skip to main content
Public Continues to Believe a Variety of Factors Caused Littleton

Public Continues to Believe a Variety of Factors Caused Littleton

Parents and family issues top the list


An enormous amount of energy has been expended since the tragic events of April 20 in Littleton, Colorado, attempting to disentangle both the tragedy's causes and ways in which similar events can be prevented in the future.

The White House youth violence summit held this past Monday laid a foundation for a national campaign against youth violence, and plans were made to conduct a study of the causes of such violence. Representatives at the meeting discussed a wide variety of possible causes, including guns, violence in movies, lack of parental responsibility, lack of religious faith, the Internet, and so forth.

The American public, an analysis of Gallup poll data suggests, has similar tendencies to recognize that there are a number of causes of youth violence, and therefore a number of possible remedies that will be necessary to avoid a repetition of such events in the future.

A Gallup poll conducted this past weekend, for example, included a question that asked Americans to identify, in their own words, the single most important thing that could be done to prevent another incidence of school shootings by students. The responses varied widely. The top three responses were:

  • More parental involvement and parent responsibility: 32% of Americans chose this, making it the number one response
  • More security at schools, chosen by 16% of Americans
  • Better gun control, mentioned by 12% of Americans

Additionally, 6% of the public mentioned hiring more counselors and an additional 6% mentioned the lifting of laws on disciplining children, while controlling media violence and better communication among parents, students and teachers were each mentioned by 4%.

There are interesting differences in these answers based on the ages of the respondents. Almost no 18-29 year olds, the youngest group included in the survey, mentioned the lifting of laws preventing discipline of children as a remedy, compared to 11% of those 65 and older. On the other hand, young people were much more likely to mention better security at schools (as many, in fact, as mentioned parental responsibility).

Coming at the issue in a slightly different way, this past weekend's Gallup poll also asked Americans to rate the importance of each of 13 specific possible causes of increased violence in the nation's public schools. The items had originally been rated in a poll conducted by Gallup for Phi Delta Kappa, the national educational society, in 1994.

The survey revealed the following rank order of the 13 potential causes:

  % saying "very important" in causing school violence
1.Breakdown of the American family 76%
2. Increased use of drugs and alcohol among school-aged youth 74
3. Easy availability of weapons including guns and knives 72
4. Growth of youth gangs 71
5. Schools not having the authority to discipline that they once had 69
6. Inability of school staff to resolve conflicts between students 64
7. Increased portrayal of violence in media (especially in movies and on TV) 62
8. Trying to deal with troubled or emotionally disturbed students in the regular classroom instead of in special classes or schools 61
9. Shortages of school personnel 55
10. Cutbacks in many school support programs 54
11. A school curriculum that is out of touch with the needs of today's students 50
12. Increased cultural, racial and ethnic diversity among the public school student population 41
13. Increased poverty among parents 39

One notable factor in this list is the relatively low priority given by Americans to the portrayal of violence in the media. Previous Gallup polling has indicated that Americans are quite willing to agree that such media portrayals may lead to real-life violence, but this measure shows that other factors are considered even more important as causes of school violence. For example, although six out of ten Americans agreed that media violence may be an important cause of events such as Littleton, up to three-quarters of those interviewed agreed that the breakdown in the American family is a very important cause.

Americans who are 18-29 are closest in age to high school students, and in some ways may have the best perspective on the causes of school violence. The table below compares 18-29-year-olds' ratings of these causes with the ratings of the oldest group in the survey, those 65 and older.

  % saying "very important" in causing school violence
  18-29 65+ Difference
Shortages of school personnel 56% 50% +6%
Cutbacks in school support programs 55 51 +4
Increased diversity among students 41 42 -1
Increased poverty among parents 34 36 -2
Easy availability of weapons 74 79 -5
Breakdown of family 75 81 -6
Out-of-touch school curriculum 52 59 -7
Mainstreaming troubled students 58 68 -10
Inability of schools to resolve conflicts 59 72 -13
Growth of youth gangs 64 78 -14
Increased use of drugs and alcohol 65 83 -18
Schools don't have authority to discipline 56 86 -30
Violence in media 45 77 -32

The biggest differences occur in terms of two of the causes in the list: the impact of violence in the media, and schools not having the authority to discipline. Young people are much less likely than older Americans to feel that these are important causes of incidents like Littleton. On the other hand, those most recently in high school are more likely than those 65 and over to blame two dimensions related to the schools themselves: shortages in school personnel, and cutbacks in school support programs.

A separate question included in this past weekend's survey asked directly if the depiction of violence in popular entertainment is a cause of violence among young people. Although 62% of all Americans agreed, there were again enormous differences between young and old: only 43% of those 18-29 agreed, a percentage that jumps to 63% among those 30-49 and 79% among those 65 and above.

Some of the controversy surrounding media portrayals of violence concerns what should be done about it. Vice presidential spouse Tipper Gore, for example, has argued that voluntary attempts to control the content of media will work better than official government regulation. Media moguls in Hollywood, as well, tend to resist any thought of government regulation. The public's response to this issue depends on the way in which it is framed. Gallup poll questioning that asks only about the need for government regulation as a way of controlling violence finds majority support for such regulation of the Internet, video games and television. This past weekend, on the other hand, a question was asked of the public that juxtaposed two alternatives: increased protests, including boycotts and other voluntary actions by citizens, versus increased government regulation. Given this choice, the public comes down in favor of voluntary actions, by a 55% to 36% margin.

For results based on the sample of national adults (N=1,025) surveyed May 7-9, 1999, the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

In your opinion, what is the single most important thing that could be done to prevent another incidence of school shootings by students, like the one in Littleton?

Parental involvement/responsibility 32%
More security at schools 16
Better gun control/laws/issues 12
More counselors/counseling/teachers 6
Lift laws on disciplining children 6
Control media violence/video games/Internet 4
Better communication/students/parents/teachers 4
Raise morals/people's standards 3
Better education/students/parentsxt 3
Put prayer back in school/home 3
Stricter punishment of children/laws 2
Dress codes/uniforms 1
Other 4
None 1
All *
No opinion 3

* less than 0.5%

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030