Targeted Violence in Schools

A recent study by the Secret Service found that since 1992, crimes against students have decreased from 144 crimes per thousand students in 1992 to 101 per thousand now.  Schools, the study goes on to say, are still ranked among the safest places to be.  There is also a like decline in the percentage of students in high school who report carrying a weapon to school – about a 40% reduction!

So, while the actual number of incidents of student on student violence is down statistically, their relatively rare occurrences are becoming more and more sensational, even outrageous.  And that outrage has, in part due to media coverage, spread to education officials, often in the form of stereotyped overreaction, even in the face of the statistics I’ve mentioned. “Zero tolerance” approaches to discipline are spreading, in spite of the opposition of major organizations such as the American Bar Association and the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Yet these reactions, while not logically in response to the real numbers, constitute a very real threat to the implementation of viable, effective school safety programs. They are borne out of the entirely human fear that any school administrator has that his building will be the next site of what the Secret Service calls “targeted violence” – that is, a situation in which an attacker deliberately selects his target in advance.  These killings are not impulse killings. They are generally carefully planned by intelligent children.  According to the Secret Service, and I quote here:

Incidents of targeted violence at schools are

rarely impulsive, and are typically the end

result of an understandable and often discernible

process of thinking  and behavior.

The Secret Service also had several interesting conclusions:

  1. Prior to most of the incidents, the attacker told someone about his plan;
  2. There is no accurate or useful profile of a potential “school shooter;”
  3. Most of the attackers had previously used guns and had access to them;
  4. Most shooting incidents were not resolved by law enforcement intervention;
  5. In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity; and
  6. In a number of cases, having been bullied played a key role in the attack.

On March 7, 2001, Elizabeth Bush, age 14, shot a popular cheerleader and threatened to turn the gun on herself.  This was in  a small Catholic high school to which this young girl had been transferred by her parents in an attempt to eliminate the harassment she was experiencing in public school.  She was chased. She had stones thrown at her, and her parents’ lives were threatened in anonymous notes.  All of the bullies gravitated to her – and she finally struck back.

In Miss Bush’s case – as in so many others – the adults in her school failed to act  – so she did.  The April Illinois Education Insight article states at page 3 that:

“Children need to know that adults will intervene every time bullying is even suspected.” 

“Adults” means everyone:  teachers, administrators, aides, contractors – even custodial staff.  Everyone who is a member of the culture of the school must take responsibility and initiative.  And, these staff members must feel authorized to act.  Mr. Alan Hill, a popular Chicago middle school teacher, was featured on the front page of the May 3, 2001 Sun-Times for having been disciplined for aggressively  taking the initiative  against a well known group of  bullies in his school.  Clearly, this sends a message to Chicago staff that they are not authorized to act.  This is, to my thinking, quite ironic when society is demanding that more people do what Mr. Hill did.  School staff must be authorized to act, threats of the bullies’ parents to sue notwithstanding.

This hostile climate – this atmosphere of “acceptable cruelty” – does not arise in a vacuum.  It has to come from somewhere.  Many professional people argue that not enough attention is being paid to this climate of casual cruelty.  By that term, I mean the day to day way students are allowed to engage in an unfeeling, unempathetic, or openly hostile behavior.  Professor Nancy Guerra, at the University of California Psychology Department,  points out that “there is a general atmosphere of meanness, where teasing and taunting are the norm  among most students, rather than the exception.” In a survey of 70,000 students in grades 6-12, only 37% felt students showed respect for one another!  37 percent! And 57% of the boys – only 57% – said this bothered them!  In the 3-21-2001 edition of Education Week, Russell J. Quaglia is quoted:  “The only zero tolerance – is the zero tolerance between kids.”

Miss Bush was – believe it or not – ostracized and rejected by her peers at both schools she attended for her strong religious beliefs and her tendency to befriend other ostracized teenagers.  The Secret Service study found that in 2/3 of the cases to date, the attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others.  The fact that a significant number of these kids suffered through these attacks “played a major role in motivating the ensuing violence.”

I was thinking:  How can I wrap all this up in a package that is useful to you?  It depends, I suppose, on what kind of educator you are.  If you are the kind of educator who is interested to know what might be effective and what isn’s “really” then we’ve got something.  Then we can do some thinking together.  If you are the kind of educator who, like a reed in the wind, is worried about the political flow, then you might not be interested in what I have to say.  We might not agree, but I ask you to try to keep an open mind today.  Generally, it has become clear that while fashionable in the education field, “zero tolerance” approaches are largely ineffective, tend to increase liability potential, and further, tend to increase the possibility of targeted violence. In the words of a widely read journalist, what about zero tolerance for bullying and harassment?  Zero tolerance for an atmosphere of casual cruelty?  Full support for a nourishing, helpful, safe school environment?  The only way you are going to be able to minimize the possibility that your building might be the next site for methodical, planned, targeted violence is to effect a paradigm shift in the entire culture of your school.  Some suggestions, from a 2-21-01 article in Juvenile Connections by Baili and Goldsmith:

  1. Utilize anonymous questionnaires to assess the true climate of your school;
  2. Regularly introduce the bullying and harassment issue as a classroom component;
  3. Utilize individualized, case-by-case interventions; if you  will, a kind of “flex service” model rather than a reflexive zero tolerance approach.
  4. Develop your approach on a school-wide basis, with a buy-in by faculty, students, parents, and the community;
    1. Implement good and stimulating staff development; this must include cultural and developmental sensitivity education;
    2. Put up appealing posters that state clearly that bullying, even in subtle forms, is not allowed;
    3. Make it clear that children are expected to help victims of bullying – and be a model for this yourself!
    4. Place a strong emphasis on a discipline policy that stresses right behavior, not a zero tolerance approach that emphasizes punishment for wrong behavior.  Remember the usual conflict resolution programs DON’T WORK.  Good anti-bullying programs do not use peer mediation or rely only upon a curriculum.
    5. Make sure there is close monitoring of hot spots:  lunch room, playgrounds, locker rooms, other secluded areas.

In summary, the goal of a good bullying elimination program should be to change the values of the entire school culture.  This takes persistence.

For this quality, Buddhists say, “Be like water.”

If a door is closed to water, it all gets through eventually.  Nothing can stop it.

It is inevitable.

As an administrator, you can be like water too.  You can be the water that transforms the culture of your school, from “casual cruelty” To nourishing tolerance of differences – by everybody.

Good luck to you.