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A look at violent attacks on campus

In nearly three-quarters of the incidents of targeted violence on college campuses, the person responsible was targeting a specific person or persons, a federal study says.

"Campus Attacks: Targeted Violence Affecting Institutions of Higher Education," an examination of events from 1900 to 2008, says that in 198 of the 272 incidents, the violence was directed at specific individuals, and in most of those cases, those individuals were the only ones harmed.

The call for such a study came after the Virginia Tech shooting deaths in 2007, when the federal government sought to gather data on targeted violence on college campuses so it could better understand the scope of the problem. In April, the FBI, the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education released their findings. The report defines "targeted violence" as an incident of violence where a known or knowable attacker selects a particular target prior to their violent attack.

As it tries to provide a context for understanding targeted violence at colleges and universities, the report notes that each institution needs to be aware of its unique characteristics and circumstances and prepare itself appropriately.

College campuses "essentially function as mini-societies that must deal with the same types of societal issues found in almost any city or town in the United States," the study says. "Whether the setting is a more traditional campus with distinct boundaries, an urban campus that is interlaced within a larger community, or somewhere in between, most campuses must contend with their own social norms, economy and culture. (Colleges) must then establish an infrastructure capable of providing the necessary services, support and protection to students, staff, and others."

Some of the findings from the 108 years of incidents:


From 1900 through the 1980s, the study found 110 incidents of targeted violence on college campuses. In the 1990s and 2000s, the study found 162 incidents. The reason for the increase in the last 20 years is not clear, but the study suggests that the increase in higher-education enrollment and the increase in reporting and media coverage as possible factors. The data also indicated that incidents of violence occur throughout the year. "Campus safety resources may be required throughout the calendar year, not just during the academic year," the study says.


  • 79 percent occurred on campus
  • 19 percent occurred off campus
  • 2 percent other or undetermined location.


More than 90 percent of the attackers were men, and the age of attackers ranged from 16 to 62.

  • 45 percent of the persons responsible for the violence were students
  • 15 percent were former students
  • 11 percent were current or former employees
  • 20 percent were indirectly affiliated with the targeted school
  • 9 percent had no known affiliation with the school.


Firearms and knives or bladed weapons were used in 75 percent of the attacks. The remaining 25 percent of the incidents involved strangulation, blunt objects, poison, vehicles, explosives, incendiary/arson methods, or physical assaults. Only 3 percent of attacks involved an assailant moving between buildings, and only 4 percent moved to a different location within a building. "Though much attention has been given to the phenomenon of the 'traveling' attacker, in context, it actually is a rare event," the study says.


Motives for attacks generally fell into four categories: related to personal relations, academic performance, workplace issues, and individual stressors. "The most prevalent category identified related to current or former personal relationships between the subject and victim, followed by retaliation for specific actions," the study says. In 73 percent of the incidents, the subject targeted specific victims, and in 79 percent of those cases, the targeted victims were the only ones harmed. In 29 percent of the violent incidents, the attackers had, prior to the attack, directed verbal and written threats, stalking or harassing behaviors, or physically aggressive acts toward their targets.

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