessarilycause violence by itself. The information we collected regarding the three other risk factorsoffers hints regarding other contributors to school violence. In particular, most of theperpetrators displayed at least one of the other three risk factors (psychological problems,interest in guns or explosives, or fascination with death). Thus, we speculate that rejection,combined with one or more of these other factors puts an individual at higher risk toperpetrate aggression against peers.
First, a variety of psychological problems may be associated with an increased tendency for aggressive behavior. For example, certain personality disorders are characterized byaggressiveness, paranoia, low impulse control, lack of empathy for other people, and evensadistic behaviors, all of which may lower one’s threshold for violence [Millon, 1981].
Thus, some instances of school violence may reflect extreme manifestations of an ongoingpattern of antisocial and aggressive behavior. Many of the shooters had been in troublepreviously for aggression against their peers, and two had allegedly abused animals. Inaddition, people who are depressed and perhaps suicidal may behave in desperate ways,feeling that they having nothing to lose by acting aggressively [Marano, 1998]. The SafeSchool Initiative report indicated that perpetrators in over three-fourths of the schoolshootings had either threatened or attempted suicide at some time in the recent past[Vossekuil et al., 2000].
Second, individuals who not only have access to guns but who are fascinated by firearms and explosives may be more likely to act on their aggressive impulses because they arecomfortable dealing with instruments of destruction than those who are unfamiliar oruncomfortable with guns and explosives, who do not have the means to perpetrate violencewith firearms and bombs. Experience with guns is by no means necessary, however; theperpetrator of the West Paducah, Kentucky shooting had apparently not fired a gun beforehis rampage.
Third, people who are fascinated by themes of death, and whose identity is linked to Gothic, Satanic, and other ‘‘dark’’ lifestyles may find the idea of carnage less revolting thanmost other people do. It remains unclear whether death-rock music and other aspects ofpopular culture that glorify death cause otherwise peaceful adolescents to be violent orwhether individuals who are already inclined toward aggression are simply more interested indeath-related music and activities.
Previous theory and research has not adequately addressed the question of why rejection sometimes leads to anger and an impulse to aggress. Thomas [1995] suggested that the painful feelings of shame that often result from rejection may provokeanger and aggression, much in the same way in which physical pain (such as slammingone’s own hand in a door) can make people angry. Other writers have suggested thataggression may result from a desire to show that one is not a person to be trifled with[Nisbett, 1993] or to maintain self-esteem and buttress one’s positive self-concept after anego-threatening event [Baumeister et al., 1996]. Without discounting other explanations, webelieve that the primary motive in most of the school shootings seems to have beenretribution, either for an ongoing pattern of ostracism and teasing or for an acute rejectionsuch as a romantic breakup. In fact, many of the cases were characterized by both an ongoingpattern of rejection and a specific rejection experience, suggesting that the recent rejectionmay have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. At the same time, however, theevidence suggests that at least some of the perpetrators were seeking respect as well. Afterkilling three and injuring five in West Paducah, KY, Michael Carneal was quoted as saying‘‘People respect me now,’’ and the Columbine killers fantasized that they would be famousand that movie directors would fight over making a movie of their story [Gibbs and Roche,1999].
Of course, like all case studies, this one is open to the criticism that the mode of data collection is necessarily selective and uncontrolled. In particular, the evidence that weobtained about the episodes from press reports may reflect reporters’ implicit theories aboutthe link between rejection and aggression; we may have found evidence of such a relationshipbecause writers in the mass media selectively reported evidence consistent with theirimplicit theories. We cannot discount this possibility but find it noteworthy than only a fewof our sources drew an explicit connection between the rejection that the perpetrators hadexperienced and their subsequent violent behavior. In most cases, information regarding theperpetrator’s relationships with other students was mentioned only in the context ofdescribing the kind of person he or she was. Only after the Columbine shootings in April of1999 did many writers begin to explore the role than ostracism or rejection may haveplayed.3 Furthermore, like all case studies, ours necessarily lacks an appropriate control group. Although we can document that most of the perpetrators of these school shootingshad been subjected to teasing, bullying, or other types of rejection, we do not know forcertain whether they experienced an exceptionally high level of mistreatment compared toother children and adolescents. Given that roughly 75% of elementary and middle schoolstudents are occasionally bullied at school [Kass, 1999], the perpetrators of the schoolshootings were by no means unique. Even so, from reading descriptions of their peerrelationships, our sense is that most of the shooters had experienced an unusually highamount of bullying or ostracism that was particularly relentless, humiliating, and cruel.
Furthermore, when an individual has psychological difficulties, an affinity for guns andexplosives, or a fascination with death and gore, such peer mistreatment may evoke acatastrophic reaction.
3In fact, most writers seem to operate from the hypothesis that the shootings were due to problems with theperpetrators’ parents. The shooters’ relationships with their parents and siblings were often described in detail, andneighbors were interviewed regarding the families. Interestingly, with few exceptions, little evidence was unearthed toindicate that the perpetrators’ families had an unusual number of problems, and the perpetrators themselves oftenabsolved their parents of any responsibility for their actions. This is not to say that family problems played no role inthe shootings, but rather that the family backgrounds did not fit any particular profile and did not conform towriters’ assumptions about the homes of teenage murderers.
To the extent that our conclusions are valid, they raise two important issues. The first involves the toll that bullying and malicious teasing take on many students. Not only do themajority of elementary and middle school children experience bullying at school [Kass, 1999],but a poll conducted by the American Psychological Association revealed that 40% of theyouth surveyed expressed concern regarding a potentially violent classmate [‘‘Childviolence,’’ 2000]. Approximately 160,000 school-aged children occasionally stay homefrom school to avoid mistreatment at the hands of their peers. Other consequences forvictims of malicious teasing and bullying include feelings of shame, humiliation, depression,anxiety, and low self-esteem [Kowalski, 2003]. In some instances, victims have evencommitted suicide to escape social torment. For example, in 1993, a middle-schooler killedhimself because he was tired of being bullied [Marano, 1998], and in early 2000, aWashington student killed herself rather than face teasing at school. Thus, the violentreactions of students who shoot their classmates are only one tragic consequence of schoolbullying.
If the kinds of aversive treatment endured by many of the school shooters were targeted at a particular group, such mistreatment of other students would not be tolerated byteachers and school authorities, but because it is aimed rather indiscriminately(primarily at students who are powerless and unpopular), such antisocial behavior at schoolis typically ignored. We believe that steps are needed to reduce the incidence ofteasing and bullying at school, both to improve the quality of life for millionsof students and to reduce the likelihood of violence. Along these lines, students at oneanti-violence conference proposed that Congress enact anti-teasing laws, and the State ofGeorgia recently passed an anti-bullying statute. According to this law, studentswho bully on three separate occasions within a year will be sent to an alternative school.
Of course, this law fails to take into account the many bullying episodes that go unobservedand unreported.
Second, our findings offer a tentative profile of the kind of student who may be prone to violence against his peers. The typical shooter is a male student who has been ostracized bythe majority group at his school for some time, and has been chronically taunted, teased,harassed, and often publicly humiliated. Moreover, he probably demonstrates one or more ofthe three risk factors identified in the present study—an unusual interest in guns andexplosives; a fascination with death, Satan, and other ‘‘dark’’ themes; or psychologicalproblems that are characterized by depression and/or a personality disorder that involvesantisocial behavior, poor impulse control, or sadistic tendencies. Of course, many youngpeople share these characteristics yet do not endanger their peers, so actual efforts to predictwhich students will behave violently are not likely to be successful [Mulvey and Cauffman,2001].
In light of the many dangers that adolescents face daily, violence at school is a relatively improbable event for any particular student. Even so, the escalationin school violence during the past five years points to a problem that needsattention from researchers. Although it may be difficult to study deadly schoolviolence attention could be directed toward milder forms of school aggression, as well as towardthe unenacted aggressive urges and fantasies of students who are teased, bullied,and ostracized. In addition, controlled experimental research may help us to under-stand the conditions under which interpersonal rejection does and does not precipitateaggression.
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