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From Columbine to Newtown

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Almost two years have passed since the kindergarten massacre in Newtown, CT, and now that all the hype has settled and the horrific event is fading into memory, I decided to collect all my thoughts about school shootings in one place. See what you think:

Soon after the Columbine massacre I published an emotional essay called “The Teachings of Tragedy,” in which I implored us all to dig beneath the media hype and the obvious causes of school shootings until we grasp the deeper reasons why they keep happening. Because only then can we stop this gut wrenching form of child-on-child violence.

Thirteen years and scores of such tragedies later, clearly we’re still not getting the message.

A bizarre coincidence had moved me to write about Columbine: I happened to be visiting a neighboring high school only four miles from the scene of the massacre right when it was going down. And as irony would have it, the Jefferson County Open School turned out to have little in common with Columbine High other than both being publicly funded.

Long story short, it gradually occurred to me in the ensuing weeks that I had spent the day in a kind of school where a murderous rampage would never occur. At the time I based my claim mainly on my intuition as a teacher and a parent. I saw the Columbine perpetrators as deeply alienated and disturbed young men who had left a long trail of warning signals. Their affluent homes lacked intimacy. Their school was a factory-like, clique-infested place where the air crackled with tense competition for social status and acceptances to high-prestige colleges. It was easy to wind up alone in the crowd.

Not so at JCOS, which serves 250 high schoolers compared to Columbine’s 1,500 and operates according to a very different educational model.

JCOS students substantively participate in designing their own individualized curriculum, for example, and also in assessing their own performance and governing the school. Learning is interest-driven and ungraded. It involves self-motivation and self-direction, and is entirely non-competitive. Students meet weekly with an adviser to discuss personal as well as academic matters. Because power, responsibility, and initiative are shared at JCOS, teachers are able to serve as facilitators and mentors instead of taskmasters and managers.

Thus it should be no surprise that by mid-afternoon on that fateful day a group of seniors had already organized a large impromptu meeting so that students and faculty could brainstorm how they might support their fellows at Columbine in the aftermath of the tragedy. It was a moving demonstration of the students’ sense of empowerment and belonging.

Perhaps I should add there was no sign of any cliques. What I did observe was a school in which young persons suffering the desperate pain that caused the Columbine perpetrators to go berserk would not go unnoticed. Teachers would give them the attention they are crying out for long before it comes to mayhem, and the administration would bring the parents into the circle so that school and home could work together to make things better. Their friends would speak up too, trusting the adults at school to intervene in the right ways.

The almost unimaginable slaughter at Sandy Hook in Newtown led me to revisit the school shooting problem, albeit less as an emotional bystander and more as a researcher this time. I poured over reams of studies and statistics, and read numerous books on the subject along with the writings of the perpetrators. One document in particular caught my attention, a 2000 FBI report beginning with the premise that “The roots of a violent act are multiple, intricate, and intertwined.” Accordingly, FBI profilers determined after carefully sifting through the details of 18 school shootings that they are caused by a deadly combination of dysfunctional personal, family, school, and societal dynamics.

The report’s analysis of dysfunctional school culture is especially salient because, according to educator and author Joseph A. Lieberman in his recent book School Shootings—written in conjunction with a family psychologist who works with suicidal teens, school shooters are going to the source of their pain to express it. Moreover, according to Jessie Klein, a sociologist who has also extensively studied and written about the problem, the new reality is that school tends to be a young person’s only face-to-face social space. The convergence of these two factors greatly magnifies the role of school in school shootings.

Among the dysfunctional school patterns the FBI found were:

  • Inflexibility and insensitivity to students’ needs.
  • The promotion of race and class divisions and a pecking order among students caused by elevating the status of certain groups over others.
  • A blind eye toward bullying.
  • A student code of silence resulting from the lack of trust between students and staff.
  • Ignoring student “detachment” from school.

The FBI’s recognition of the significance of school culture is laudable, and yet the question remains why the frequency of school shootings continues to rise. The answer, in part, is because no one is talking about how the dysfunctional elements identified by the FBI are locked in place by deep structural roots. For instance, the educational model itself is rigidly standardized by design. It focuses almost exclusively on intellectual performance and assigns little value to social and emotional development. It is based on graded competition and the adherence to tightly defined norms, and nonconformists are labeled as problematic. It forces teachers to play authoritarian roles and grants students little say in their education or in school affairs, both of which sow distrust between students and teachers.

And student detachment has a very simple structural cause: excessive school size. My own analysis of school shootings involving mass, random casualties revealed that all except one, which happened in a middle school, took place in high schools at least as big as Columbine. Here it’s also worth noting that the perpetrators of the Virginia Tech, Colorado movie theater, and Sandy Hook massacres had all recently attended large, affluent, highly competitive high schools. When a school has too many students, some of them will inevitably fall between the cracks.

The bottom line is this: As long as the national response to school shootings ignores their root causes and focuses instead on intensifying efforts to deal with the problem at the back end—stricter gun laws, armed guards in every school, bulletproof entryways, etc.—the crisis is not going to go away.

What is being called for ever so urgently is the transformation of our schools from social and academic Colosseums for competing students into caring communities of cooperating human beings. Is this the solution to school shootings? No, as the FBI correctly noted, multiple factors must be addressed. But we’ll never know how much difference it will make until we try.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Arnold Greenberg #

    You nailed it Chris. There’s no question that the negative, competitive, prescribed curriculum is the antithesis of what would be a healthier learning environment. Emerson said, “The purpose of education is to teach how to live, not how to make a living.” One of the places to start the transformation of schools is to ask what kinds of students do we want to see graduate, what qualities do we want to foster and let those kinds of questions determine what our approach to educating will be? For me, there are two essential questions. What does it mean to be an educated person? What does it mean to be human in a computerized, technoligical world? One of the biggest obstacles to change is fear. It seems that most teachers and administrators in traditional schools are afraid of the kids, afraid of losing control, afraid of noise and afraid their students won’t do well on the mandated tests, so they keep the lid on. This leads to what you describe as some of the central causes for our “dangerous” schools. Thanks for the research you did to support your intuitive knowledge.

    November 9, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Thanks for that great Emerson quote, Arnold.

      You know I once wrote a magazine column entitled “Educating Children in a World of Violence.” I think it’s time for a sequel — “Educating Kids in a World of Fear.”

      November 11, 2013
  2. You’ve offered a brilliant analysis of the conundrum faced in our society once again. You are batting 100% on the issues and on the causes of this particular problem. I’ve got to go just one step further and suggest for the millionth time, that the conditions you describe and the authoritarian climate that yields the competition, alienation, frustration, etc., etc., are inevitable under compulsory attendance laws. The small school you describe with the free atmosphere is a token to release some pressure and allow people to have hope that, in time, the example set will be adopted around the country on a large scale. That is a false hope that leads to more apathy and more of the same procrastination. Working around the edges, taking baby steps and pulling punches aren’t the way to solve a national crisis that has reached such proportions. Super-sized attempts with wide publicity aimed at ending bullying gives us a good example. The problem isn’t going away no matter how many resources they throw at it, and if it did, there would be a bigger problem in its place. Ending compulsory attendance laws looms as an extreme and impossible measure with frightening unknowns. Yet, how much worse can it get? The laws set the stage for all that goes after. As long as they exist and determine relationships, the plays will always have the same themes, plots and storylines. We can all agree on principles, theories and concepts about education, but when relationships are defined and certain dynamics are built into the framework of institutions, effective long-term or large-scale change simply isn’t going to happen. It’s truly a matter of life and death and sparing lives is worth doing whatever it takes.

    November 9, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Incredibly well said, Barry. But you know what they say about shooting the messenger. It’s not easy being the one who keeps shining the light on the core long-term causes of a problem that everyone else now considers normal and beyond question. For most of us, the compulsory education law has become like the water the fish is swimming in, which then keeps us from looking at the ripples that emanate from a nation forcing its children under the threat of imprisonment to attend schools that are to one extent or another controlled by the government.

      Long live the Lorax!

      November 11, 2013
  3. I vividly recall one of my daydreams when I was in second grade – in 1985. It was a dramatic movie trailer: “a second-grader . . . with a gun!” featuring myself terrorizing the school in retribution. I went to affluent schools proud of their high standards.
    One of the lessons that stuck the deepest and longest came in third grade, after I finished an art project. I was proud of having finished something, because I had had trouble all year with not getting assignments done – and that was because I didn’t see the point in them, in fact they interfered with my enjoyment of learning. This led to an ongoing clash between my conscience and their will, illustrated by this episode. I finished this cute paper mouse, and then I brought it to my teacher.
    She told me – quite gently, I emphasize – that I should have taken care of my backlog of unfinished assignments first. You see, this art project was only for those who had done their serious work: I think this is commonly called “positive reinforcement?” The logic that meted out such favors on such conditions could not tolerate my transgression, so my teacher was obliged to turn my pride of accomplishment to shame. I repeat: she broke it to me as gently as she could, but shame me she did.
    Over the years, my recalcitrance cost me many privileges, alarmed my parents, saddened those teachers who formed attachments to me, and gave others license to treat me harshly. A defining moment from junior high: the principal’s iron hand on my arm, pulling me through the hallway while her shrill voice berated me for having the nerve to sign up for Students Against Doing Drugs in my free hour when I had so many overdue assignments! I look at her smile in my yearbook and can’t believe she ever wished to be such a terror to the young. But what and who she was in her personal life had no bearing on mine when she put her faith in the same behaviorist doctrine that had compelled my third grade teacher to trash my triumph. Once again, my refusal to do the assigned work constituted a transgressive threat against what was practically a religion, and so its priesthood felt duty-bound to punish me.
    I was a curious boy who loved to learn, but I was a troublemaker because I wouldn’t do homework. Nor would I stop reading: I got a lot of my education in defiance of the workload, straying from the assigned stories in the textbook to devour the whole thing, and sneaking paperbacks in the classroom like contraband.
    My teachers’ attachment to their mechanisms of homework and grades too often blinded them from seeing how joyfully I absorbed knowledge, and that poisoned whatever concern they expressed for me as they gave me my bad grades. “I sit on a man’s back,” wrote Leo Tolstoy, “choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means — except by getting off his back.”
    I pity my junior high principal, but never have I wasted a shred of gratitude on her attempts to correct me. I owe none of my life’s successes to her, nor to the faith that claimed her allegiance. It blinded her, a human being, to an empathic connection with other human beings; it made her, a human being deserving of love and respect like all of us, into a purveyor of nightmares. Together with those pitying teachers, they at last convinced me that I was a lazy boy who was bad at finishing what I started, and that my dreams were frivolous. That has taken years to unlearn.
    This isn’t even mentioning the derision my love of learning drew from the other children, who learned to play the school game better than I did. As early as first grade the slots in the pecking order were taken, I fantasized about taking violent revenge all throughout elementary school and beyond. In high school I told a gym teacher I wanted to kill everyone in the school. Thankfully all this was before Columbine, or they probably would have called the cops on me, which would only have made it worse.
    One of the defining traits they give to bullying is an inequality of power. They fail to admit that the conventional school experience rests on a consistently enforced inequality of power: adults over children. As long as that prevails, children will bully and commit other violent acts, because they’re following the example that they’re given.

    November 11, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Thanks for sharing your poignant personal story, Charles. It provides such a powerful set of illustrations for the theoretical points I was trying to make.

      November 14, 2013
  4. Great article. I especially find your use of the FBI research findings interesting as they come up with the same list of factors that I have explored in my PhD research on school violence. I would say that we shouldn’t stop at school size when looking for core reasons for violence though. School size is surely a factor and in larger schools there is much more likelihood of the individual student feeling alienated. But I think the real questions that we need to be asking are: ‘What is it that we as humans have been doing throughout history to repeatedly create and reproduce hierarchical, instrumental and rigid structures that clearly do not meet the holistic and diverse needs of individuals people?’ I think you’re right to say that the problems are very deeply and structurally ingrained. But who created these structures and who perpetuates them? Us! So whilst recognising the power of structure, we must also look at the psychological, epistemological and social behaviours and trends that create and perpetuate these structures. I personally think there are three steps to the root of the problem: 1. We experience fear, anxiety, threatenedness etc. in the face of a world that we cannot fully understand or control. In an attempt to quell these feelings we create ideologies that provide us with a sense of ‘ultimate truth’, and as a result quell our anxiety somewhat. 2. We affirm and collectivise around these ideologies (be it capitalism, socialism, scientism, technicism, religion etc. etc.) and form our social relations and sense of personal identity within this ideological sphere. As a result we are very emotionally invested in the ideology and also face fear of rejection and being ostracised if we ‘do differently’. Thus the ideology perpetuates. 3. People are born and grow up within these ideological social and institutional environments and either a). agree with the ideology and perpetuate it accordingly. b). Internalise it and perpetuate it accordingly. c). don’t agree but unwillingly go along with it because doing differently is either impractical or scary. d.) Suffer from not having their needs fully met and develop psychological and emotional problems and act in destructive ways in response to the ‘bad social circumstance’. Finally a few people actively disagree and try to act to make genuine change – but this is very difficult in a world in which all of our social institutions and cultural norms are cut through with ideology. I do believe that change is possible but I don’t think it will happen until we really do begin to understand the deepest roots of its causes – and that means understanding why we create ideology and coming to terms with being open enough to our thoughts and emotions, as well as self-aware enough that we can consciously work NOT to recreate and perpetuate one ideology after another as we have done throughout history. For me this is where the heart of the problem of school shootings lies. These are young people who have experienced the core of institutionally embedded ideology that comes not only from the school but from society and human history as a whole… they are responding to a very bad social circumstance that just can’t meet their needs in its current form.

    November 16, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      This is a really insightful analysis, Beth, the way you put the power and purpose of ideologies at the base of the chain of causes.

      December 2, 2013

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