Red Lake: a tragedy, not a lesson
Overreacting to high-school shootings causes more harm than good.
The school shootings at a high school in Red Lake, Minnesota, in which 16-year-old Jeff Weise killed nine people and wounded at least seven others before killing himself, have already provoked a round of soul searching and musings about how to prevent such awful occurrences.
Many observers have been quick to draw parallels with the Columbine school shootings in Colorado in 1999, where 12 died at the hands of high-school pupils Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. In both cases, the students involved were alienated, bullied by other students, affected Nazi symbols, warned beforehand that they would shoot up the school and favoured ‘Goth’ styles, habitually wearing black.
Speculation about how to spot potential mass-murderers abounds. University of Minnesota child psychiatrist Dr George Realmuto argues that some people have a genetic risk of problem behaviour, which can be brought out by traumatic events including bullying, violence at home or rejection. Realmuto calls for genetic screening: ‘We do these kinds of tests to learn people’s cholesterol levels and blood sugar levels, and identify people who are at risk for diabetes and heart disease’, he says. ‘Could we not use genetic tests to identify people who, under specific adverse environmental situations, are more vulnerable to bad outcomes?’
Conversely, the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, a national organisation working to end violence and discrimination based on gender stereotypes, points out that school shooters tend to be boys who had been teased and bullied by their peers for being less than strong, sports-oriented or ‘masculine’, and lived in community cultures that tolerated a violent code of adolescent masculinity. Others, reflecting on Weise’s Native American background, speculated that the historic abuses perpetrated by the US government on Native Americans might be to blame. The usual targets of computers, video-game violence, ready availability of guns (despite the fact that Weise used a police gun), Hollywood glorification of violence and Marilyn Manson, have also been trotted out.
What these responses indicate is that in the wake of this nihilistic act, as with any other nihilistic act, analysts are left to fill in the blanks. They do so selectively. Few have pointed out, for instance, that Eric Harris attended anger management classes, even writing an ‘excellent’ paper on controlling his anger and anger management in general. Though teenage symbols of alienation draw attacks, few question ecology lessons in American schools in which pupils learn that humanity has ruined the Earth. Perhaps these sentiments were burned into Eric Harris’ imagination when he wrote in a journal before ‘leaving this worthless place’: ‘You know what I hate?… MANKIND!!!!’ (1) Self-hatred was not invented on the internet or by Marilyn Manson.
We need to put the school shootings in proportion. With all the angst-ridden speculation, it is easy to forget that they are still quite rare, despite America’s gun culture that we hear such a lot about.
When researchers at the National School Safety Center combed media reports from the school years 1992-3 to 2000-1, they identified 321 violent deaths that had occurred at schools. Not all of these incidents involved student-on-student violence; they included, for example, 16 accidental deaths and 56 suicides, as well as incidents involving adults, such as a teacher killed by her estranged husband (who then shot himself) and a non-student killed on a school playground during a weekend.
Even if all 321 of these deaths are included, the average fell from 48 violent deaths per year during the school years 1992-3 to 1996-7, to 32 per year from 1997-8 to 2000-1. If we eliminate accidental deaths and suicides, the decline remains, with the average falling from 31 deaths per year to 24 per year.
While violent deaths are tragedies, they are also rare. Tens of millions of children attend school; for every million students, fewer than one violent death per year occurs in school. Less that one percent of all homicides among children aged between five and 19 occur in or around school grounds or on the way to and from school. Three out of four young murder victims – 90 per cent of them aged under-12, and 70 per cent aged 12-17 – are killed by adults, not by juveniles (2). Schools are among the safest places for children to be. To give this some context, it is worth pointing out that, in 1997, 88 people died of being struck by lightning.
The response has been out of proportion to the risk, reflecting the increasing fear in American society. In surveys carried out in 1999, seven out of 10 Americans said that they believed that a shooting was likely in their school. After Columbine, the country scrambled to put preventive measures in place. Metal detectors are now routine in American high schools, though these have about as much rationale as placing a lightning rod on each child’s head.
There is a new industry of school violence ‘experts’, with a journal entitled Journal of School Violence appearing in 2002, which recommended restricting access to schools, increasing the number of school police officers, developing emergency plans and adding telephones and radios around schools. An unarmed security guard patrolled the corridors of the high school in Red Lake, and was the first person to be killed by Weise. Rather than spending money on books, security seems to be taking over.
Even more harmful are the zero-tolerance policies. Forty states now enforce a one-year mandatory expulsion for possession of a firearm, and 16 states also do so when students carry deadly weapons other than firearms to school. Some schools have zero-tolerance policies in place for minor infractions such as swearing and insubordination. Twenty-three states have such policies in place for fighting, and 19 do for disruptions in class.
— In New Jersey, a nine-year-old was suspended – and forced to undergo psychiatric counselling – for threatening to shoot a classmate with a rubber band.
— A 10-year-old in Colorado was expelled because her mother put a small knife in her lunch box to cut an apple. When the girl realized the knife could violate the school’s anti-weapons policy, she turned it over to a teacher. The school then expelled the girl.
— Three grammar school students in Colorado were suspended for possessing a weapon – a water pistol.
— A 13-year-old in Arizona, inspired by the movie October Sky, built a rocket – fuelled by three match heads – out of a Pringles potato chip canister. When he brought it to school he was suspended for a year for having a ‘weapon’, and the school also reported him to the police.
— In Michigan, a third-grader was suspended for showing his classmates a gun-shaped medallion, slightly larger than a necklace charm. He had found the piece of jewellery in a snow bank. ‘State law requires us to take action even though it was a toy’, said a school administrator.
— A school in New Jersey suspended two kindergarten students for playing ‘cops and robbers’ in the playground. They had pointed their fingers at each other like guns and shouted, ‘Bang bang!’.
— In Maryland, a school suspended a nine-year-old after he drew a picture of a gun on a piece of paper.
— A six-year-old in Colorado was suspended for violating the school’s anti-drug policy after a teacher saw him share a lemon drop sweet with a friend. The school also called an ambulance for the lemon-drop-eating friend.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has noted the adverse effects on the education of African-Americans, who are far more likely to be excluded from school because of this ‘overkill’. (3). This irrational overreaction is causing real harm to American education.
As with terrorism, we construct our own nightmares. All an alienated student has to do to achieve maximum attention is to mention the school shootings – an overblown response is practically guaranteed. As a wise American president once said: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’
(1) See the Official Columbine Shootings Report
(2) Center for Disease Control, ‘Facts About Violence Among Youth and Violence in Schools’, 21 May 1998
(3) See story on the Common Dreams newswire
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