Volume 29, pages 202–214 (2003)
Teasing, Rejection, and Violence: Case Studies
of the School Shootings
Mark R. Leary*
Robin M. Kowalski,
and Stephen Phillips
Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina
Media commentators have suggested that recent school shootings were precipitated by social rejection,
but no empirical research has examined this claim. Case studies were conducted of 15 school shootings
between 1995 and 2001 to examine the possible role of social rejection in school violence. Acute or
chronic rejection—in the form of ostracism, bullying, and/or romantic rejection—was present in all but
two of the incidents. In addition, the shooters tended to be characterized by one or more of three other
risk factors—an interest in ﬁrearms or bombs, a fascination with death or Satanism, or psychological
problems involving depression, impulse control, or sadistic tendencies. Implications for understanding
and preventing school violence are discussed. Aggr. Behav. 29:202–214, 2003. rWiley-Liss, Inc.
Key words: school violence; rejection; peer aggression
Students, teachers, parents, and school administrators have become increasingly concerned in
recent years about the rising tide of school violence. Since 1996, nearly 40 students have been
killed and several dozen others have been injured in shootings that occurred at school. The
spate of school violence has led to much discussion of the causes of such episodes, which have
variously been attributed to lax gun control laws, society-wide moral decline, the inﬂuence of
aspects of popular culture that glamorize death (such as aggressive song lyrics and the so-
called ‘‘Goth’’ movement), violent video games, and even the failure to display the ten
commandments in school buildings [e.g., Chua-eoan, 1997; Gibbs and Roche, 1999]. Without
discounting any of the other proposed causes, our interest in this article is speciﬁcally in the
role that interpersonal rejection may play in school violence.
In analyzing the attack at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, several
commentators suggested that at least some of the school shootings, including the one at
Columbine, may have been precipitated by rejection by schoolmates or others. One
newspaper noted that the perpetrators of school shootings ‘‘uniformly have felt like outsiders
taunted by peers’’ [Peterson, 1999, p. 3], and testimony presented to the House Judiciary
Committee after the Columbine shootings suggested that a typical school shooter feels
‘‘lonely and isolated. They are highly sensitive to teasing and bullying, and are deeply
Correspondence to: Mark R. Leary, Department of Psychology, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem,
NC 27109. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Received 23 April 2001; amended version accepted 14 December 2001
Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI:10.1002/ab.10061
r2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.
resentful, ruminating over perceived injustices’’ [Cornell, 1999]. When students in Maryland
met to discuss the causes of school violence, the most commonly reported causal factor was
‘‘failing to ﬁt in’’ [Perlstein, 1999, p. B02].
Psychological theory and research support the speculation that social rejection may be
associated with aggression. Several studies of children have documented a relationship
between peer rejection and aggressive behavior [Marano, 1998; Pakaslahti and Keltikangas,
1998; Waas, 1987; for reviews, see Coie et al., 1990; McDougall et al., 2001]. For example,
although average and rejected boys become equally angered and aggressive when provoked,
rejected boys respond more aggressively without justiﬁcation [Coie et al., 1990]. Furthermore,
once aggression has started, children who are generally rejected by their peers are more
inclined to intensify their aggression and less likely to submit than nonrejected children [Coie
et al., 1991]. Of course, cross-sectional designs do not allow us to determine whether rejection
leads to aggression, or behaving aggressively increases the likelihood of being rejected.
However, a longitudinal study of 880 elementary and middle-school students showed not
only that peer rejection was a consistently powerful predictor of aggression and other
externalizing problems, but that as rejection increased over time, so did the risk of aggressive
behavior [Kupersmidt et al., 1995]. Similarly, rejection by parents is also associated with
higher aggression in childhood [Pemberton and Benady, 1973]. In fact, one study concluded
that parental rejection ‘‘was the most prominent predictor of synchronous aggression,
predicting well for both boys and girls’’ [Lefkowitz et al., 1973, p. 39].
Among adults, a great deal of anger and aggression also appears to be precipitated by real,
perceived, or threatened rejection. Research on unrequited love shows that anger is a
common response to having one’s romantic desires thwarted [Baumeister et al., 1993], and
both empirical and anecdotal evidence suggest that people who are ostracized often become
angry and lash out at those who ignore them [Williams, 1997; Williams and Zudro, 2001].
People who feel that another individual does not value their relationship as much as they
would like often become hurt and angry, and sometimes behave aggressively [Leary and
Springer, 2001; Leary et al., 1998]. Many cases of domestic violence occur when one partner
does not feel adequately valued by the other [Gelles and Straus, 1988]; people are often
assaulted or killed by their lovers in a ﬁt of jealous rage that was provoked by a real or
imagined rejection [Pinker, 1997; Tangney and Salovey, 1999]. Recent experimental research
also shows that real or imagined rejection increases the urge to aggress toward both the
rejector and other people [Buckley, unpublished data; Twenge et al., 2001]. In brief, extant
research showing a link between interpersonal rejection and aggressive behavior provides
support for the hypothesis that school shootings may be provoked by real or imagined
Among adolescents, rejection tends to occurs in one of three forms—teasing, ostracism,
and romantic rejection. First, disliked and unpopular individuals may be bullied, taunted,
and maliciously teased [Kindlon and Thompson, 1999; Marano, 1998; Olweus, 1984].
who are the victims of bullying and teasing receive a clear message that the perpetrators do
not like, value, or accept them. Furthermore, bullying and teasing typically occur in the
presence of other people, thereby providing an element of public humiliation as well. Public
attacks may connote even greater interpersonal rejection than private ones because the
perpetrator communicates not only that he or she dislikes the victim but is willing to publicly
In this article, all mentions of teasing refer to malicious teasing. Some instances of teasing may be good-natured and
evoke positive responses in the target [Kowalski, 2003; Sharkey, 1992].
Teasing, Rejection, and Violence 203
let the rejection be known. In the case of the Columbine shootings, media reports widely
acknowledged that the shooters had been taunted and humiliated by other students, raising
the question of whether bullying is a common feature of school shootings.
Second, certain individuals may be routinely ostracized and ignored by large segments of
their peer groups. In many instances, being relegated to the periphery of social life is neither
malicious nor intentional, but rather the result of simple disinterest. Individuals who are
particularly shy or eccentric, who possess undesirable social characteristics, or who do not
share other students’ interests may simply be ignored. Of course, in other instances, people
may be purposefully excluded from social activities (and even informed that they are being
left out). William James  was among the ﬁrst to suggest that this sort of widespread
rejection may precipitate rage: ‘‘If no one turned round when we entered, answered when we
spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met ‘cut us dead,’ and acted as if we
were non-existing things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would ere long well up in us,
from which the cruelest bodily torture would be a relief’’ [p. 281]. Presumably, it would not
have surprised James to learn that the shooters in Littleton were reputed to have been
ostracized by many students at Columbine High School [Gibbs and Roche, 1999].
Third, romantic rejections—in the form of both unrequited love or the breakup of an
existing relationship—are common in adolescence. These events are typically distressing and
hurtful, but they may also provoke intense anger and resentment, if not overt aggression
[Baumeister et al., 1993].
In brief, many converging pieces of empirical and anecdotal evidence support the idea that
various forms of rejection cause anger and may lead to aggression. Our primary interest in
the present study was in documenting whether rejection was in fact involved in recent school
shootings and in identifying other possible contributors to school violence among people who
have been rejected. After all, most students who experience rejection, even those who are
bullied and ostracized, do not resort to lethal violence. Thus, it seems likely that other risk
factors must be present in addition to social rejection.
Our approach to this question necessarily involved a case study method. Although case
studies cannot provide strong evidence relevant to the validity of a particular hypothesis, they
can nonetheless provide data that is either consistent or inconsistent with it. Finding evidence
of an unusual degree of rejection in the lives of those who perpetrated school shootings would
lend support to the hypothesis that rejection may have been involved, and, conversely, failing
to ﬁnd consistent evidence of rejection would lead us to question the connection. The
evidence from such case studies is by no means as convincing as that obtained from
controlled experimentation, but it is the method of choice for a low-frequency phenomenon
such as school violence for which experimental research is impossible.
The focus of the study was on all well-documented cases of school violence in the United
States from January, 1995 to March, 2001. We began with 1995 because that was the year in
which school shootings began to receive national attention. There has always been sporadic
violence in schools but, because the cases were infrequent, they were not covered by the
media in sufﬁcient depth to permit the kind of analysis we desired.
To be included in our sample, a shooting incident must have occurred at a school during
the school day. Shootings that occurred after school hours, for example at school dances and
204 Leary et al.
athletic events, were not included. (For example, in 1998, a 14-year-old student used a
semiautomatic pistol to kill a teacher and injure three other people at a high school dance in
Edinboro, PA.). In addition, the shooting must have been perpetrated by students and
resulted in injury or death to at least one student. Cases in which shots were ﬁred but no one
was injured were excluded because the perpetrators may have intended to impress or
intimidate their peers rather than harm them (and, thus, would not constitute acts of
aggression). Furthermore, incidents in which the only victims were nonstudents were not
considered (such as the shooting of an assistant principal in Greensboro, NC) because we
were explicitly concerned only with students’ aggression toward their peers.
We set out to obtain information about these incidents of school violence that would
permit us to test the hypothesis that rejection preceded each school shooting. Several sources
of information were consulted. First, national news media were scoured for information. In
particular, we consulted three news magazines—Time,Newsweek,andUS News and World
Report—and three widely circulated newspapers—USA Today,The New York Times, and
The Washington Post for articles about the school shootings in question. For many of the
shootings, these sources provided sufﬁcient information. If not, newspapers from the local
area in which the shooting occurred were consulted. We also explored several world wide web
sites that deal with school shootings but relied on information obtained there only if the site
was maintained by a reputable news organization (such as CNN, the Associated Press, or a
For each incident, information was recorded regarding the identities and ages of the
perpetrator(s) and victim(s), as well as details regarding how the shooting occurred. Most
central to our interests, evidence was recorded regarding whether the perpetrator(s) had
experienced a pattern of ongoing, chronic ostracism, bullying, or malicious teasing and/or an
experience of acute rejection (such as a romantic breakup or a particularly humiliating
experience) prior to the shooting. Raters also recorded any indication that the perpetrator
(a) had conveyed an intense interest in guns, bombs, or explosives (such as owning a gun or
building bombs), (b) seemed to be fascinated by death (such as listening to music with death-
related themes, practicing Satanism, or developing a death-related web site), or (c) showed
evidence of a psychological disorder prior to the shooting.
Three raters read every available report of the school shootings and independently
recorded information relevant to these issues. In compiling the collected information,
collaboration was sought for all points, and disagreements regarding details were resolved by
a fourth individual. In all, we identiﬁed 15 cases that met the selection criteria and for which
sufﬁcient information could be obtained from our sources. We identiﬁed ﬁve other episodes
for which we could not ﬁnd enough information relevant to our target questions, often no
more than the fact that a shooting had occurred, and those cases were not included in our
Before summarizing our ﬁndings relative to rejection and school violence, we will describe
each of the shooting episodes to provide a fuller picture of the nature of the episodes.
Shootings for which we could not locate sufﬁcient information included incidents in Richmond, VA (1995),
St. Louis, MO (1996), Los Angeles, CA (1996), West Palm Beach, FL (1997), and Norwalk, CT (1997).
Teasing, Rejection, and Violence 205
Descriptions of the Incidents
Moses Lake, WA (2/2/96). Barry Lockaitis, age 14, used a .30 caliber riﬂe to kill a teacher
and two boys, and injure one girl. He was reportedly severely depressed at the time and was
described as having an inferiority complex. He had been teased by one of the victims, who
was an athlete.
Bethel, AK (2/19/97). Evan Ramsey, age 16, killed his principal and a student, and
injured two other people. He had been teased by the student he killed. There may have been
some short-term forethought involved because authorities accused two other students of
knowing that the shootings would take place.
Pearl, Mississippi (10/1/97). Sixteen-year-old Luke Woodham killed two students and
his mother with a hunting riﬂe, and injured seven others. One of the victims was a girl he once
dated, another was a friend of his ex-girlfriend, and the rest of the injured appeared to be
randomly chosen. He was described as a chubby kid who was often teased. Woodham
reportedly said ‘‘I killed because people like me are mistreated every day.’’ He allegedly
worshiped Satan and was fascinated with the Gothic lifestyle.
West Paducah, KY (12/1/97). Armed with a semiautomatic pistol, Michael Carneal, age
14, killed three classmates and injured ﬁve others at a prayer meeting before school. An
ongoing pattern of rejection was clear; he was regularly teased as a ‘‘dweeb’’ or ‘‘faggot,’’ had
been called ‘‘gay’’ in the school paper, and was regularly bullied. Carneal had also
experienced a recent episode of unrequited love; the girl with whom he was infatuated was the
ﬁrst person he shot. He also had a history of psychological problems and was eventually
judged ‘‘guilty but mentally ill.’’ After his arrest, Carneal said that he had grown tired of
being teased and was quoted as saying ‘‘people respect me now.’’
Stamps, AR (12/15/97). Jason ‘‘Colt’’ Todd, 14 years old, wounded two students with a
sniper’s riﬂe. He claimed that he was tired of being picked on and that some of his
schoolmates had extorted money from him in exchange for not hurting him.
Jonesboro, AR (4/24/98). Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, opened ﬁre
with handguns and riﬂes on Westside Middle School, killing 5 people and injuring 11 others.
Johnson, clearly the leader in the episode, was allegedly angry about being rejected by a girl,
telling friends that he ‘‘had a lot of killing to do.’’ He also had been repeatedly
teased for being fat. He also bragged about using drugs and killing animals, allegedly had
attempted suicide, and had been accused of molesting a 2-year-old girl. His parents were
distant, often calling the police looking for their son. Golden came from a supportive family
but, like Johnson, had also been rejected by a girlfriend. He was described as tough and
Fayetteville, TN (5/19/98). Honor student Jacob Davis, age 18, killed a male classmate
who was dating his ex-girlfriend, who had recently broken up with Davis. The perpetrator
and victim had recently had an argument about the girl.
Springﬁeld, OR (5/21/98). Kipland Kinkel, age 15, used a semiautomatic riﬂe and a
pistol to kill two classmates and injure 22 others, in addition to killing his parents. In his
journal, he had written about being rejected by a girl, and had recently been suspended from
school for possessing a ﬁrearm and stolen property. He believed that he had embarrassed his
parents and was reportedly upset over teasing from other students. He abused animals,
showed interest in making bombs, was under treatment for depression, and was voted ‘‘most
likely to start World War III’’ by other students. Evidence presented at his trial suggested
that he was possibly schizophrenic.
206 Leary et al.
Littleton, CO (4/20/1999). Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, opened ﬁre on
classmates at Columbine High School using semiautomatic weapons, shotguns, and riﬂes,
then committed suicide. At least 21 people were injured, and 13 people (12 students, one
teacher) were killed. The attack had been planned for more than a year. Both boys had been
ostracized, taunted, and bullied by other students, particularly athletes. In addition, Harris
had been rejected from the Marines a week before the attack and was turned down by a girl
whom he had asked to the prom. He was on medication for depression. Klebold reportedly
admired Hitler and hurled insults at minorities. Evidence collected after the shootings
suggested that the incident was, in part, retribution for how they had been treated by other
students. In the videotapes that the killers made prior to their rampage, the boys recounted
episodes of teasing and ostracism. ‘‘I’m going to kill you all,’’ Klebold said. ‘‘You’ve been
giving us shit for years’’ [Gibbs and Roche, 1999].
Conyers, GA (5/20/99). T. J. Solomon, 15, used a handgun and .22 caliber riﬂe stolen
from his parents to injure six people. He had reportedly been depressed after a break-up with
his girlfriend, claiming that he had ‘‘no reason to live anymore.’’ He apparently aimed low
intentionally and never intended to kill anyone. Solomon had been picked on by a football
player, and feared becoming the school ‘‘wuss.’’ He had been treated for depression, and
bomb recipes were found at his home, yet people described him as normal.
Ft. Gibson, OK (12/6/99). Seth Trickey, 13, walked up to a group of students at his
middle school and started ﬁring with a 9 mm handgun. He didn’t seem to know the children
he shot and said he did not know why he did it. Trickey was described as a honor student
who others regarded as funny, nice, and good-natured. He was popular and well-liked, and
clearly not a loner. Trickey has never provided a plausible reason for his actions.
Mount Morris Township, MI. (2/29/00). A six-year-old boy pointed a gun at a fellow
ﬁrst-grader, said ‘‘I don’t like you,’’ and killed her. The day before the shooting, the two
children had argued with one another, and the victim had purportedly slapped the
perpetrator. Reportedly, he wanted to get revenge by scaring her with the gun. The boy had
been left in the care of an uncle, who lived in a suspected crack house, so that his mother
could work two jobs.
Santee, CA (03/05/01). Having boasted to his friends about the fact that he was going to
cause trouble at his school, Andy Williams, age 15, shot two students to death and wounded
13 others. He had been maliciously bullied by his schoolmates and desired simply to ‘‘ﬁt in.’’
His parents divorced early in his life. He rarely saw his mother and although he lived with his
father, did not have a close relationship with him.
Williamsport, PA (03/07/01). In the only school shooting reported here that was
perpetrated by a female, Catherine Bush, 14, shot the head cheerleader at her school
in the shoulder. Catherine had been teased and harassed at her previous school,
leading her parents to transfer her to a smaller, private school, where she was similarly
tormented. She felt betrayed by the victim, who ostensibly had revealed to other students the
contents of e-mails Catherine had sent her. Catherine also suffered from periods of
Summary of Precipitating Factors
Table I presents a summary of our ﬁndings for the 15 shootings. Clear evidence for or
against the presence of rejection and other risk factors is indicated. Blank cells in the table
indicate that no information about the item was found in published reports and, thus, is
Teasing, Rejection, and Violence 207
TABLE I. Summary of the School Shooting
or other ongoing
rejection Acute rejection
with guns or
with death or
Moses Lake, WA
2/2/96 3/1 Teased by one of the
2/19/97 2/2 Teased by student he
10/1/97 3/7 Chronically picked on;
teased as a nerd; he
and friends were
one victim was girl
he had dated
perception and judgment
problems; animal abuse
No Yes; Satanic
West Paducah, KY
12/1/97 3/5 Chronically teased;
was rejected as
‘‘dweeb’’ and ‘‘fag’’
object of affection
was ﬁrst person shot
Found ‘‘guilty but
12/15/97 0/2 Picked on; students
3/24/98 5/10 Teased for being
alleged suicide attempt,
Rejected by girlfriend Yes; gun
5/19/98 1/0 Romantic break-up;
victim was dating
208 Leary et al.
5/21/98 4/25 Teased by older
school; was ﬁxated
on girl who was
lukewarm to him
obessed with guns
4/20/99 13/28 Belonged to ostracized
group; taunted and
picked on by athletes;
trouble ﬁtting in
Recently rejected by
Taking Luvox Yes; bomb-making Yes; death
Belonged to ostracized
group; taunted and
picked on by athletes
Described as volatile Yes; bomb-making Yes;
T. J. Solomon
5/20/99 0/6 Viewed as a nerd;
picked on; worried
about suicide; ADHD
Yes; bomb recipes No
Victor Cordova, Jr.
11/21/99 1/0 Depressed; violent
Fort Gibson, OK
? Owens (6) — ﬁrst
name not released
2/29/00 1/0 Abandoned by mother Slapped by
History of aggression
Lived with easy
access to weapons
San Diego, CA
3/5/01 2/13 Chronically bullied;
locked out of school
for repeated tardiness;
rarely saw mother;
History of drug use
and gang involvement
Lived with easy
access to weapons
3/7/01 0/1 Mercilessly teased by
Victim passed along
secrets shared with
her by the perpetrator
Teasing, Rejection, and Violence 209
presumed not to be a factor in the shooting. As can be seen from the table and the
descriptions above, interpersonal rejection was clearly indicated in most of the 15 shootings.
In at least 12 of the 15 incidents, the perpetrator(s) had been subject to a pattern of malicious
teasing or bullying—for example, teased for their weight or appearance, maliciously taunted
and humiliated (regularly called a ‘‘nerd,’’ ‘‘dweeb,’’ or ‘‘faggot,’’ for example), or otherwise
picked on. In addition, many cases involved ongoing ostracism that left the perpetrator on
the periphery of the school’s social life. Importantly, in many of the incidents, the victims
included those individuals who had teased, bullied, or rejected the shooter. In about half of
the episodes, the perpetrator had also experienced a recent rejecting event, most commonly a
romantic breakup or unrequited love, and the victims often included the particular
individuals who had spurned them. In only two cases (Ft. Gibson, OK and Deming, NM)
was there no evidence whatsoever that the perpetrator had been rejected or mistreated by
Although rejection in one form or another was implicated in most of the episodes, the
shooters also tended to be characterized by one or more of the three other risk factors
that we investigated—psychological problems, an interest in guns and explosives, and a
fascination with death. First, at least 10 of the 15 incidents involved a perpetrator who had
shown previous evidence of having psychological problems, including depression, hyperag-
gressiveness, or sadistic tendencies. At least half were known by other students and people in
the community as troubled individuals. Second, six of the cases involved individuals who
were familiar with, if not fascinated by, guns and bombs. At least four perpetrators were
interested in making explosives, as evidenced by the fact that they possessed home-made
bombs or recipes for making them. Third, four of the incidents involved individuals who
showed an interest in death and other ‘‘dark’’ topics, such as death-rock music and Satanic
Our analyses of cases of school violence since 1995 support the hypothesis that social
rejection was involved in most cases of lethal school violence. Twelve of the cases involved an
ongoing pattern of teasing, bullying, or ostracism, and at least six of the perpetrators had
experienced a recent romantic rejection. In only two of the incidents did we ﬁnd no clear
evidence of rejection; Seth Trichey, who wounded four students in Ft. Gibson, OK, was an
honor student that other students liked, his victims were randomly chosen, and he seemed
unable to explain his actions. Even so, he did not appear remorseful (unlike, for example, the
shooters in Fayetteville, TN, and Conyers, GA), which suggests either that he thought that
the victims deserved their fate or that he was psychologically incapable of empathy. Victor
Cordova, who killed a female student in Deming, NM, also had no history of rejection, but
he had been deeply depressed for some time. These ﬁndings are consistent with those
obtained by the U.S. Secret Service and reported in their Safe School Initiative. In their
analysis of school shootings that have occurred in recent years, they found evidence for
bullying, ostracism, and social rejection in over two-thirds of the cases [Vossekuil et al.,
Several of the perpetrators explicitly explained their actions as a response to being
mistreated by other students. For example, the perpetrator of the Pearl, Mississippi shooting
said that he killed because ‘‘people like me are mistreated every day.... No one ever really
210 Leary et al.
cared about me’’ [Chua-eoan, 1997]. Similarly, one of the Jonesboro, Arkansas shooters had
vowed to kill all of the girls who had broken up with him [Blake et al., 1998], and the
Columbine killers’ rage appeared to come from their rejection and mistreatment by other
people. Of course, a murderer’s stated reason for his behavior may reﬂect nothing more than
a self-serving justiﬁcation. However, independent evidence from other students and teachers
corroborates the presence of rejection in most of the cases. It is also noteworthy that, to our
knowledge, few of the perpetrators attributed their violent behavior to other equally plausible
causes, such as disinterested parents, a broken home, child abuse, academic failure, or
Few individuals navigate their way through adolescence without being teased, bullied, or
rejected in some manner, but the vast majority do not exact retribution on their classmates.
Rejection may be frustrating, angering, even maddening [Buckley, unpublished data; Twenge
et al., 2001], but it is rarely sufﬁcient to provoke premeditated violence even if the victim feels
like killing people. Thus, rejection alone, while a possible contributor, does not necessarily
cause violence by itself. The information we collected regarding the three other risk factors
offers hints regarding other contributors to school violence. In particular, most of the
perpetrators displayed at least one of the other three risk factors (psychological problems,
interest in guns or explosives, or fascination with death). Thus, we speculate that rejection,
combined with one or more of these other factors puts an individual at higher risk to
perpetrate aggression against peers.
First, a variety of psychological problems may be associated with an increased tendency for
aggressive behavior. For example, certain personality disorders are characterized by
aggressiveness, paranoia, low impulse control, lack of empathy for other people, and even
sadistic behaviors, all of which may lower one’s threshold for violence [Millon, 1981].
Thus, some instances of school violence may reﬂect extreme manifestations of an ongoing
pattern of antisocial and aggressive behavior. Many of the shooters had been in trouble
previously for aggression against their peers, and two had allegedly abused animals. In
addition, people who are depressed and perhaps suicidal may behave in desperate ways,
feeling that they having nothing to lose by acting aggressively [Marano, 1998]. The Safe
School Initiative report indicated that perpetrators in over three-fourths of the school
shootings had either threatened or attempted suicide at some time in the recent past
[Vossekuil et al., 2000].
Second, individuals who not only have access to guns but who are fascinated by ﬁrearms
and explosives may be more likely to act on their aggressive impulses because they are
comfortable dealing with instruments of destruction than those who are unfamiliar or
uncomfortable with guns and explosives, who do not have the means to perpetrate violence
with ﬁrearms and bombs. Experience with guns is by no means necessary, however; the
perpetrator of the West Paducah, Kentucky shooting had apparently not ﬁred a gun before
Third, people who are fascinated by themes of death, and whose identity is linked to
Gothic, Satanic, and other ‘‘dark’’ lifestyles may ﬁnd the idea of carnage less revolting than
most other people do. It remains unclear whether death-rock music and other aspects of
popular culture that glorify death cause otherwise peaceful adolescents to be violent or
whether individuals who are already inclined toward aggression are simply more interested in
death-related music and activities.
Previous theory and research has not adequately addressed the question of why
rejection sometimes leads to anger and an impulse to aggress. Thomas  suggested
Teasing, Rejection, and Violence 211
that the painful feelings of shame that often result from rejection may provoke
anger and aggression, much in the same way in which physical pain (such as slamming
one’s own hand in a door) can make people angry. Other writers have suggested that
aggression may result from a desire to show that one is not a person to be triﬂed with
[Nisbett, 1993] or to maintain self-esteem and buttress one’s positive self-concept after an
ego-threatening event [Baumeister et al., 1996]. Without discounting other explanations, we
believe that the primary motive in most of the school shootings seems to have been
retribution, either for an ongoing pattern of ostracism and teasing or for an acute rejection
such as a romantic breakup. In fact, many of the cases were characterized by both an ongoing
pattern of rejection and a speciﬁc rejection experience, suggesting that the recent rejection
may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. At the same time, however, the
evidence suggests that at least some of the perpetrators were seeking respect as well. After
killing three and injuring ﬁve in West Paducah, KY, Michael Carneal was quoted as saying
‘‘People respect me now,’’ and the Columbine killers fantasized that they would be famous
and that movie directors would ﬁght over making a movie of their story [Gibbs and Roche,
Of course, like all case studies, this one is open to the criticism that the mode of data
collection is necessarily selective and uncontrolled. In particular, the evidence that we
obtained about the episodes from press reports may reﬂect reporters’ implicit theories about
the link between rejection and aggression; we may have found evidence of such a relationship
because writers in the mass media selectively reported evidence consistent with their
implicit theories. We cannot discount this possibility but ﬁnd it noteworthy than only a few
of our sources drew an explicit connection between the rejection that the perpetrators had
experienced and their subsequent violent behavior. In most cases, information regarding the
perpetrator’s relationships with other students was mentioned only in the context of
describing the kind of person he or she was. Only after the Columbine shootings in April of
1999 did many writers begin to explore the role than ostracism or rejection may have
Furthermore, like all case studies, ours necessarily lacks an appropriate control
group. Although we can document that most of the perpetrators of these school shootings
had been subjected to teasing, bullying, or other types of rejection, we do not know for
certain whether they experienced an exceptionally high level of mistreatment compared to
other children and adolescents. Given that roughly 75% of elementary and middle school
students are occasionally bullied at school [Kass, 1999], the perpetrators of the school
shootings were by no means unique. Even so, from reading descriptions of their peer
relationships, our sense is that most of the shooters had experienced an unusually high
amount of bullying or ostracism that was particularly relentless, humiliating, and cruel.
Furthermore, when an individual has psychological difﬁculties, an afﬁnity for guns and
explosives, or a fascination with death and gore, such peer mistreatment may evoke a
In fact, most writers seem to operate from the hypothesis that the shootings were due to problems with the
perpetrators’ parents. The shooters’ relationships with their parents and siblings were often described in detail, and
neighbors were interviewed regarding the families. Interestingly, with few exceptions, little evidence was unearthed to
indicate that the perpetrators’ families had an unusual number of problems, and the perpetrators themselves often
absolved their parents of any responsibility for their actions. This is not to say that family problems played no role in
the shootings, but rather that the family backgrounds did not ﬁt any particular proﬁle and did not conform to
writers’ assumptions about the homes of teenage murderers.
212 Leary et al.
To the extent that our conclusions are valid, they raise two important issues. The ﬁrst
involves the toll that bullying and malicious teasing take on many students. Not only do the
majority of elementary and middle school children experience bullying at school [Kass, 1999],
but a poll conducted by the American Psychological Association revealed that 40% of the
youth surveyed expressed concern regarding a potentially violent classmate [‘‘Child
violence,’’ 2000]. Approximately 160,000 school-aged children occasionally stay home
from school to avoid mistreatment at the hands of their peers. Other consequences for
victims of malicious teasing and bullying include feelings of shame, humiliation, depression,
anxiety, and low self-esteem [Kowalski, 2003]. In some instances, victims have even
committed suicide to escape social torment. For example, in 1993, a middle-schooler killed
himself because he was tired of being bullied [Marano, 1998], and in early 2000, a
Washington student killed herself rather than face teasing at school. Thus, the violent
reactions of students who shoot their classmates are only one tragic consequence of school
If the kinds of aversive treatment endured by many of the school shooters were
targeted at a particular group, such mistreatment of other students would not be tolerated by
teachers and school authorities, but because it is aimed rather indiscriminately
(primarily at students who are powerless and unpopular), such antisocial behavior at school
is typically ignored. We believe that steps are needed to reduce the incidence of
teasing and bullying at school, both to improve the quality of life for millions
of students and to reduce the likelihood of violence. Along these lines, students at one
anti-violence conference proposed that Congress enact anti-teasing laws, and the State of
Georgia recently passed an anti-bullying statute. According to this law, students
who bully on three separate occasions within a year will be sent to an alternative school.
Of course, this law fails to take into account the many bullying episodes that go unobserved
Second, our ﬁndings offer a tentative proﬁle of the kind of student who may be prone to
violence against his peers. The typical shooter is a male student who has been ostracized by
the majority group at his school for some time, and has been chronically taunted, teased,
harassed, and often publicly humiliated. Moreover, he probably demonstrates one or more of
the three risk factors identiﬁed in the present study—an unusual interest in guns and
explosives; a fascination with death, Satan, and other ‘‘dark’’ themes; or psychological
problems that are characterized by depression and/or a personality disorder that involves
antisocial behavior, poor impulse control, or sadistic tendencies. Of course, many young
people share these characteristics yet do not endanger their peers, so actual efforts to predict
which students will behave violently are not likely to be successful [Mulvey and Cauffman,
In light of the many dangers that adolescents face daily, violence at school
is a relatively improbable event for any particular student. Even so, the escalation
in school violence during the past ﬁve years points to a problem that needs
attention from researchers. Although it may be difﬁcult to study deadly school
violence systematically (because it occurs so infrequently), additional research
attention could be directed toward milder forms of school aggression, as well as toward
the unenacted aggressive urges and fantasies of students who are teased, bullied,
and ostracized. In addition, controlled experimental research may help us to under-
stand the conditions under which interpersonal rejection does and does not precipitate
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