Differential Association Theory Analysis of the Colorado High School Shooting

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On the day of May 07, 2019, a shooting happened in a Colorado high school. According to Cable Net Network, STEM School Highlands Ranch High School was targeted by 18 year old Devon Erickson and a minor named Samantha Doe. Around 2 pm, both shooters entered the school and proceeded to shoot. One 18 year old male student tried to stop the shooters, but was killed. Killing one student and injuring eight more. The eight injured during the shooting were around the ages of 15-18. As soon as the shots rang out, the school began to notify the authorities. When police officials made it to the school, they proceeded to enter and engage the two suspects. While struggling with the shooters, police managed to take them into custody without inflicting any injuries.

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The theory that fits this crime would be Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory. Due to the reason that this theory that Sutherland introduced, proposes that an individual gains their criminal values/behaviors from those around them. Not from media, but from those that the are around the criminal. An example of this would be people such as peers or family. This theory tells that if a person were to affiliate with a crime oriented individual, they will learn from them and will end up taking the same crime course as them. According to Sutherland, crime is learned when a crime-oriented person shares their methods of crimes to one. Showing the person in question, that breaking the law is fun. This theory is based purely on social interaction and learning.

According to, “Race, Family Structure, and Delinquency: A Test of Differential Association and Social Controls Theories,” by Ross L. Matsueda and Karen Heimer says that broken homes can influence delinquency among people of color and white people. In this article it shows that social interaction does play a role in a person’s life. It shows states that without proper social interactions by family or peers, one may become more likely to commit crimes. A quote from the article says, “The important point is that for both blacks and nonblacks, structural variables such as broken homes and neighborhood organization affect delinquency by influencing the dynamic process of learning definitions favorable and unfavorable to crime.” (Matsueda & Heimer, 1987, p. 827). Meaning the more damaged one’s home life is, the more likely they are willing to turn to crime. It shows that those who come from a dysfunctional background, resort to crime as a way to cope with the reality. It makes them not care about the consequences, and it makes them want to do more bad than good.

Compared with those that have a much better functioning family or peers, are more likely to think before they commit a crime. The reason for this is that the person thinking of committing the crime is considering how their family/peers may react to their unlawful acts. It causes doubt, and makes them contemplate on whether or not it is worth it. A quote to show this, “Attachment to others dissuades persons from delinquency through moral process… Because only a single moral order exists, the reaction will always be negative… The greater the investment, the less likely the person will jeopardize it by violating the law.” (Matsueda & Heimer, 1987, p. 828). The article tells that if one is to have a meaningful interaction to those around them, then the likely of them committing a crime will decrease. This is due to the fear of losing everything they worked so hard to get, the trust of people, their social network, etc. That thought is strong enough to make people really think about their choices. To weigh out the pro’s vs. the con’s of doing something bad.

Another source that can back up this theory would be, “An Empirical Test of Differential Association Theory*,” by Albert J. Reiss, Jr., and A. Lewis Rhodes. For instance; in this quote, “The probability of an individual committing a specific kind of delinquent act depends upon the commission of the act by other members of the friendship triad.” (Reiss & Rhodes, 1964, p.12). Meaning that it does have the same assumption Sutherland said in his Differential Association Theory. That with another person there to break the law, another person will follow in suit.

This scholarly journal, “Causes of School Bullying: Empirical Test of a General Theory of Crime, Differential Association Theory, and General Strain Theory,” by Byongook Moon, Hye-Won Hwang and John D. McCluskey also helps in supporting this theory with people who associate with delinquent peers. To illustrate, in the journal it says, “…, several studies have examined the relationship between delinquent peer association, attitude toward violence and bullying… results indicate that juveniles who associate with bullies and/or report positive attitudes toward the use of violence are more likely to engage in bullying.” (Moon, Hwang, & McCluskey, 2008, p. 254). What this article is trying to portray is the idea that if one was to be in connections with a delinquent who bullies, they will gain an accepting attitude towards the delinquent’s actions. Making them also join in on the bullying, instead of stopping it. Which would them cause them to show that side to another person. Who would then repeat.

Sutherland would explain that Devon Erickson and Samantha Doe committed this crime due to social interactions of people close to them. That Erickson and Doe learned this through social interaction. Erickson most likely grew up in a broken household, where his parents would constantly be fighting or neglecting him. Which most likely resulted in him learning to be a quiet boy at home, making him bottle up his anger and anguish inside of him. However; once Erickson entered school he would target people weaker than him to ventilate his frustration, just like his parents do. By doing this, Erickson would also show his peers that what he is doing is something good, making others want to engage in the same activity he is doing.

Showing a point to Sutherland’s theory, it’s one big cycle that will continue to the next person. The next person in this scenario is Samantha Doe, the minor who helped Erickson shoot up the school. Although little is known about this person, it could be assumed that Erickson and Doe must have been close. Close enough for Erickson to make Doe help him shoot up the school. Since Erickson was the older one in the duo, it can be assumed that he was the one that was able to convince Doe into the scheme. Just like in Sutherland’s theory, Erickson was able to have social interaction with Doe, and teach him that breaking the laws are a good thing. Erickson most likely showed Doe that it was okay to bully someone in order to get rid of their frustrations. Which then progresses to talking about shooting up the school, since they hate their lives and want something to do. And what better way to than to do something that has been on a trend in America for the past couple years.

Samantha Doe on the other hand, was a close friend to Erickson. Doe was most likely influenced by Erickson’s negative behavior and proceeded to follow in his footsteps. Just like Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory, Erickson was the influence for Doe to join him in shooting up their high school. Especially since Erickson is the older one between the two, it would have been much easier for Doe to be influenced by the older Erickson. Making it seem as if Doe did not have a choice in the matter. Just like Sutherland argued in a different part of his theory, people don’t have a choice in the decision.

Their choice is solely based on their social interaction. That’s what could have happened to Doe. Someone who didn’t have many friends, and had issues at home. Doe didn’t have many people to lean to and due to his issues at home, he was able to befriend Erickson. Who, was able to talk to Doe. Who, was able to convince Doe to shoot up the school with him. Leading to their current situation, in the custody of the authorities and with the blood of innocent people on their hands.

Reference Page

  1. Jones, S., & Simon, D. (2019, May 08). Suspect in Denver area school shooting identified. Retrieved May 29, 2019, from
  2. Matsueda, R., & Heimer, K. (1987). Race, Family Structure, and Delinquency: A Test of Differential Association and Social Control Theories. American Sociological Review, 52(6), 826-840. Retrieved from
  3. Moon, B., Hwang, H.-W., & McCluskey, J. D. (2011). Causes of School Bullying: Empirical Test of a General Theory of Crime, Differential Association Theory, and General Strain Theory. Crime & Delinquency, 57(6), 849–877.
  4. Reiss Jr, A. J., & Rhodes, A. L. (1964). An empirical test of differential association theory. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 1(1), 5-18.

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