Report examines violent attacks on U.S. college campuses

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2010

A report by federal law enforcement officers, released last week on the third anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre, offers the first comprehensive analysis of violent attacks carried out on U.S. college campuses in the past century and finds that more than half have occurred in the past 20 years.

Researchers looked at public records of 272 incidents of "targeted violence" at colleges since 1900. The study, "Campus Attacks," was a joint effort of the Secret Service, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Education.

The report offers a foundation of research for the discipline of threat assessment, a growing facet of college administration that seeks to predict and prevent Virginia Tech-style attacks. On April 16, 2007, Tech student Seung Hui Cho, 23, killed 32 people and himself in one of the nation's deadliest attacks.

"This is the first time that anybody has identified in any kind of comprehensive way the uptick in these violent acts over the course of decades," said Barry Spodak, an expert on threat assessment.

The analysis found that three-fifths of campus attacks in a 108-year span occurred in the past two decades: 79 in the 1990s, and 83 in the 2000s through 2008.

The report attributes the surge to the growing campus populations and expanding media coverage; the past two decades have also seen increased federal requirements for colleges to report crimes. The report focuses on attacks that were premeditated and used potentially lethal force.

College killings are not an entirely new phenomenon. Researchers found episodes from 1909, when a man fatally shot his former girlfriend at her college and then shot himself.

Attacks most often happen in April and October. Attackers are overwhelmingly male, and they have ranged in age from 16 to 62. The eldest was a part-time librarian who shot a fellow librarian in 2008 after a dispute over work ethics. Relatively few perpetrators, 75 of 260, were students of traditional college age.

One-third of attacks were related to intimate relationships. "Retaliation" was the second leading cause, followed by romantic rejection and obsession.

The report doesn't offer tips for colleges seeking to profile potential killers. Colleges awaiting such help "are going to be left wanting," Spodak said, although federal authorities might publish such guidance in the future. The analysis does identify patterns in past attacks that could steer colleges in assessing threats.

Threat assessment teams shouldn't limit themselves to campuses, the report says, because 20 percent of the violent incidents studied took place off campus. Communication with outside law enforcement authorities "is essential," it says.

One-quarter of attacks involved weapons other than guns and knives, so investigators must "look beyond" those traditional weapons, the report says.

Students represented 45 percent of perpetrators. Many attackers were former students, current or former employees, or people indirectly affiliated with the college, if at all.

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