Federal Study Focuses on College Campus Targeted Violence

Published: April 15, 2010

The U.S. Secret Service, Department of Education and FBI have released a report evaluating security incidents on U.S. higher education campuses.

The study, “Campus Attacks: Targeted Violence Affecting Institutions of Higher Education” was conducted in response to the April 2007 Viriginia Tech tragedy.

In total, 272 incidents were identified through a comprehensive search of more than 115,000 results in open-source reporting from 1900 to 2008. The findings are pertinent and far-reaching, and the incidents studied include all forms of targeted violence, ranging from domestic violence to serial killers.

Report highlights include:

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  • The majority of the incidents that occurred affected 4-year institutions (84 percent), followed by 2-year institutions (14 percent), postsecondary vocational/technical schools (1 percent) and those institutions identified as post-graduate only (1 percent).


  • The majority of incidents occurred during the 1990s and 2000s. It is unknown what may have caused the increase in incidents identified during the past 20 years. However, consideration should be given to the increased enrollment levels as well as the increase in media coverage and digital reporting throughout the United States over the past few decades.


  • Of those incidents that occurred at on-campus or non-campus sites, similar numbers of incidents took place in residential buildings (28 percent), parking lots or campus grounds (27 percent), and administrative and/or academic buildings such as offices, classrooms, laboratories (26 percent). In only 3 percent of the on/non-campus incidents did the subject move from the campus grounds or parking lots to buildings, move between buildings, or cause injuries and/or deaths in more than one location on campus.


  • Of the incidents that occurred within an institution of higher education owned/operated building, over half of them took place in dorm rooms or apartments, offices, and instructional areas such as classrooms, lecture halls, or laboratories (57 percent).


  • The majority of incidents were perpetrated by one individual and, of those, most of the subjects were male (94 percent). In the incidents where age was reported, the range was 16 to 62, with an average age of 28 (median = 25, mode = 20).


  • Of those cases in which this information was reported, a majority of the subjects were identified as either current or former students at the affected institution (60 percent), while approximately one-tenth were current or former employees (11 percent). An additional 20 percent of the subjects were indirectly affiliated with the institution through a personal relationship with a current student and/or employee. In less than one-tenth of the cases (9 percent), the subject had no known affiliation with the affected campus.


  • Firearms were used most often (54 percent), followed by knives/bladed weapons (21 percent), a combination of weapons/methods (10 percent), and strangulation either manually or with an implement (5 percent).


  • Across all 272 incidents, the subjects caused 281 deaths and injured 247 individuals. Of the deaths, at least 190 were students and at least 72 were employees. Of the injured, at least 144 were students and at least 35 were employees. Not included in these numbers are the subjects themselves who were injured or killed either during or following the incident. In 26 percent of the incidents, the subject died of a self-inflicted injury incurred during implementation of the assault or within hours or days of the incident. In 4 percent of the incidents, the subject survived his self-inflicted injuries and in an additional 4 percent of the incidents, the subject was killed by law enforcement during or immediately following the assault.


  • Generally, several categories were observed among the incidents regarding the factors that may have played a role in the subjects’ decision to carry out the directed assault:

    • Related to an intimate relationship, 34 percent
    • Retaliation for specific action(s), 14 percent
    • Refused advances or obsession with the target, 10 percent
    • Response to academic stress/failure, 10 percent
    • Acquaintance/stranger based sexual violence, 10 percent
    • Psychotic actions, 8 percent
    • Workplace dismissal/sanction, 6 percent
    • Need to kill/specific vitimology, 3 percent
    • Draw attention to self/issue(s), 3 percent
    • Bias related, 2 percent


  • In nearly three-quarters of the incidents (73 percent), subjects targeted one or more specifically named individuals. From context, their target selections appeared closely related to triggering events (e.g., romantic breakup, an academic or workplace failure, or a dispute), and, more often than not, were limited to the person or persons whom the subject may have blamed for causing the event. In a small fraction of these cases (2 percent), there was also some indication that the subjects intended to harm one or more random persons beyond the individuals they blamed.


  • In over three-quarters of the incidents where specific individuals were targeted, these individuals were the only ones harmed (79 percent). In the remaining cases, the casualties included collateral victims and/or victims of opportunity.


  • In approximately one-fifth of the incidents (21 percent), the subject’s targeting appeared to be directed toward a single random individual or multiple random individuals.


  • Though information on the subjects’ behaviors prior to the incidents was not always reported, efforts were made to identify whether the subjects engaged in verbal and/or written threats, stalking or harassing behaviors, and/or physically aggressive acts directed toward the targets prior to the incidents. In 29 percent of the incidents, subjects engaged in one or more of these actions directed toward the target: Verbal/written, 13 percent; stalking or harassment, 19 percent; physically aggressive acts, 10 percent.


  • Concerning behaviors were observed by friends, family, associates, professors, or law enforcement in 31 percent of the incidents. These behaviors included, but were not limited to paranoid ideas, delusional statements, changes in personality or performance, disciplinary problems on campus, depressed mood, suicidal ideation, non-specific threats of violence, increased isolation, “odd” or “bizarre” behavior, and interest in or acquisition of weapons.


  • In 29 percent of the incidents involving concerning behaviors, the offenders also exhibited one or more acts involving stalking/harassment, written/verbal threats, or physically aggressive acts toward the target.


  • In those cases in which concerning behaviors were not observed, media reports described other significant criminal, violent, or mental health histories unrelated to the incident (8 percent). This included multiple criminal or violent acts, a series of psychiatric hospitalizations, and/or the presence of psychotic symptoms over an extended period of time.

To read the full report, which was released April 16, click here.

Image via Flickr.com (artofdreaming)

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