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Alternative Perspectives on School Violence.

If school shootings have accomplished nothing else, at least they have provided an occasion to discuss the dangerous role that violence plays in our society. Nonetheless, the rare and random instances of school shootings hardly constitute our most significant social violence. Our culture's tendency to vilify those whose only failings lie in lifestyles that differ from the mainstream occasions far more serious violence.

At Santana High School in Santee, California, school bullies--consisting of the popular and mainstream athletes, cheerleaders, and even staff--harassed the fifteen-year-old freshman who turned shooter on March 5, 2001. Yet not only the peers of the bullies but also the mainstream media excused their behavior while blaming the shooter's "offbeat" friends for failure to report his comments about his plan to take a gun to school. It is time for us to ask if this culture's obsessive commitment to and enforcement of its own core values may itself evoke a cycle of guilt, scapegoating, and violence.

Most commentaries on guns in schools share a common feature. They pinpoint individuals or discrete groups to blame not only for individual instances of violence but also for what is perceived as large-scale social breakdown. Violent and out-of-control minority youth--labeled superpredators during the early war on crime days--have been the villains in much mainstream commentary.

Yet in my home state of Maine, a white fifth grader recently brought a loaded gun to his rural elementary school. Local media were shocked. The horror Maine leaders registered reflects the cultural blinders of middle-class whites. Some weeks before the Maine incident, AlterNet columnist Tim Wise argued that the Columbine and Santee rampages reveal a deepening drug and violence pathology--among white youth. White adults, however, too easily associate school violence with urban black youth.

Wise performed a service by pointing to the obvious racism implicit in discussions of "superpredators." Nonetheless, he too engages in his own dubious blame game--this one generational, despite much contrary evidence. Mike Males, a distinguished sociologist, worries that even Wise's perspective obscures a greater problem: the violence of white middle-class adult male culture. Males comments: "As mass shootings go, boys are very unlikely perpetrators. The true gun-killers are mostly middle-aged men."

Rates of violent crime have decreased dramatically among children all across the socioeconomic spectrum. A recent Justice Department survey shows that, among U.S. youth under age eighteen, robbery dropped 53 percent from 1991 to 1999, rape went down 31 percent from 1991 to 1999, and burglary decreased 60 percent from 1980 to 1999.

Since at least the time of Socrates, moralists have seen the origins of social degradation in the dissolute lives of children. Mike Males provocatively counters that social dysfunction
 is not your [or someone else's] kids and their supposed violence, drugs,
 and "culture corrupted" values. The problem is middle American, middle-aged
 drug and alcohol abuse, violence, crime, and rotten values reflected in
 everything from rampant household battery and drunken driving to me-me
 politics.... White middle agers, appallingly affluent ... and hardly
 targeted by police, have no excuse for the huge, surging rates of
 addiction, violence, imprisonment, and general disarray they inflict on
 society, families, and their children.

Males is surely right in suggesting that parents have more responsibility for crime and guns in schools than do their children. Teenage crime of all sorts is most prevalent amidst a background of parental poverty, desertion, or abuse. Nonetheless, the parental generation--even its white middle class segment--is hardly a monolith. Nor is it utterly free of economic or cultural constraints.

Middle-class business or professional families may have two or more cars, computers, large homes, and multiple electronic gadgets, but they are as much consumed by as consumer of these goods. Cars create dependency on more cars, and individuals can seldom escape the dependency. Once cars and highways displace safe sidewalks, bike paths, and rail lines, the auto becomes a virtual necessity--often for both parents and older children. If public policy intends to address the physical safety of children, focus on schools is myopic. An adolescent suburban male is more likely to be killed by a car than a male teenager in the most crime-infested urban community is to be killed by a gun. Nonetheless, school boards as well as state and federal authorities are generally unwilling to fund broader transit options so that both adults and children would not have to choose between total dependence on cars or social isolation.

The competitive corporate world that creates this cornucopia of sport utility vehicles swallows not merely its consumers and blue-collar workers but even much of its managerial staff. As Harvard professor Juliet Schor points out in The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (1998), mid-level managers who are unwilling to work long hours and achieve or display the wealth that success brings risk more than social isolation. They not only may fail to advance but may even risk falling off into the dangerous and insecure world of part-time, contingent labor.

Seen in a larger historical framework, the U.S. middle class expresses but is also caught up in increasingly stressful and problematic cultural ideals and practices. These include unquestioned reverence for work, pursuit of ever-greater personal affluence, and the almost perpetual suspension of personal gratification. President George W. Bush may sing the virtues of limited working days and flextime, but his policies and the corporate agendas he serves make these freedoms possible for very few.

Fortunately or unfortunately, however, few can commit their whole lives to such singular ideals. Many harbor inner doubts or find subterranean ways to escape the pressure. Other working and middle-class parents today may be seen as striving to silence doubts about their sacrifices and the escape mechanisms they employ by demonizing youth culture. Marijuana--still the symbol of a countercultural minority--is disproportionately targeted for campaigns of misinformation and harsh repression.

Every misstep by our young, no matter how rare in comparison with the transgressions of the adult world, becomes a focus of media attention. Though school shootings have always been dwarfed by other forms of violence and are actually down in recent years, media and political leaders dwell on the problem. Seven in ten respondents to a Wall Street Journal poll believe it is likely that there will be a shooting in their neighborhood school. Despite a 40 percent decline in school shootings, respondents to a USA Today poll were 49 percent more likely to believe such a shooting was likely in 1999 than in 1998.

By any of the usual standards employed to prioritize public health threats, guns in schools and even much of what passes as youth crime are far less prevalent and serious than other issues. Perhaps many citizens perceive in or attribute to children a degree of freedom neither the corporate economy nor culture allows them. Out of their doubts and envy, many too easily demonize and conjure new restrictions for children. Mired in long working days and the demands of consumer culture, many professionals condemn the irresponsibility of their children as they plan their next corporate ventures over tax-supported, three-martini lunches. On one level this is surely hypocrisy, but such hypocrisies are occasioned by more than merely failings of individuals or even whole social classes. With the burdens our culture of work and consumption now impose on many and the displaced hostility these ideals evoke, perhaps these ideals themselves are more deserving of widespread social debate and new curfews and limits than are our children.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. He invites comments at
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Author:Buell, John
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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