Posts Tagged ‘college campus violence; mass shootings’

Social Exclusion and Violence on College Campuses

GunOn November 4 of 2015 Faisal Mohammad walked into his 8 AM class at the University of California at Merced and attacked his fellow students using a long-bladed hunting knife. Described by his roommate as very socially withdrawn, a document found during the investigation suggested he was seeking revenge for being excluded from a study group. Christopher Harper-Mercer, a student at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, shot and killed his professor and 8 fellow students in his English class on October 1, 2015. Harper-Mercer associated with no one at his school, and was described as an isolate who was frustrated by his inability to connect with others. Elliott Rodger, who shot and killed six people near the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara in 2014, left behind a message that explained, “All I ever wanted was to fit in and live a happy life amongst humanity, but I was cast out and rejected, forced to endure an existence of loneliness and insignificance” (New York Times, 2014).

How could these students turn against their fellow classmates and teachers with such monstrous hostility? There is no simple answer to this question, for such horrific actions spring from a complex of interrelated psychological and interpersonal factors. However, when Mark Leary and his colleagues examined 15 cases of post-1995 shootings in schools in the U.S. they found that these terrible acts of violence were tied together by a common thread: rejection. In most cases the aggressors were individuals who did not belong to any groups or take part in common social activities. They were often described as loners who were not able to sustain any intimate or friendship relations.

Social isolation was a defining condition in the life of Seung Hui Cho, the 23-year-old senior at Virginia Tech, who killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before committing suicide: “Cho lived a life of quiet solitude, extreme quiet and solitude. For all of his 23 years of life the most frequent observation made by anyone about him was that Seung Hui Cho had absolutely no social life. During all of his school years he had no real friends. He had no interest in being with others. In fact, he shied away from other people and seemed to prefer his own company to the company of others” (Dupue, 2007, p. N-3).

Some shooters, such as Cho, were never mistreated by other people, yet they still felt rejected and isolated. In other instances, however, they had been ostracized by others at their schools and were the target of teasing, ridicule, and bullying. These individuals usually chose their targets deliberately, seeking revenge against those who had excluded them. They did not try to blame their behavior on psychological problems, their parents, the media, or the influence of their friends. Nearly all claimed that they had been pushed into violence by a specific group of people who excluded them. Exclusion, by itself, is not associated with behavioral problems in adolescents, but those who are isolated and report “problematic peer encounters” are at risk for a variety of negative outcomes (Kreager, 2004).

Ostracism was not the sole cause of these incidents. In nearly all cases aggressors had a history of psychological problems, although the severity of their troubles was often unrecognized. They were also often preoccupied with violence and death, and were interested in guns and weapons in general. Exclusion, however, was a key social factor in most cases. The harm that these individuals have wrought cannot be undone, but their actions serve as a reminder that our desire to join with others in groups can, when thwarted, unbalance the mind.


Dupue, R. L. (2007). A theoretical profile of Seung Hui Cho: From the perspective of a forensic behavioral scientist. In Mass shootings at Virginia Tech: Report of the review panel. Retrieved from

Kreager, D. (2004). Strangers in the halls: Isolation and delinquency in school networks. Social Forces, 83, 351–390.

Leary, M. R., Kowalski, R. M., Smith, L., & Phillips, S. (2003). Teasing, rejection, and violence: Case studies of the school shootings. Aggressive Behavior, 29, 202–214.

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