kitchen table math, the sequel: when everything changed

Monday, December 17, 2012

when everything changed

1985 again: But there also seems to have been a small previous increase in these incidents in the late 1980s that no one much noticed.

From Deadly Lessons:

Figure 9-4 shows that student-perpetrated school rampages (with or without a fatality) are not entirely new phenomena. There were two such incidents in the 1970s and six in the 1980s. And yet it also seems clear that the frequency of student-perpetrated school rampages resulting in multiple victimizations increased dramatically after 1994. The difference is highlighted in the figure by lines showing the mean number of such incidents per year in the 17-year period from 1974 to 1990 and the 11-year period from 1991 to 2001. The mean number of student-perpetrated rampages increased from an average of 0.53 incidents per year to an average of 3.27 incidents per year.

It is important to note that these are very small numbers. It is also important to note that the increase observed in the 1990s could be explained at least in part by a reporting phenomenon. It seems likely that the media would cover fatalities in schools, and particularly fatalities that occurred with multiple victimization, with a high degree of consistency and reliability over the entire period from 1974 to 2001. What we cannot be sure of, however, is whether the media would have covered incidents involving multiple victimizations without a fatality as consistently or reliably over this period. While it seems likely that multiple victimizations in a school setting would be newsworthy throughout this period, we cannot be entirely sure that the media weren’t particularly sensitized to the issue of school rampage shootings in the late 1990s, and therefore began covering these more assiduously (even when they did not involve fatalities) than had previously been true. If the media were sensitized to these events, part of the increase could be accounted for by the increased likelihood of news accounts of such events, not by an increase in the real underlying rate of these events. Still, the difference in the rate of these events is impressive and would easily be rejected as a chance occurrence if the reporting were accurate, even though the numbers are very small.

Our media search also uncovered five student-perpetrated school rampages in other countries (Table 9-2). While these results may be biased by the less certain coverage of international events, it seems noteworthy that only one incident occurred in 1975 and no additional shootings occurred until 1999. The 1999 shooting was followed by three other rampages involving different means of inflicting harm on others (arson, stabbing, and shooting). This suggests that school rampages are not unique to the United States and, since no international school rampages were evident until 1999, rampages in other countries may have been somehow influenced by the U.S. epidemic in the 1990s.

One final point: a December 2001 article in the Boston Globe reported that since the April 1999 Columbine tragedy, 12 U.S. school rampage shootings have been discovered and thwarted before they came to fruition. Ideally, we could put these events on Figure 9-4 as a further indication of the trends in time of these school rampage shootings. There are three problems in doing so, however. First, it is quite likely that, given the public concern about the school rampages, the newspapers would be much more likely to report on thwarted incidents in this period than they would have in earlier periods. Second, given efforts to mobilize students to report these events and law enforcement to take them seriously, it is quite likely that the police would find more such events and that they would treat each event as a serious plot that was really to be carried out rather than mere fantasizing by the kids involved. Third, in any case, Figure 9-4 records events that actually occurred. Presumably, for every act that actually occurred, there were some others in which some preparations were made, but for a variety of reasons, the act never occurred. Consequently, we would have to assume that there were even more attempts to be found than completions. What we are observing in the thwarted events, then, are some incidents that might never have occurred even if the police had not found them in time.

For all these reasons, it is inappropriate to put these thwarted shootings in the same figure as the other data. Still, the fact that these thwarted events were planned during this period is consistent both with the idea that planning for such events increased in the latter half of the 1990s, and that society and the police got a bit better at learning about and thwarting the events. But the data cannot prove this claim.

While the data depicted in Figure 9-4 are weak by scientific standards, they are still important to include in the effort to understand multiple-victim lethal school violence. What they suggest is that school rampage shootings are not a recent phenomenon, nor are they uniquely a U.S. phenomenon. It seems likely that the United States has experienced an epidemic of these incidents in the latter half of the 1990s—that is, an unexpected increase in their number. There may also have been some contagion mechanisms at work—that is, some kind of copycat influence.

If the international and thwarted incidents are included in the basic time trend of observed school rampages, then copycat mechanisms seem likely. But there also seems to have been a small previous increase in these incidents in the late 1980s that no one much noticed. The lack of notice may have prevented the escalation of these shootings through the copycat phenomenon. But this is largely speculation, not a scientific claim. It seems unlikely that this phenomenon is either entirely new or entirely unique to the United States. It may have gotten worse recently and— even more speculatively—that may be in part the result of a kind of contagion. But the problem has endemic and international aspects as well as epidemic and U.S. ones.


ChemProf said...

So if it is a kind of contagion, that suggests that it is at least partly due to cable news, which have 24 hours a day to fill and so really publicize these kinds of events in a way that the "big three" didn't when they ran an hour or so a night. And that fits the timeline -- CNN started in 1980 and began to pass the network news in ratings in 1991.

ChemProf said...

Another note, though, Catherine, on this data. In the 1990's (1991-2000) there were 43 mass public shootings. From 2001-2010 there were 24. And in terms of gun control, remember the assault rifle ban (which was also equivalent to current Connecticut state law) was law from 1994-2004.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm now thinking cable news is a big piece of the puzzle. Did you see David Kopel's article in today's WSJ?

He says that gun violence is down BUT mass shootings are up.

He speculates that there are two significant factors:

* decline of services for the mentally ill (apparently we now have the same number of 'beds' that we did in 1840)

* rise of cable

He claims (I have no reason to doubt him) that mass shooters often spend a fair amount of time reading the history of other mass shooters.

I'm wondering whether this is like cutting.

Nobody engaged in cutting when I was a kid. I'm pretty sure that's true.

Now cutting is 'Something Kids Do" -- something very troubled kids do, but we had very troubled kids when I was a kid, too.

portland_allan said...

Without cutting the cable news networks any slack, which in my opinion, they deserve none, I do want to mention SSRI's are very suspect and get virtually no mention in the media. I think John Stossel did a piece on them 15 or 20 years ago when that kid in Florida flew his Cessna into a building. It was quickly shoved down the memory hole after Big Pharma insisted that newer drugs didn't have those side-effects. Big ad budgets from Big Pharma will do that, I reckon.

If you think this is far-fetched, Vioxx was deadly enough to skew Social Security mortality statistics. (I'd have to dig hard to get the link, but the first time I saw it I about fell out of my chair.) Estrogen replacement (HRT) was another that was stopped only after it became undeniable that thousands of women were being killed by it. I expect statins will be another notorious one we'll look back on 10 years hence in utter disbelief.

If I put all my supporting link's this would probably kick-out as spam, so I'll leave them as an exercise to the interested reader. :-) Here's one for the CT killer's prescription drug though:

Catherine Johnson said...

Hey Portland - I haven't heard of Fanapt (surprising) - but I see that it's one of the atypical antipsychotics.

I don't think the author is correct that prescription of Fanapt would indicate a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Both of my classically autistic children take atypical antipsychotics and I know many, many other autistic children and adults who take it. (I don't know about Aspergers.)

In fact, I'm remembering now something a teacher's aide who worked in an autism school told me.

She said that she had always been against any kind of medication for autistic children.

Then the atypical antipsychotics came along and she now was of the opinion that all children who were autistic and violent (violent primarily to themselves, I should add) should be given the drugs.

Jimmy was one of the first children in the country to take Risperdal. The drug saved his life. We had just been told by Ivar Lovaas (no less) that we needed to put Jimmy in a live-in school. Ivar said we had two more children on the way, and we needed to think of them.

Then Risperdal came on the market.


So I'm a fan of the antipsychotics, and of meds in general.

But if Adam was taking Fanapt, that tells us his problems were severe (and were known to be severe for a long time).

The antipsychotics are major medications, with pretty serious side effects, and they don't get prescribed lightly.

It's true, too, that the very same medication that can save you can also make you worse. Not always, but we saw that over and over again with Jimmy and the SSRIs. He would take an SSRI, improve radically, and then go sprong.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm seeing a report that police have found no evidence Adam Lanza was taking medication.

These things will get sorted out in the weeks to come.

portland_allan said...

Here's a long, depressing list of correlations.

I don't disagree that prescription drugs have done a whole lot of good for a whole lot of people, and I'm glad you and your family can be counted among the success stories. However, their side-effects, I think, get swept under the rug. Family practitioners are handing out these prescriptions and a lot of these poor children are not getting the proper care and oversight that they should be receiving. In a sense it's like gasoline, it works so well so much of the time, people forget how dangerous it is when things go wrong.

ChemProf said...

I saw Kopel's article, but his numbers don't jibe with what I've seen elsewhere, I think partially because his definition of "random mass shootings" is a little peculiar -- it would include a gang shooting where they also shot a bystander as far as I can tell.

And I'd agree we aren't good at considering the risks of medications, including SSRI's. Heck, how many women know about the risks of birth control for those with clotting factors (which lots of women have without knowing it).