Why Moral Panic Occurs as a Result of School Shootings

Wrongful Perceptions of School Shootings

When it comes to school shootings, events such as the Virginia Tech and Columbine shootings receive intense publicity from the media. Further, these events are often extremely disturbing and challenge our common perception of what should occur in the typical school setting. As a result, media reports on these events generate an inflated perception of danger (Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski, & Jimerson, 2010). And although school violence in recent years has not significantly increased, media reports of school shootings continue to provoke fear among students, parents, and the general public.

One year after the Columbine shooting took place, a poll was conducted in the United States to examine the beliefs people had when it came to the likelihood of an event such as that at Columbine reoccurring. Two-thirds of parents believed a similar incident was “very likely” to happen in their community and more than one-third of high school students believed there were students in their school who were “potentially violent enough to be involved in a situation such as the one that occurred at Columbine High School” (Gallup, 1999). However, statistics show that children are far more likely to be killed or injured in their community than while on school grounds in any given year (National Centre for Education Statistics, 2000, pp. 31-33). In fact, on average, less than one percent of homicides and suicides among school children actually occur at school, while at school events, or while travelling to or from school (Brener, Simon, Krug, and Lowry, 1999, p. 44). Furthermore, only about 1 in 2 million school-aged children will die due to homicide at school each year (Dinkes et al., 2006). A visual reference to these statistics can be seen in the following graph, published by the National Center of Vital Statistics (2004) in the United States:


As one can see, the risk of homicide within the school- including school shootings- is miniscule in comparison with other means of death.

Homicide outside of the school setting is far more likely to claim the lives of school-aged children than homicides within the school.

Despite these statistics which are seen year after year, the beleif is that school homicides occur much more often than they do in actuality.

Rashomon Effect

Wrongful perceptions surrounding school shootings are often an example of something called the Rashomon Effect. The Rashomon Effect refers to a construction of reality in which observers of an event create incompatible yet rational explanations for what occurred (Heider, 1988). The term is derived from the film Rashomon (1951) in which the characters who witness a crime construct explanations for what happened in completely different and contradictory ways.

The Rashomon Effect typically occurs when there are conflicting messages regarding school shootings discussed in the media and general public. Following the events that occurred at Columbine High School, followed by Dawson College, and ultimately Virginia Tech, the public began to create a wrongful perception as to the frequency and intensity of school shootings. There quickly became a view that school shootings were increasing in both frequency (that is, how often they occur) and intensity (in the number of fatalities that result). The role of the Rashomon Effect stems largely from the fact that the overwhelming majority of people don’t experience school shooting events directly; rather, they tend to base their beliefs on what they see and hear in the media (Muschert, 2007, p. 65). Therefore, the media acts as a catalyst for what views people form about specific incidents which they never technically encountered. Although people may not have been present to witness the event, they often derive their own opinions about it. Unfortunately, these opinions are often opposing to those of others’ and seldom prove to be correct.