In November 1998, two months after joining the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, my first big story was reporting on a school shooting plot at the high school in Burlington, a city of 10,000 residents 40 miles southwest of Milwaukee.

A tip to police led to arrests, stopping students who had planned to kill certain classmates and staff.

It all seemed a bit surreal.

Five months later, I was sent to cover the landmark school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, a city of 40,000 residents in Colorado. Two students killed 13 people — including a 16-year-old John Tomlin, who had spent most of his childhood in Wisconsin — then themselves.

I wrote that, while covering John’s funeral, less than a year after the birth of my daughter, I shed tears on the job for the first time in 15 years as a reporter.

On Wednesday, authorities said police shot and killed a student armed with a weapon outside of the middle school in Mount Horeb, 20 miles southwest of Madison. Affectionately known as “the troll capital of the world,” the village has about 8,000 residents.

News reports identified the student as Damian Haglund, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at the school. ABC News, quoting sources, said he had what appeared to be a long gun. But authorities have released few other details. 

What is clear about school shootings in the U.S. is that, despite feelings of, “I never thought it could happen here,” the worst incidents frequently occur in smaller towns.

Worst school shootings often in smaller towns

Since 1988, the overwhelming majority of U.S. mass school shootings — defined as at least four people shot and at least two killed — have occurred in rural or suburban locations, typically by white male teenagers, said Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox.

“The copycat effect is strongest when there is similarity with the role model,” he said.

According to his data, since 2014, there have been mass school shootings in larger cities such as Nashville, St. Louis and Santa Clarita, California. But six occurred in smaller communities: Uvalde, Texas (15,000); Oxford Township, Michigan (22,000); Santa Fe, Texas (13,000); Parkland, Florida (37,000); Benton, Kentucky (5,000); and Marysville, Washington (72,000).

Eight of the 10 deadliest U.S. school shootings since 1966 happened in communities with a population of less than 50,000, according to researcher David Riedman, founder of the K-12 School Shooting Database.

“What 60 years of these incidents shows is that students of all ages, all different demographics, all different backgrounds, all different levels of academic performance, have committed these attacks,” Riedman said. “So, people in every community need to be mindful of the warning signs.”

He said those include people threatening to hurt themselves or others, or sharing plans or manifestos on social media.

Since Columbine, according to Riedman’s data, 59 school shootings have occurred where four or more people were wounded. 

There have also been 272 “near-misses” — incidents without injuries or deaths, or a shooting with victims killed or injured that had the potential to be much worse.

The Mount Horeb near-miss had similarities to a deadly school shooting in January at Perry High School in Iowa. Perry, 40 miles northwest of Des Moines, also has a population of 8,000. In that incident, a 17-year-old student killed one student and wounded six others. Also wounded was the school principal, who died 10 days later.

It’s worth noting that mass killings occur in private homes much more often than in schools or other public settings, according to Fox.

How Mount Horeb has reacted

Mount Horeb School Board member Adam Mertz, a 25-year resident of the village, heard about the incident in his community in a phone call from his daughter, Siobhan, a junior at the high school, which is across the street from the middle school. 

The schools were locked down into the evening partly over concerns about whether there was an ongoing threat, he said.

“You are shocked, saddened, but not surprised — which is a sad reaction,” Mertz said. “But we spent what we had always hoped was an inordinate amount of time as a board discussing safety measures.” 

Those included putting in place secured entrances, shatterproof glass, a school resource officer, equipment upgrades to enhance police communication inside schools and mental health programs for students.

Two people hug as people gather on grass under a blue sky.
People gather at a site designated for parent and student reunifications following a report of an armed person outside Mount Horeb Middle School in Mount Horeb, Wis., on Wednesday, May 1, 2024. (John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal)

“I think that there is an enormous sense of relief” in the community, Mertz said. “There is enormous pride in the work that our teachers and administrators and police did (Wednesday), and I’ve heard nothing but glowing reaction about how the students handled this whole situation. Everyone did everything they were supposed to do in a situation like this, and that helped prevent us from becoming one of those names.”

There are also thoughts about the student who was killed.

“Because there weren’t additional casualties, I think that a lot of people are placing their focus on the young man who was so distraught that he felt like this was his best option, even after being confronted by police,” Mertz said. 

“I know that that’s tearing apart a lot of people who have just worked tirelessly to elevate mental health as something to care about. To feel like you weren’t able to reach this kid when he clearly needed someone to talk to, I know that that’s weighing on people.”

This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.