Commentary | Media ignores gender violence in school shootings

From Columbine to Dawson College, news reports of school shootings, time and again, have detailed the actions of the gunman or gunmen, as it is rarely women who pull the trigger.

The stories told by the media generally explain these crimes the same way – either by suggesting the perpetrators’ actions were influenced by violent television and video games, or by blaming mental conditions or a difficult upbringing.

The common thread of their masculinity is rendered invisible by its constant presence, and perhaps rightfully so, as it is certainly not their masculinity alone that leads them to commit such acts. But the gendered nature of school violence has, in several cases, reached beyond the gender of the perpetrators.

On October 2, 2006, a 32-year- old male truck driver walked into a one-room schoolhouse in the small, Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Armed with a shotgun as well as a handgun, he lined students against the chalkboard and released the male students, but kept the female adults present.

After barricading the door, all of the ten remaining girls were shot. Five died. The gunman then killed himself.

Less than a week earlier, on September 27, 2006, a man entered Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colorado, fired a warning shot, let the male students go, and kept six female students in the classroom.

He sexually assaulted some of the six girls, eventually letting four leave one-by-one. When the police stormed the room, he shot and fatally wounded one of the remaining girls, then killed himself.

As I came across these stories of violence against women in the newspapers, I remember being astounded to see that there was little coverage of either of these events as hate crimes against women.

For days, full pages in notable newspapers were dedicated to explaining aspects of the Amish lifestyle of the girls killed in Nickel Mines, or to discussing these events as indicators of the need for increased safety precautions to be taken in schools. Nowhere, it seemed, was there coverage discussing how these events targeted women specifically.

Reading the press coverage following these events, I felt like I was the only one who noticed. I wasn’t.

Fuelled by a feminist blogosphere, and the desperate pleas of feminist organizations like the National Organization for Women, eventually, some press emerged to articulate that these acts of violence were not random, but targeted women.

The Christian Science Monitor published an article identifying the gendered nature of the crime in Nickel Mines.

The New York Times’ Bob Herbert wrote an excellent piece published on October 16, 2006 that linked both the crimes in Nickel Mines and in Bailey to a broader culture of misogyny where the degradation of women is so pervasive that “the startling aspect of the Pennsylvania attack” in which boys were sent out of the classroom “was that this terrible thing happened at a school in Amish country, not that it happened to girls.”

What is most interesting for me as a Canadian feminist was that, particularly in the Canadian press, there was no mention of how these school shootings might be understood in relation to the 1989 Montreal Massacre, when Marc Lepine stormed Montreal’s École Polytechnique with a gun, separated the men from the women, and killed 14 women – all under the claim that he was “fighting feminism.”

In all three events, a man external to the school explicitly targeted women therein, made the male students leave, and attacked the remaining female students.

The explicit targeting of women in the Montreal Massacre caused a definitive outcry, both by feminist groups and the media regarding the event as symbolic of the larger need to combat the pervasive nature of violence against women.

By choosing to present certain stories in certain ways, the media effectively constructs, to a certain extent, public consciousness of certain events. It logically follows that in doing so, the media plays a large role in how the public may remember these same events.

In the case of the Montreal Massacre, as the related press demonstrates, those framing the story in the media often identified the event as one of misogyny, articulating how the Massacre might be understood as one extreme within a broadly experienced spectrum of violence against women.

Framed as a symbol of misogyny by the press, then, the Montreal Massacre has been remembered as an instance of violence against women, emblematic of other instances of violence against women, remembered widely at vigils every December 6, and for some of us, in the many days between.

However, the failure of the press to identify these most recent female-targeted school shootings as acts of violence against women, then, has impeded on the ability of the public to remember said events as violence against women.

When these events are not articulated as acts of violence against women by the press, and are instead, discussed in terms of Amish lifestyles, or the pathology of the killer, the common thread of women as constant targets that runs between them is, like the masculinity of the perpetrators, rendered invisible.

The insidious and unremitting character of violence against women evident in these school shootings is therefore presented as random, rather than specifically gendered.

In telling the story of these shootings, the press did not tell the story of the inherent misogyny that these events entailed. As a result, the fight to end violence against women is denied another opportunity to rally support.

What does it say about our society, when such unambiguous violence against women fails to be identified as such? What message do we, as consumers of mass media, get when the gender of the victims in two separate school shootings explicitly targeting female students is barely mentioned?

Perhaps Bob Herbert said it best, writing that the outrage and the naming of the event as a hate crime that might have occurred if the same event had targeted “only the black kids…or the white kids…or the Jews,” did not, because “these were just girls, and we have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that violence against females is more or less to be expected.”

Although a school shooting explicitly targeting women has not occurred since Nickel Mines in October, 2006, innumerable instances of domestic violence and of sexual assault continue to occur each day.

Has something changed in the 20 years since the Montreal Massacre that has rendered the press unable to tell it like it is? Or has the level of violence been so great for so long that it is no longer worthy of mention when it is women in the line of fire?

The instances of the shootings in Nickel Mines and Bailey are then, in their own way, symbolic.

These events represent, for me, the way that the media has failed women by allowing the misogyny rife in these acts of violence to go unnoticed, and as such, to enable it to continue, unnamed and unidentified by the media and consequently, unseen by the public.