The tragic shooting on Friday, October 24, 2014 at Marysville-Pilchuck High School outside of Seattle reignited public conversations about the factors that prompt young people to commit mass murders on school grounds. As usual, these conversations largely focused on access to guns and school security. Because the 15-year-old perpetrator, Jaylen Fryberg, was not a stereotypical loner, victim of bullying, or suffering from any previously diagnosed mental illness—the typical explanations for school shootings– people have struggled to identify the specific cause of his attack. Scholars like Jackson Katz have pointed out school shooters are almost all male and most seem to be desperately concerned with defending or proving their masculinity. Although it is not entirely clear if this was the case with Fryberg (as details are still emerging), I’d like to draw attention to an issue that has been a factor in many other school shootings: the inability many young men have to respond appropriately when a dating relationship fails to develop or when it ends abruptly.
Author Jessie Klein has shown that, in 12 U.S. school shootings occurring between 1997 and 2002, assailants specifically targeted girls who had either rejected them or broken up with them. In these cases, the boys had previously made overt threats against the girls, in person and often online, yet school officials failed to take the threats seriously. Evan Ramsey, 16, killed one student, the principal, and injured two students in his February 19, 1997 assault at Bethel High School in Bethel, Alaska. Ramsey’s girlfriend had just broken up with him. Eight months later, 16-year-old Luke Woodham killed his mother then his former girlfriend, Christina Menefee, and her friend at his school in Pearl, Mississippi. Woodham’s assault injured seven others. Just two months later, 14-year-old Michael Carneal killed three girls at his Paducah, Kentucky school, including one who had rejected him and another who would not go out with him.
On March 24, 1998, 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson and 11-year-old Andrew Golden brought an arsenal to their Jonesboro, Arkansas school. Fourteen of their 15 victims were female. Johnson killed his ex-girlfriend, threatened to kill others who had talked about their break-up, and shot two girls who had refused his dating attempts. Golden killed his ex-girlfriend. Exactly one month later, 14-year-old Andrew Wurst killed one male teacher, but after his girlfriend broke up with him he threatened to kill her and attempted to target another girl who had laughed at him when she declined his invitation to a school dance. Not even one month later, 18-year-old Jacob Davis killed the boy who was dating his ex-girlfriend at his Fayetteville, Tennessee school. Kip Kinkel, who shot and killed his parents than killed two students and injured 22 others at his Springfield, Oregon school had been deeply depressed when his girlfriend broke up with him some months before the shooting. While they did not target specific ex-girlfriends, two of the most infamous school shooters, Columbine High School assailants Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold repeatedly ranted about the relentless rejection they received from girls. Thomas (T.J) Solomon injured six in his school attack on May 20, 1999 in Conyers, Georgia. Solomon was depressed about his break-up, and targeted the “jock” that his former girlfriend seemed to be interested in. Even Dedrick Owens, who was six when he shot peer Kayla Owens in Flint in 2000, seems to have been influenced by disdain for the girl.
The FBI has also recognized the connection between breakups and the threat of school violence in their report The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective. Further, the FBI’s report documents that most shooters engage in “leakage,” or the intentional or unintentional revealing of clues about their state of mind and the possibility of violence. Some news sources have reported that Fryberg targeted one of his victims, Andrew Fryberg, who is believed to be his cousin, because he had begun to date Shilene George, Jaylen’s former girlfriend. TheUK Daily Mail reported on October 25, 2014 that Jaylen tweeted one month before the shooting: ‘Dude. She tells me everything. And now I f***ing HATE you! Your no longer my ‘Brother’!’ More recently, his tweets took a darker turn: “Your gonna piss me off… And then some s*** gonna go down and I don’t think you’ll like it…’. That so many of these boys repeatedly wrote about their hatred of girls should have served as a warning sign.
Although sadly it is too late in these cases, it is not too late for educators, counselors and parents to help young men through the emotionally difficult middle and high school years, when relationships will inevitably end in breakups. We can and should pay attention to the warning signs in their social media activity, their school writings, and changes in their behavior. Additionally, we should all be committed to helping our young men and women develop healthier relationships through education and support services. The need to build the resiliency of our youth has never been greater.
Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.