Normalizing deviance in school massacres
Updated: Oct 25
The nation is facing the aftermath of another deadly school attack. I’m avoiding the term shooting because the accused also brought explosive devices to the school. It could have been much worse. The senseless nature of these recurrent attacks has confounded law enforcement, school authorities, parents and students. Schools are responding by hiring armed officers, and installing metal detectors and surveillance cameras. These steps help, but do not explain why these attacks continue to happen.
Part of the answer may lie in the social forces and processes that influence decision-making in potential perpetrators. One influential factor is the normalization of deviant behaviors. It describes an incremental process where recurrent behaviors that violate deeply held social standards lead some people to accept them as normal. This process was discernable in the emergence of indiscriminate suicide bombings in the Middle East that violated long-held traditional religious beliefs. They can be traced to a spectacular attack by Hezbollah on the Tyre headquarters of the Israeli army in 1982. It led to an average of about 20 attacks per year over the next eighteen years. Their number quickly escalated post-2000. In 2015, for example, hundreds of people were killed by suicide bombers in 21 countries.
Repeated school attacks play out on television and social media leading to the normalization of related deviant behaviors.
The incremental process of normalizing deviance was described and coined by Columbia sociologist Diane Vaughan in her investigation of the 1986 Challenger tragedy. She found that NASA's decision-makers sometimes defined situations that "allowed them to carry on as if nothing was wrong when they continually faced evidence that something was wrong." In this case, NASA engineers and managers normalized recurrent evidence of booster rocket o-ring damage in previous launches. She described the effects on NASA's decision-makers as the “normalization of deviance”.
The normalization of deviant behaviors similarly allows perpetrators to recast even mass killings as normal. In this context, the Columbine school massacre on April 20, 1999 that killed 13 and wounded 21 was the first deviant link in the chain. The nation was shocked by the carnage. The culprits were quickly tagged as troubled teens who were clearly out of the mainstream. Law enforcement warned of potential copycats and uncovered two similar plots within a month. One in Port Huron, Michigan on May 12 and a second in Conyers, Georgia on the 20th. Still, most people expected Columbine to remain an isolated tragedy. History would prove us wrong.
By 2014, Columbine had inspired at least 36 deadly plots and 17 attacks by students against their schools. The Santa Fe, Texas high school tragedy on May 18 is the 26th deadly event. The normalization of behavioral deviance is an incremental process. Thus, every attack makes future ones appear less deviant to potential perpetrators. The accused Santa Fe high school killer, for example, was not a social outcast. He played sports and was a member of a church congregation. He also reportedly planned to die in the attack but surrendered to authorities instead.
The Columbine attacks unexpectedly sparked a deviant subculture that normalizes school killings for trivial ends. I've seen no compelling evidence that the two perpetrators planned to inspire future generations of killers. The normalization process that began with Columbine is lowering the decision-making threshold for school attacks among susceptible students. These are important considerations because deviant behaviors anchored to deviant subcultures are notoriously persistent and resistive to change.
Summary and implications
We have a natural tendency to seek simple answers and solutions after every school attack. Proposed causes and triggers include gun cultures, bullying, social awkwardness, heartbreaks, and abusive home environments. Unfortunately, even a cursory review will show that these factors were present in our society long before Columbine. A more plausible explanation is the normalization of deviant social standards and behaviors. It's a process that is making mass killings appear acceptable to a small, but deadly cast of young people.
The normalization of deviance was identified as an influential factor within NASA’s technical culture. It’s not surprising that similar processes are discernable among less mature, more susceptible populations. Normalizing deviant violent behavior does not necessarily cause young people to attack their schools. It can, however, make mass, senseless violence feel more normal. In this context, ending school attacks may require new methods to strengthen cultural standards and disrupt the incremental normalization of deviant violent behaviors among susceptible teens. It means defeating an entrenched subculture and violent legacy that is older than recent perpetrators. History suggests that it will be a lengthy, challenging process.
Courtesy of Wikipedia and US Air Force, photo in the Public Domain.
 Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber, May 4, 2017, Reliefweb, https://reliefweb.int/report/world/understanding-rising-cult-suicide-bomber
 Diane Vaugham, The Challenger launch decision: risky technology, culture and deviance at NASA, Kindle Edition, p. 75, 1996, University of Chicago Press.
 Pierre Thomas, Mike Levine, Jack Cloherty, Jack Date, Columbine shootings’ grim legacy: more than 50 school attacks, plots, October 7, 2014, ABC News, https://abcnews.go.com/US/columbine-shootings-grim-legacy-50-school-attacks-plots/story?id=26007119
 Matthew Diebel, Fox news anchor Shepard Smith emotionally lists 25 fatal school shootings since Columbine, February 15, 2018, USATODAY, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2018/02/15/fox-news-anchor-shepard-smith-emotionally-lists-all-25-fatal-school-shootings-since-columbine/340108002/
 Chris Francescani, Mike Levine, M.L. Nestel, Santa Fe High School shooter studied previous mass shootings, acted alone: sources, March 20, 2018, ABC News, https://abcnews.go.com/US/santa-fe-high-school-shooter-studied-previous-mass/story?id=55311862