Skip to main content

Stabbing echoes other school rampages

By Katherine S. Newman
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Parents and students embrace near Franklin Regional High School, where authorities say at least 20 people were injured in a stabbing spree Wednesday, April 9, in Murrysville, Pennsylvania. Parents and students embrace near Franklin Regional High School, where authorities say at least 20 people were injured in a stabbing spree Wednesday, April 9, in Murrysville, Pennsylvania.
HIDE CAPTION
Stabbings at Pennsylvania high school
Stabbings at Pennsylvania high school
Stabbings at Pennsylvania high school
Stabbings at Pennsylvania high school
Stabbings at Pennsylvania high school
Stabbings at Pennsylvania high school
Stabbings at Pennsylvania high school
Stabbings at Pennsylvania high school
Stabbings at Pennsylvania high school
Stabbings at Pennsylvania high school
Stabbings at Pennsylvania high school
Stabbings at Pennsylvania high school
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Katherine Newman has studied school rampages, says stabbing attack has echoes of them
  • She says they tend to happen in "safe" rural towns and suspects first mislabeled as loners
  • She says attackers often are "failed joiners" who seek acceptance in actions
  • Newman: It's small comfort for Pennsylvania town that attacker used knives instead of guns

Editor's note: Katherine S. Newman is the James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University and the co-author of "Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings" (Basic Books, 2004). The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Once again, we confront the specter of a school day bathed in bloodshed. A 16-year-old, Alex Hribal, allegedly takes two long knives into a crowded corridor and sends 20 classmates and an adult to the hospital with grave injuries. Arraigned as an adult, Hribal looks all too familiar: thin, scared, vacant-eyed. He looks younger than his years as he is manacled and maneuvered into a police car.

We have not yet filled in a motive. Hribal's attorney says, "He worked well in groups, and this happened. So there's a reason for it -- that's what I'm saying. And we have to get to the bottom of that." And because it was knives, not guns, it was -- thankfully -- not a massacre. But much about the attack is familiar.

Katherine S. Newman
Katherine S. Newman

Fifteen years ago, my doctoral students and I devoted two years to studying rampage shootings in American high schools in response to the epidemic epitomized by the 1999 Columbine High School shootings. To try to understand what motivates school attackers, we interviewed everyone who had any knowledge of two episodes -- one near Paducah, Kentucky, and the other outside Jonesboro, Arkansas -- that took place in the late '90s. Congress wanted to know about the circumstances that led to these outbursts in communities that have no experience of murderous violence.

What we found at the center of the stories we followed were young men who looked a lot like Hribal. Rampage attacks happen in safe, relatively isolated communities. Indeed, they are most common in small rural towns where the biggest public "stage" is the local high school, the place the community gathers for events such as football games on Saturdays and everybody knows your name.

The perpetrators are often described in the media as loners, but they are not. They are most often "failed joiners," people who work overtime to ingratiate themselves into cliques that reject them. But they don't stop trying. Fading into the background, close to anonymous, but rarely ever thought of as troublemakers, the protagonists look for ways to gain acceptance and attention. They may act like clowns; they sometimes bully other children; they steal -- all to seek the approval of social groups that continuously deny them recognition.

Attorney: Family was like 'Brady Bunch'
Assistant principal tackled suspect
Heroic acts during Pennsylvania stabbing

In the instances we studied, all that effort starts to pay off the day they start talking about killing people. Suddenly they are the objects of attention. Everyone pivots toward them. They may even find their "friends" goading them. Michael Carneal, the shooter in Kentucky, resembled Hribal. Slight and short, he was a freshman who simply could not cut it in the world of high school peers. He was socially awkward and a bit of prankster, but he wasn't a loner.

Carneal tried to gain the friendship of many different social groups and finally landed in the laps of the Goths, boys who wore satanic garb and spoke in dark tones but who were actually among the smart ones. They told Carneal that the pistol he stole from home wasn't good enough, that he should come to school in a trench coat sporting a shotgun. Carneal was so eager to gain their approval that he followed these instructions almost to the letter.

Three kids huddled together in a prayer group were murdered, one was paralyzed from the waist down and a fifth was hit in the arms, her athletic career ended in an instant. But when Carneal shot these innocents, what was uppermost in his mind was not that he was going to kill kids but rather how this bold act would help him gain traction with the Goths. They would see him as notorious and dangerous rather than a loser who was awkward and boring.

He told the forensic psychiatrist who interviewed him after his arrest that he had found a route to popularity. The Goths would visit his house and invite him to their homes. He would have friends once he proved himself worthy of their respect.

We don't know yet if the Murrysville, Pennsylvania, suspect fits this profile. The surprise that so many of his schoolmates have expressed comes close to what teachers told us about Carneal: that they could have named 50 others who might have committed this kind of mayhem before they got to him. The son of a lawyer and a homemaker, until the previous year a good student, with no obvious interest in guns, Carneal was not on their radar screen. But many teenagers avoided school on the Monday that Carneal murdered his classmates because they knew something bad was coming.

One thing we should be grateful for: The attacker in Pennsylvania was armed only with knives. Had he had access to the weapons Carneal had, we would have seen dozens die rather than suffer these wounds. Knife attacks happen in countries such as Japan where guns are hard to access, and they have been lethal. Just not as deadly as a loaded high-capacity automatic weapon that requires a split second to gun down dozens of people.

This is small comfort in Murrysville.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 0730 GMT (1530 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT