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March 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 6

Failing at Kindness: Why Fear of Violence Endangers Children

Education, not retribution, should guide schools' responses to school violence. At the same time, schools must address the social and cultural issues that afflict our larger society.

When a boy from an affluent Georgia suburb shot six fellow students in spring 1999, a reporter labeled his actions "a desperate cry for attention" (Pilcher, 1999c). As high-profile school shootings became a seemingly regular feature of life, public discussion of school violence broadened to include expressions of compassion. Press accounts sympathetically portrayed students who, because of race, sexual orientation, appearance, or simply the awkwardness of adolescence, were tormented and excluded from the mainstream of school life.
Commentators charged that schools such as Colorado's Columbine High School ignored or encouraged "casual cruelty . . . small slights and public humiliations"—means by which favored students harassed classmates and "reinforced the rigid high school caste system" (Kogan, 1999). Calls for retribution were joined by pleas for schools to better reach out to alienated and troubled youth.
In practice, however, the policies inspired by school shootings owe little to compassion. Policymakers across the United States have earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade school security. Schools have hired armed guards, redesigned entryways, and installed motion-sensitive cameras. Some schools have mandated that backpacks be made of clear plastic; others have banned dark clothing. Columbine High School announced a policy of "zero tolerance" for "cruelty, harassment, excessive teasing, discrimination, violence, [and] intimidation" (Kenworthy, 1999). Meanwhile, in Georgia, legislators passed a measure that would expel students for bullying (Bixler & Bennett, 1999). "We have zero tolerance on other things," said the bill's sponsor. "Why not zero tolerance on violent behavior?"
Officials at Columbine and other schools needed to reassure students that they were safe, and factors beyond their control, including the ready availability of guns and the threat of lawsuits, complicate administrators' work. Still, one cannot promote tolerance through a policy of zero tolerance. Any effort to draw in advance a firm line around the ambiguities of human interaction invites only arbitrariness and exclusion. Such a policy abandons the educational mission of the schools.

Retribution: An Ill-Advised Reaction

Plans to intensify the policing of students come despite the fact that (1) youth violence is declining, (2) school shootings remain exceedingly rare—far less common than gun violence in children's own homes, and (3) police methods failed to protect children in the very schools where attacks generated national concern. A police officer on duty at Columbine, for instance, had no impact on the crisis there. Video surveillance cameras, police dogs, and an armed sheriff's deputy could not protect students at Georgia's Heritage High School. Rather, assistant principal Cecil Brinkley convinced T. J. Solomon to put down his gun and then embraced the youth.
One hundred years ago, reformers created the juvenile court to divert troubled children from the criminal justice system into a more nurturing institution. Decades of research confirmed the effectiveness of rehabilitative approaches in preventing crime. Nevertheless, juvenile justice increasingly took on the punitive qualities of the adult prison system (Polier, 1989). Over the last decade, more and more juveniles have been tried as adults, and thousands are being sent to adult prisons, many for nonviolent offenses. The recent school shootings have merely accentuated federal, state, and local lawmaking aimed at imposing increasingly harsh punishments on young offenders.
Obstacles to structuring compassion into the fabric of the schools are not new. Throughout the 20th century, periodic panics arising out of social and political conflicts in the United States have fed images of juvenile disorder and discouraged progressive educational practices (Perlstein, in press). Meanwhile, the long-standing division of U.S. high school students into "in" groups and outsiders—hierarchically ordered cliques through which youth rehearse the social inequalities of the adult world—has discouraged a school culture of inclusiveness.

A Misdiagnosis of Cause

Unlike urban youth violence, which popular accounts portray as the reflection of inner-city norms, violence perpetrated by suburban youth is attributed to what has been called an environment that "may leave too many young people in a vacuum, cut off from both parents and other members of the community" (Scherer & Coeyman, 1999). And yet, the places where high-profile school shootings have occurred are not places where youth are cut off from "traditional" or "mainstream" values. Rather, suburban violence has occurred in communities that are defined as much by their churches as by generic fast-food outlets, huge Wal-Marts, and multiplex movie theaters showing much the same fare as those in Los Angeles or New York.
Mass school shootings have occurred in places where the tensions of U.S. life express themselves with particular force and where the young are given inadequate support in finding their own way in a difficult world. Like the clichéd question that has echoed after each suburban shooting—"How could it have happened here?"—responses that ignore the social fissures of U.S. life not only deny compassion to urban youth but also misdiagnose the nature of suburban school violence.
When police and reporters interviewed students at Georgia's Heritage High School about the young man who shot six classmates, the exchanges repeated a formula set in a number of earlier shootings, in which a young man's professions of affection turned deadly when a young woman sought her freedom (Perlstein, 1998). "I heard you had broken up with your girlfriend," a friend remarked to 15-year-old T. J. Solomon right before he opened fire on his schoolmates. "Yeah, I'm real mad about it," came the reply (Schneider, 1999).
A young man reacting to a failed relationship not with sadness but with rage is so normal that authorities were unable to "suggest a motive" for the shooting, and reporters turned to the same set of clichés that had trivialized the role of misogynistic possessiveness in earlier school shootings. Solomon was "upset over a broken romance," "a Boy Scout with a broken heart," a "typical teen who grew sullen after his girlfriend recently dumped him" (Preston, 1999; Pilcher, 1999a, b, c).

Underlying Social Issues

Echoing once-popular rationales for treating domestic violence as a private matter and a crime of passion, reporters' sentimental invocations of romance obscure and trivialize the tense, asymmetrical gender relations of youth and the centrality of these relations in school life. Moreover, revelations that perpetrators of school violence were frequently baited mercilessly with accusations of being gay have exposed the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in U.S. schools—for both girls and boys. The stigmatization of girls and the imposition of narrow standards of behavior on all boys serve as a model for other forms of bias and discrimination in school.
By expressing revulsion against degraded females and males identified with them, homophobia, Margaret Smith Crocco remarks, is integral to the "system of sexualized male supremacy" perpetuated in schools (Crocco, in press). Frequently overlooked by teachers and administrators, bullying, sexual harassment, and other such activities that students use to assert power and maintain their place in the pecking order are simultaneously pervasive and invisible. Together, they constitute the normal, systematic form of student violence in schools.
Ironically, at the same time that girls are victimized at school, boys are poorly served by their privilege. They achieve far less than girls in school and get into far more trouble. As obstacles to girls' educational opportunities have diminished, U.S. ideals of masculinity—the valorization of isolation and aggression, and taboos against displaying emotions other than anger—have accentuated boys' academic and behavioral difficulties (Pollack, 1998).
The chances of creating a more just gender order in schools are promising in part because this is one case in which even the privileged would benefit from equity. Zero-tolerance policies and the preoccupation with sensational shootings poorly protect even affluent white boys from rapidly rising rates of suicide and other forms of self-inflicted violence.
Other boys are even more at risk. Whereas affluent white boys can often call on a nexus of supportive institutions if they get into trouble, the burdens of boyhood fall particularly hard on poor and minority youth, who are more likely to face punishment than nurturance. Indeed, poor and minority youth often turn to acts of violence because they have come to believe that school authorities will not protect them (Prothrow-Stith, 1991).
  • Preoccupation with gun violence in schools diverts attention from far more common forms of violence, such as bullying, sexual harassment, suicide, and unequal treatment.
  • Punishment is invariably applied inequitably.
  • Punishment presupposes that students understand what types of actions are not permitted, a level of understanding that many elementary and secondary students do not possess.
  • The sources of school violence lie in complicated, ambiguous arenas of social life, matters requiring study if students are to develop alternative behaviors and attitudes.

The Challenge for Educators

Educators can do better than the currently popular punitive approaches to school violence. To do so, they need to challenge the hierarchical division of students by curricular track, extracurricular activities, and school culture. For example, educators must acknowledge that when some students are labeled "gifted," the others are marked as "giftless"—roles having more to do with social status than with native talent or the provision of appropriate, individualized instruction.
Reconfiguring schools to diminish institutional obstacles to school safety is no easy task but has the potential to enrich the education of all. An effective school safety policy acknowledges that just as dilemmas pervade the task of creating a good society, dilemmas pervade the task of creating safe schools. In a society pulling students simultaneously in multiple directions, youth, both victims and victimizers, are necessarily conflicted. Instead of trivializing the pains and conflicts of youth or responding to difficult questions with embarrassed silence, educators should treat the issues of gender within the curriculum with the same attentiveness they bring to issues of civic duty or career. Students' effort to make sense of their own lives will necessarily illuminate fundamental aspects of the wider society. They know from their lives, if not from their studies, that they can sometimes cross social boundaries and at other moments find the same boundaries impermeable. Such efforts should not be consigned to the margins of the curriculum.
Once educators conceptualize school safety as a curricular issue rather than a disciplinary one, they can bring a plethora of well-established approaches to dealing with it. Investigations of family life and history can counter-balance lessons celebrating military history. The stories and literature of those at the margins can infuse the curriculum. Classes can study not only different voices but also the interplay of differences and commonalities. Students can wrestle with real dilemmas of human rights as they apply to children, rather than parrot "contracts" with which teachers seek to legitimize their rules of classroom behavior.
  • inculcating a critique of misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of bias while fostering free-wheeling inquiry;
  • helping students understand the world from different perspectives—male and female, heterosexual and homosexual—while also understanding that there is no one "female" or "heterosexual" way of seeing the world;
  • using their authority to protect the disenfranchised from hateful speech while fostering the intellectual and moral agency of each student; and
  • rewarding honesty and kindness.
The public expressions of compassion catalyzed by the recent school shootings, together with educators' compassionate impulses, have created a rare opportunity to move school policies and practices away from retribution. Such an effort by educators will require educators to win public support. Still, educators cannot create safe schools by ignoring the tensions that characterize contemporary life in the United States. They cannot treat school safety as a technical problem of administration. They can only create an environment and an opportunity that encourage students to think critically and compassionately about the society in which they live and about their individual and collective places in it. Such an effort does far more to protect schoolchildren than do ill-conceived, counterproductive campaigns to police youth.

Bixler, M., and Bennett, D. L. (1999, April 1). Legislature passes anti-bully bill. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, p. J10.

Crocco, M. S. (in press). The missing discourse about gender and sexuality in the social studies. Theory and Research in Social Education.

Kenworthy, T. (1999, August 17). Eager return to Columbine. The Washington Post, p. A3.

Kogan, F. (1999, April 28). School's been blown to pieces. Village Voice [On-line]. Available: www.villagevoice.com/issues/9917/kogan.shtml

Perlstein, D. (in press). Imagined authority: Blackboard jungle and the crisis of American educational liberalism. Paedagogica Historica.

Perlstein, D. (1998). Saying the unsaid: Girl killing and the curriculum. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 14(1), 88–104.

Pilcher, J. (1999a, May 20). 6 hurt in Georgia school shooting. Associated Press [Online]. Available: http://ap.infonautics.com/s/wire

Pilcher, J. (1999b, May 20). Gunman wounds six in high school attack one month after Columbine. Associated Press [On-line]. Available: http://ap.infonautics.com/s/wire/

Pilcher, J. (1999c, May 22). Gunman said to limit firepower. Associated Press [On-line]. Available: http://ap.infonautics.com/s/wire/

Polier, J. (1989). Juvenile justice in double jeopardy. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Pollack, W. (1998). Real boys. New York: Random House.

Preston, J. (1999, May 20). U.S. boy scout wounds six at school. Reuters [On-line]. Available: www.reuters.com/news/

Prothrow-Stith, D. (1991). Deadly consequences. New York: HarperCollins.

Scherer, R., & Coeyman, M. (1999, May 21). Another shooting, sharper questions. Christian Science Monitor [Online]. Available: www.csmonitor.com/archive

Schneider, C. (1999, May 21). Every school's dread erupts into reality. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, p. A1.

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