From Columbine to Newtown
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.