Last week in this space I connected the dots between bullying and the suicides and attempted suicides by children and adolescents, pointing out the close correlation between them. This week, I want to surface an equally grim reality: school shootings are also closely correlated with bullying.
Fortunately, there are a number of simple steps that we can take to reduce bullying and, by extension, suicides, suicide attempts, and school shootings.
Let’s cut to the chase: Girls who are bullied beyond their breaking point are most likely to try to kill themselves, not others. All too often they succeed.
By contrast, boys who reach the breaking point are far more likely to try to kill others. All too often, they are successful.
Girls rarely use guns. Boys usually do. And guns almost always function they way they are supposed to, meaning that people die. And, sadly, guns are readily available in modern America. (About 70% of school shooters got their weapons at home or from relatives, according to ABC News.)
“The modern era of school shootings” (an awful phrase) began on April 20, 1999 in Littleton, Colorado, when two white male teenagers who had been bullied excessively shot up their high school, Columbine High, killing 13 people and wounding at least 20 others before they turned their guns on themselves. The ensuing 19+ years have seen close to 300 school shootings including Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, two that you no doubt remember. By the way, at least 65 of the shooters who survived said they were ‘inspired’ by Columbine.
Perhaps you remember reading about the jock culture that dominated Columbine High School. Male athletes, usually football players and wrestlers, were reported to have ‘routinely’ stuffed the two boys into trash cans, for example, while the adults looked the other way because, after all, ‘Boys will be boys.’
Five variables combine to produce school bullying, and each one of them needs to be proactively addressed if we want to reduce school shootings and adolescent/child suicide. Here are my specific suggestions
- “Vulnerable Kids” The structure of school– segregating students by age and grade–actually exacerbates the vulnerability of children, because, inevitably, some older kids tease younger ones, and teasing can turn into bullying. Even though I entered junior high school more than 60 years ago, I still vividly remember being harassed and teased by the older kids; perhaps many of you can recall similar painful experiences. We can change that by creating cross-grade links. At my high school, every freshman was assigned to one of three school-wide clubs (Alpha, Beta, or Gamma), immediately linking them with the 10th, 11th, and 12th graders in their club. We lowly 9th graders could earn points for our club by making a freshman team, being on the monthly honor roll, participating in dramatics, the newspaper, band, choral groups, and so forth. The club with the most points earned the school’s highly coveted trophy. The club structure meant that the older students had incentives to support lowly 9th graders in their club, not harass them.
School leaders need to create incentives like that for older students to help and work with younger kids, and this has to be intentionally built into the bones of the institution. I suggest enlisting student leaders in the upper grades to help solve the problem.
Being ‘anti-bullying’ may be a first baby step, but it ain’t even close to being enough Social services that identify and provide support for troubled kids are necessary, but not sufficient. If that’s all schools do, nothing will change….
- “Bored Kids” The sad truth is the high school is boring for most kids most of the time, because the sorting system that is public education has long since decided which group each kid belongs to: some are college-bound ‘winners,’ but most are relegated to a lesser group of (never stated explicitly) ‘losers’ who aren’t challenged academically. Inevitably these bored kids are going to find some ways to fill up their time because “idle minds to the devil’s work.” I write about this at length in Addicted to Reform and cannot do justice to this issue here, but suffice it to say that students who are doing real work rarely get bored. Real work is just that: assignments that lead to new knowledge instead of the ‘regurgitation education’ that most high school students endure.
Here’s a quick example: Juniors in a public high school science class were tasked with developing an age-appropriate toy for three-year-olds that would facilitate their brain development…and also create a marketing plan for their product. Working in teams, they had to learn about brain development and the physical abilities of that age group. Using CAD programs, they designed their toys, taking into consideration size, color, and ‘feel.’ Then they had to draw up plans for advertising their new toy to young mothers and fathers, or perhaps to pediatricians and grandparents. There were no obviously right answers to this challenge, although there clearly could be wrong ones (toy too small or too large, and so forth). Believe me, those kids were not bored!
Schools need to ask a different question about every young person: “How is this child intelligent?” Stop asking ‘How smart is this kid?” Then build on those strengths!
- “Free Time” We are paying the price for cutting art, music, drama, journalism, intramural sports, because those ‘extra curricular’ activities are what matter most to most young people. Years of so-called “Education Reform” and our disastrous obsession with standardized testing, expressed specifically through “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” are the means by which we did this to ourselves. The replacement legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act, is not much of an improvement, unfortunately.
(And most of the men and women who make those disastrous policy decisions do not send their children and grandchildren to bare-bones schools! If the cooks don’t eat at their own restaurants, we shouldn’t either.)
- “Anonymous Social Media” Technology is inescapable, and school leaders must acknowledge that. Too many adults throw up their hands and say, “Oh, kids today are digital natives, and we are just tourists, alien visitors.” That’s just plain lame. Yes, they are natives, but it’s our job and our duty to teach them to be digital citizens! That means harnessing technology for good, as in the example above. Productive kids are less likely to have the time to hound other students. (Addicted to Reform has lots of useful examples.)
At the same time, adults must make students aware of the dangers inherent in anonymous social media. Examples pop up every week:
“LONDON — The 26-year-old man pretended to be a teenage girl to meet boys and young men on online chat forums. He called himself “Sandra” or “Henriette,” met boys from Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and asked them to send explicit images and videos, prosecutors say. When they complied, he threatened to publish the footage on YouTube if they did not keep the images coming. He talked a few into meeting in person. Then, officials said, he raped some of them.” That’s from this week’s New York Times!
- “Lack of Effective Adult Leadership” Being loving, caring, empathetic, or concerned is not enough. Adults must lead by example. I cited the willingness of some adults at Columbine High School to dismiss widespread bullying because, after all, “Boys will be boys” as one factor in the massacre that followed. Imagine for a moment that those adults had intervened when those two boys were being tossed around and stuffed into trash cans. Suppose they had said, “Hey, we don’t do that here! We are better than that.” What if the bullies had been called out and shamed for their behavior? Perhaps those two boys would not have shot up their school, and our history would have been different.
But adult leaders have to do more than just stop looking the other way.
- They also can restructure school (as in #1 above) to minimize age/grade segregation;
2. They can enable teachers to support real work instead of ‘regurgitation education,’ as in #2 above;
3. They can encourage limiting the number of standardized tests their students must take, and they can work to restore extracurricular activities, as in #3; and
4. They can reward teachers who harness technology for the creation of knowledge, while they also work to educate students–and their parents–about the dangers of anonymous social media, as in #4.
Perhaps real gun control is not immediately achievable, but real changes in the way our children go to school–those we can work on today and begin to see real results almost immediately.
If you agree, please circulate this post to others who share your concern.