School Shootings in Rural Settings

Violent crime is far less common in rural areas than in cities. Rural people are four times less likely to be victims of violent crime. Yet all three school shootings in the past week occurred in rural places.

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The three recent school shootings share at least one common element: Each tragedy occurred in a rural area.

Statistics show that rural residents are four times less likely to be victims of violent crime. But school shootings seem linked now with small cities and towns.

NPR's Howard Berkes has more.

HOWARD BERKES: It doesn't seem to make sense, but the nation's safest places statistically suffer some of the most horrific crimes. Laurie March(ph) lives in Georgetown, Pennsylvania, near the rural Amish school where 10 schoolgirls were lined up and shot this week.

Ms. LAURIE MARCH (Georgetown, Pennsylvania): Georgetown, you never have anything happen here. It's just a little town. You wouldn't expect something like this.

BERKES: Fred Wegener is the sheriff in Park County, Colorado, where an attacker killed one schoolgirl and molested five others last week.

Sheriff FRED WEGENER (Park County, Colorado): This is a very small community, the kind where everyone knows another. Even though law enforcement agencies train for situations like this one, we never expect that it will happen in our own backyard.

BERKES: And Dave Deitz(ph) lives near Cazenovia, Wisconsin, where a student gunned down a principal Friday.

Mr. DAVE DEITZ (Cazenovia, Wisconsin): We feel that we're somewhat insulated up here in a small rural community, you know, and this is just kind of a wake up to us, almost.

BERKES: But criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University is not surprised by these big crimes in small places.

Professor JAMES ALAN FOX (Professor of Criminal Justice, Northeastern University): In school shootings in the 1990s, virtually all occurred in small towns, small city America, rural towns: a bunch of white kids copying other white kids with whom they could identify. That did not happen in Chicago or New York, where the demographics is very different and kids do not identify with the problems of these others who made headlines with their gunfire.

BERKES: Kids from smaller cities and rural towns also tend to suffer more when they don't fit in at school. That's what school violence trainer Jared Lewis concludes after writing a book about school shooters.

Mr. JARED LEWIS (Director, Know Gangs Organization): Many of them live on the fringe of a lot of the social groups at high school. In a smaller community, if a student doesn't fit in to the community norm, they'd have a much harder time finding a social outlet group as a teenager who lives in a large city.

BERKES: Lewis says urban schools tend to have tighter security and more experience with troubled and violent kids. Schools in smaller places make easier targets, he adds, for student shooters and strangers, like those attacking students in Colorado and Pennsylvania this past week.

Rural places also have more guns around, but they're less likely to be used in crimes, says Ralph Weisheit of Illinois State University.

Professor RALPH WEISHEIT (Professor of Criminal Justice, Illinois State University): In urban areas, guns tend to be connected to violence. They're defined as instruments to be used against other people. In rural areas, guns are more prevalent, but they're defined and viewed very differently. They're viewed for sport, for hunting.

BERKES: School shootings are also relatively rare. Criminologist James Alan Fox says the chances of dying at school are one in two million. Still, the news of the past week has shattered the sense of safety at even the most remote schools.

Annette Garland(ph) teaches nine grades in a tiny school 80 miles from the nearest deputy sheriff. She's asked us not to disclose its location for fear her school could be targeted.

Ms. ANNETTE GARLAND (School Teacher): I don't want to alert them to where we are and that we're so vulnerable, you know? We are vulnerable. That's because we live in a place where we, well, like Pennsylvania, you know, you figure everybody is going to be friendly.

BERKES: Garland wants a new school security device - a siren - so if there's trouble, she can alert the nearest neighbor a quarter-mile away.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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