WASHINGTON — A new report by federal law enforcers, released on the third anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre, offers the first comprehensive analysis of violent attacks carried out on college campuses over the past century, finding that more than half have occurred in the last 20 years.
The report released last week combs through public records of 272 incidents of "targeted violence" at colleges since 1900 in search of patterns and trends. Titled "Campus Attacks," the study is a joint effort of the Secret Service, the FBI and the federal Education Department.
Eagerly awaited by college leaders, the publication offers a foundation of research for the discipline of threat assessment, a little-known but growing facet of college administration that seeks to predict and prevent Virginia Tech-style attacks. On April 16, 2007, troubled Tech student Seung Hui Cho, 23, killed 32 and wounded 17, in one of the nation's deadliest killing sprees.
"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, a national authority on threat assessment.
The analysis finds that three-fifths of campus attacks in a 108-year span occurred in the last two decades: 79 attacks in the 1990s, and 83 in the 2000s through 2008. The report attributes the surge to the growing campus population and to expanding coverage in the mass media.
College killings are not an entirely new phenomenon. Researchers found episodes as early as 1909, when a man fatally shot his former girlfriend at her college and then shot himself.
Attacks most often happen in the months of 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 related to intimate relationships. "Retaliation" was the second leading cause, followed by romantic rejection and obsession.
The report stops short of dispensing tips for colleges seeking to profile potential killers. Colleges awaiting such practical help "are going to be left wanting," Spodak said, although federal authorities may publish such guidance in future. The analysis does, however, identify patterns in past attacks that could steer colleges in assessing future threats.
Threat assessment teams shouldn't limit themselves to campus, the report advises, because 20 percent of violent incidents took place off campus. Communication with outside law enforcement "is essential," it states.