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US Searching for Root of Schoolhouse Violence

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett waits to speak to a gathering of reporters at the Franklin Regional School District Middle School, April 9, 2014.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett waits to speak to a gathering of reporters at the Franklin Regional School District Middle School, April 9, 2014.
Ken Bredemeier
Violence is not an everyday occurrence in the thousands of schools across the United States; however, when a 16-year-old boy was accused of going on a stabbing rampage through his Pennsylvania high school this week, experts on youth violence and education officials were left to wonder about the root causes of the violence and its similarity to other attacks.  

There are about 135,000 schools in the United States and thousands more colleges and universities.  More than 70 million young people walk through their doors each day and the majority never encounter any danger.

"Schools remain the safest place for students to be," said Thomas Gentzel.

Gentzel is the executive director of the National School Boards Association in the U.S.  His belief in the safety of American schools is widely held, but he and other U.S. educators are taking note of the knife attacks carried out Wednesday at a high school near the eastern U.S. city of Pittsburgh.  Authorities have charged the teenaged boy as an adult in the case.  Officials are wondering what might have triggered the bloody assault at the start of an ordinary school day.

Dan Flannery is a clinical psychologist in Cleveland, Ohio and for 16 years has been the director of a center for violence prevention research and education.

"People are talking about certainly a level of anger among the perpetrators, an interest in making a statement, and trying to perpetrate as much damage as one can in a single place in a single incident," said Flannery.

He notes, however, a common denominator between the stabbing attacks and other incidents of violence in U.S. schools.  Among them, the 1999 assault at a Colorado high school when two youths gunned down 12 of their classmates and a teacher, and the 2007 mayhem at Virginia Tech, with a gunman killing 32 people.  They all occurred during the month of April.

"Specifically to the spring, you know there's some sense that this is when kids are going through academic achievement testing and that creates additional stress on kids when there are a lot of other things going on," he said.

Criminology professor Nadine Connell at the University of Texas in Dallas offers another theory about the school violence.

"Often times usually there's some underlying, long-term resentment that's building up.  I think the word ... alienation is really appropriate in this situation is that there's been sort of little things over time that have made a student feel like they are not part of the school or that they don't belong there.  And often times what we see is that buildup until there's some event that they feel now's the time that I am going to act," said Connell.

She notes that school counselors can often identify troubled youths before they attack their classmates and teachers and get them the mental health care they need.  But school board association chief Gentzel said many school districts throughout the U.S. are faced with funding cuts, and sometimes the first of those to lose their jobs are counselors.

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