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A pattern in rural school shootings: girls as targets

Monday's deadly shooting in Nickel Mines, Pa., was the fourth such incident in five weeks.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / October 4, 2006


The scene Monday at the buff-colored, one-room schoolhouse in the gentle heart of Amish country was wrenching, but also distressingly familiar.

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One of four fatal school shootings to beset rural America in just over a month, the rampage that killed five young girls raises anew a host of old concerns – about campus security in countryside settings, access to guns by unstable individuals, and "copycat" violence advanced by media attention.

They are startling incidents against the backdrop of declining numbers of school fatalities. But this premeditated attack, like another one five days earlier in which a drifter corraled teenage girls, killing one, at the high school in Bailey, Colo., have an unusual and disturbing feature: girls as targets.

"The predominant pattern in school shootings of the past three decades is that girls are the victims," says Katherine Newman, a Princeton University sociologist whose recent book examines the roots of "rampage" shootings in rural schools.

Dr. Newman has researched 21 school shootings since the 1970s. Though it's impossible to know whether girls were randomly victimized in those cases, she says, "in every case in the US since the early 1970s we do note this pattern" of girls being the majority of victims.

The two cases are reminiscent of a 1989 shooting in Canada, when a jobless hospital worker killed 14 female engineering students at the University of Montreal, accusing them of stealing jobs from men, says Martin Schwartz, an Ohio University sociologist and an expert on violence against women. He sees such incidents as related to a culture of violence against women, "a mutation – something beyond."

In Bailey, an armed drifter walked into Platte Canyon High School last Wednesday, ordering men out and sexually assaulting some of the six girls he held hostage, shooting one before killing himself. In this week's tragedy in Pennsylvania's bucolic Lancaster County, the gunman ordered boys and adults to leave, bound the 10 girls, and shot them, then himself.

Small towns are no safeguard

Another similarity between the Pennsylvania and Colorado cases – as well as two other recent school shootings in Vermont and Wisconsin – is their rural settings. It is rare for mass school shootings to occur in cities, Newman says. Despite their safe image, rural communities can be an especially fertile breeding ground for revenge, she and others agree.

"People think small towns are safer, but in a small community grievances can fester," says Cheryl Meyer, a professor of psychology at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, who has researched similarities of school shootings in rural and small towns. "It's so often about revenge. Even if something happened 20 years ago, it doesn't mean it is gone. People talk about it and everybody remembers. It just trails after you."

Such a motive may have factored into Monday's shootings in the tiny hamlet of Nickel Mines, Pa., police say.

Flanked by corn fields and a few white oaks, the Amish schoolhouse could have been lifted out of the 19th century. With no guards, chain-link fence, or "drug-free zone" signs – or even a telephone – it seemed a world apart.

The gunman, Charles Carl Roberts, lived just down the road with his family in a double-wide trailer. He hauled milk from Amish farms at night, usually before the next day's milking began about 4 a.m. A co-worker says he might never have met the farmers he serviced. Then, he would take his children to school.

On Monday, however, he left suicide notes for his family, then drove his pickup truck to a school he no doubt passed many times on late-night milk routes. He brought to the school a semi-automatic pistol, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a rifle – along with restraints, lumber to block the doors, and a change of clothing.

In a scene that seemed to echo the Bailey shooting, the gunman ordered boys and school aides out, then bound 10 girls ages 6 to 13. He called his wife on his cellphone.

Police arrived after a teacher ran for help to a nearby farm. They called him on his cellphone, but no answer. Then the gunman opened fire, and police stormed the barricaded building, breaking through windows.

Five of the girls died at the scene or at hospitals. At press time, officials said five remained in critical condition.