The Escalation of Toxic Masculinity in the Student Demographic

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The proposed study looks to examine the presence of toxic masculinity in the population of students that are at high risk for the perpetration of rampage school shootings. In a collaboration with Dr. Lori Wolff, Dr. Jennifer Stollman, and doctoral candidates in both the Counseling and School Psychology programs at Fordham, this study will explore the educational, social, and cultural contexts that have been theorized to affect this violence. This study, if supported by a Graduate School of Education (GSE) Proof of Concept & Research Grant, is expected to be completed in 12 months. It utilizes critical theory qualitative research methodology to collaborate with middle school teachers across the country in both urban and suburban settings, collecting letters from and interviewing adolescent participants. Through analysis of several independent accounts, the information may permit us to explore the extent to which contextual factors interact with the pressures and attitudes induced by toxic masculinity that lead to specific pernicious behaviors. This data would provide implications for the development of evidence-based interventions to reduce the effects of toxic masculinity and its role in rampage school shootings, bolster emotional intelligence and self-acceptance for boys, and develop methods for emotional regulation through early intervention as well as educational policy. Expected outcomes of this study include proposals for curriculum and training modules related to toxic masculinity in boys, the publication of findings in scholarly journals, the elaboration of this work into a book manuscript, and the development of a large-scale external research grant proposal to designated government agencies and foundations for funding. Completing this study extends the reach of Fordham’s reputation and lays the groundwork for the development of a groundbreaking study aimed at psychologically combating the prevalence of gun violence through educational institutions with potential benefits to fighting a nationwide epidemic.

Background and Rationale for the Proposed Study

Our study would extend the well-established body of research on adolescent school shooters that identifies gender-specific pressures, attitudes, motivations, and demographic considerations surrounding maleness. While elements of toxic masculinity have been individually addressed and verified in this research, there is little theoretical or empirical integration of these varied factors. We use a minimal definition of toxic masculinity as the detrimental effects of specific attributes that are socially considered to be normatively masculine, such as homophobia, misogyny, performative toughness, and emotionally restrive attitudes (Marasco, 2018). The literature on adolescent school shooters identifies at least three common gender-specific factors that have been largely treated as discrete variables – this grant will be utilized to fund an exploratory study that will examine their interrelation and interaction with the aforementioned contextual dimensions with respect to toxic masculinity. First, the repudiation of feminine emotionality and the construction of a narrative of gendered injustice has been identified as a common attitudinal pattern in these adolescents (O’Toole, 2012). Newman (2004) found that the male shooters she investigated had been victims of bullying or other harassment prior to conducting their shooting rampages. This harassment was experienced as an affront to their rigid self-perception as a boy, leading to a reaction formation towards girls. Second, aggression against females is amongst the most common indirect motivational factors: romantic rejection or outbursts of bigotry have been found to be some of the most common experiences in the pre-rampage period (Farr, 2019). Researchers have already begun to connect the effects of rejection on the motivational factors behind why shooters shoot. “In their study of 15 U.S. shootings (in high school or lower grades), Leary et al. (2003) found that the shooter had experienced a recent rejection by an actual or desired girlfriend in 46% of the cases. Findings from Sommer et al.’s (2014) study of high school and university shootings in 13 countries showed romantic rejection to be a factor in 29.9% of 67 cases. In addition, in her study, Dumitri (2013) found that of 93 shooters primarily below age 30, 76.3% lacked friends, were bullied and had problematic relationships with girls.” Third, females are amongst the most common direct targets of rampage school shootings (Langman, 2017). This brute fact is highlighted in the wake of other recent forms of American mass shootings and misogynistic ideologies.

By investigating the population of students that are at the highest risk for school shootings, we would seek to understand the spectrum presence of these factors in that population. Additionally, we would seek to explore the psychosocial environment of the school, familial dynamics, community and patterns of peer interaction. Demographically school shooters tend to be males, mostly white, around high-school age, and heterosexual (O’Toole, 2012; Agnich 2015). This demographic will guide our sample selection. While most shootings take place at the high school age, Langman (2009) argues that anger and the rampage decision grows over time. We seek to explore what is happening before the critical high school years where the actual perpetration of rampages takes place and would investigate participants in the eighth grade (ages 13-15).

Our construct of toxic masculinity is related to developmental gender role theory. Primary gender role socialization aims to uphold patriarchal codes by requiring men to achieve dominant and aggressive behaviors (Levant et al., 2003). The concept of gender roles is not cast as a biological phenomenon, but rather a psychological and socially constructed set of ideas that are malleable to change (Levant & Wilmer, 2011). According to Katz (1999), men and boys are taught to fear and devalue feminine aspects (attributes such as caring, helping, and being sympathetic), which in turn, leads to the overall devaluation of women. Some males may feel it is necessary to take that devaluation further by attempting to show just how far removed they are from anything considered feminine and participate in activities that will serve to prove their masculinity. Kimmel also notes that “to admit weakness, to admit frailty or fragility is to be seen as a wimp, a sissy, not a real man” (p. 86). The rejection of the feminine leads to the glorification of masculinity. Similar to Katz, Newman (2004) cites characteristics such as power, competition, and the Marlboro Man as examples of the forms of masculinity that boys are expected to exhibit. The embodiment of masculinity can be seen in what may be considered the ultimate in terms of the male body, which may lead to images of bodybuilders, wrestlers, or perhaps an allegedly steroid-aided body of a professional athlete.

Research Purpose and Questions

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Given the contextual contributions to toxic masculinity, this critical theory study aims to deepen our understanding of how toxic masculinity affects boys, the repudiation of feminine emotionality, and behaviors related to “aggression against women” in direct and indirect ways. Informing researchers and practitioners how to identify risk factors and prevention methods to address the epidemic of violence amongst young males. The research questions are: How does toxic boyhood lead to violence in young adults? What factors, interpersonal and contextual, affect the process of becoming radicalized? How can we as a culture combat the system which developed and perpetuates toxic forms of maleness?


Langman (2012) indicated that “rampage school shooters typically reveal their violent intentions through their talk with peers, school assignments, online behavior and/or their interactions with their parents”. Typically they leave a series of signals about their intentions. They will often display a threat of violence, attempt to recruit a peer, or leave warnings to indicate that they are prepared to perpetrate violence. Several rampage school shooters have completed projects and writings about school shootings. The U.S. Secret Service (Vossekuil, Reddy, Fein, Borum, & Modzeleski, 2000) found in 93% of cases, attackers engaged in some “disturbing” behavior preceding the event that concerned peers or teachers. Meloy, J. R., & O’toole, M. E. (2011) found that writing a poem or essay containing homicidal and/or suicidal themes were a common form of this “leakage”. They defined two forms of leakage in writing, that is, a “fixation” or “identification” warning.

Our study will utilize a mixed-methods approach to gather young males’ definitions of maleness.

Data Analyses


This exploratory critical theory study’s findings would likely advance the body of knowledge regarding the interaction between boyhood and masculinity for adolescents, toxic masculinity as a factor of rampage school shootings. The results would shed light on the interplay of masculinity on the devaluation of the feminine and the perpetuation of violence in young adults. Examining masculinity and mental health concerns among young adults through this study will offer implications for the development of evidence-based practice to reduce the effects of toxic masculinity and create interventions to bolster resilience and rejection tolerance. This study constitutes an important step toward meeting one of the major goals our society is facing today: the end of gun violence.

Study’s Relation to a Larger Proposal

This research will be able to help us shift away from negative masculine constructs to promoting a healthy masculine identity in childhood that can influence a ripple effect preventing the expression of violence in adolescence and adulthood (Krug et al., 2002). With this data, we look to fulfill guidelines laid out by the APA 2018, to combat harmful masculinity and violence through deepening our understanding of their connection and developing approaches to prevention. Sustainable prevention will include the formulation of a programs that educate adults on how to create a safe, nurturing, healthy environments, how to teach children how to express and regulate their emotions, ways for educators to identify and treat psychological distress precipitated by gender role socialization (Reidy et al., 2016), and promotion of healthy relationship skills that challenges adolescent’s acceptance of traditional gender role norms and dating violence (Berke & Zeichner, 2016). In totality leading to the publication of a book that will help individuals identify ways that they can contribute to ending toxic masculinity and gun violence on a cultural and systemic level.


  1. Agnich, L. E. (2015). A comparative analysis of attempted and completed school-based mass murder attacks. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 40(1), 1-22.
  2. APA (2018). Harmful masculinity and violence Understanding the connection and approaches to prevention. Retrieved November 5AD, from
  3. Farr, K. (2019). Trouble with the Other: The Role of Romantic Rejection in Rampage School Shootings by Adolescent Males. Violence and Gender.
  4. Langman, P. (2012). School shooters: The warning signs. Forensic Digest, 1-6.
  5. Langman P. (2017). Intended and Targeted Victims. Retrieved from (accessed November 10, 2019).
  6. Meloy, J. R., & O’toole, M. E. (2011). The concept of leakage in threat assessment. Behavioral sciences & the law, 29(4), 513-527.
  7. O’Toole M. (2012, May 22). Injustice collectors and leakage. Psychology Today. Retrieved from blog/criminal-minds/21205injustice-collectors-and-leakage (accessed November 10, 2019).
  8. Vincent M. Marasco (2018). Addressing Hegemonic Masculinity With Adolescent Boys Within the Counseling Relationship, Journal of Child and Adolescent Counseling.
  9. Vossekuil, B., Reddy, M., Fein, R., Borum, R., & Modzeleski, M. (2000). USSS safe school initiative: An interim report on the prevention of targeted violence in schools. Washington, DC: US Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center.       
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