Although images of the 1999 Columbine massacre are still fresh in our minds, we appear to have turned the corner in the struggle to control school violence.
Five years ago, it seemed as though there was no end in sight to the growing threat of schoolyard terror. Survey after survey indicated that school safety was the most critical issue for parents, well ahead of concerns over curriculum quality or the availability of educational resources.
Amidst a pervasive state of alarm, many administrators responded by turning their schools into armed camps. They upgraded security and sought to identify potentially violent students by scanning for warning signs such as black trenchcoats or bullying. More and more students passed through metal detectors and were repeatedly reminded to be on the lookout for anyone uttering a threat.
Oddly, well meaning efforts to reduce school shootings may actually have had the unintended effect of intensifying fear in vulnerable students while encouraging angry students to take up guns against their classmates. These practices inadvertently reminded vengeful students around the country about one particular way to resolve their problems. Violence against classmates had become, if not an accepted way, at least a familiar way to respond to classroom bullies. The attention we paid to school violence only reinforced that notion.
The Evolution of School Violence
While most children identify with the pain of the victims, a few alienated youngsters identify more with the power of the perpetrators. They see school shooters not as villains but as heroes. Not only did they get even with the nasty bullies and insensitive teachers, but they're famous for it.
In many respects, the problems students face today are no different than earlier generations. There have been schoolyard bullies as long as there have been schools; there has been adolescent alienation as long as there have been teenagers.
Yet, earlier generations of disgruntled youngsters responded in less violent ways. School homicides committed by teenagers a decade ago were isolated cases of mostly one-on-one attacks. They didn't make the national news.
Don't Reinforce the Symptoms
We are not suggesting that the problem of school violence be ignored. Rather, educators must learn to respond to a violent episode without gratuitously calling so much direct attention to it. We should focus on the causes of school violence--a disrespectful climate, large and impersonal schools and bullying--without continually reinforcing the symptoms.
The core problem at many schools is a lack of any sense of community. Too many students are nameless faces to teachers, psychologists and guidance counselors, whose huge caseloads in oversized schools do not permit them to know their students as individuals. If we really want to assess students for violent tendencies, we have to get to know them better. We should deal with the troubled student long before he or she becomes troublesome.
Examining the Cause And Effect
Why then the sudden drop in episodes of school shootings since Columbine? Could it be that our security efforts and zero-tolerance policies have been so successful? Or, could it be instead that the contagion effect has run its course?
It is perhaps a silver lining to America's concern in recent years over international terrorism--from Al Qaeda to anthrax--as well as about the war in Iraq. Such concerns have shifted attention away from school violence, thus allowing teachers to teach and students to learn without constantly fixating on school shootings and reinforcing the contagion.
At the same time, today's calm is a fragile one. Should some angry 14-year-old in Smalltown High decide to "do a Columbine," the hysteria would quickly resurface as would the threat of copycat behavior--that is, of course, unless we respond with good sense and reason.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice and Jack Levin is the Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology; both are at Northeastern University.