Editor's Note: Katherine Newman is the James B. Knapp Dean of the Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University and the co-author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings.
By Katherine Newman - Special to CNN
Why would a "quiet kid" whom no one really notices erupt into murderous violence? My research team studied the rash of school shootings that erupted in the late 1990's and arrived at some conclusions that may prove useful in understanding what happened at Chardon High School on Monday.
Initial reports suggest the shooter was a "loner'" but were quickly followed by claims that he had friends. The community was taken by surprise, but we learn the shooter texted at least one person about his intentions. These swirling contradictions are completely consistent with the findings in our book, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings.
High school shooters are rarely loners. They are "failed joiners." The difference is important. A loner absents himself from social contact and withdraws from the world around him. Shooters are engaged, but not successful. They reach out to cliques, only to be rebuffed. Their daily social experience is of rejection and frustration, not isolation.
After repeated attempts to gain entry into social groups, all of which fail miserably, they hit on a "last act" that works. They start threatening dramatic action. They hint that they are going to do something that will make them notorious and they are not secretive about these warnings. That starts to generate the attention they have been aching for all along.
They know shooting people is wrong and are ambivalent about their plans. But they convince themselves that the last thing they can afford is to default on an announced plan to shoot up their school when it yields the notoriety that is the key to social acceptance, albeit for macabre reasons.
We are likely to discover that more than one kid heard warnings and did not come forward. Why? Why does the best source of information we have about an attack stay silent?
First, those warnings are rarely clear. Murky statements like ,"You'll see who lives or dies on Monday!" are not easy to decode, especially when the source is a boy known for attention seeking stunts and strange statements. Second, in the light of this "noise" adolescents who are supposed to be distancing themselves from grown ups are loathe to be tagged as tattle tales, a social risk of its own, when they aren't sure what they really know.
Finally, adults who have their reservations about the behavior of a marginal kid in their community, do not come forward to the boy's parents for fear of rupturing long standing social ties of their own. They avoid rather than confront.
The result is a surplus of information that something terrible is going to happen that never filters into the hands of someone who can act preemptively. In the shootings we studied, a number of kids stayed away from school because they were scared. And while parents and teachers were stunned to learn the identity of the assailant, the kids know before anyone is arrested. They have heard the warnings.
Boys who fail at sports, girls, and the other harsh tests of masculinity, are particularly vulnerable to the social and psychological marginality that produces both rage and a desperate desire to be included. When they turn an eye toward popular culture, they find plenty of support for the notion that an admirable, muscle bound, anti-hero, shoots people and lives to rule the day.
It is no accident that marginal boys seize on this "solution," especially if they live too far away from an urban setting (without a driver's license) to transport them to a social world where they might find a niche. Failing to find acceptance where they live, coming to feel permanently stuck with the identity of a loser, they try to shoot their way into a reputation that is more acceptable, dangerous and powerful.
School shootings are social pathologies with a lot of moving parts, but should not be understood as the act of a normal kid caught in the daily traffic of high school ostracism. Millions of boys feel rejected; only a tiny handful shoot their way out of this dilemma. But the mentally ill kid who is undiagnosed - and pushed over the edge that his teenage brethren well recognize - is thankfully rare. It just doesn't feel that way to a suffering community, a family that has lost a child, and the witnesses who are forever marked by a tragedy like this one.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Katherine Newman.