Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: Violence in school — where do we go from here?

Human nature is complex. Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control.Steven Pinker

Violence in not new. Violence in school is not new either. Philosophy Professor John Kozy, in Violence: The American Way of Life, proposes that the United States was conceived in and nurtured by violence. American society is violent not just because of guns but because attitudes. Explorers and frontiersmen decimated native Americans. The Europeans who colonized America despised each other — the Puritans of Massachusetts despised the Quakers of Pennsylvania and the Catholics of Maryland. Violence was in their souls and current-day Americans have inherited it.

Kozy points out how even our sports have evolved toward violence. Baseball, once America’s national game — and inherently benign, has been replaced by football — so violent it can destroy the brains of those who play it. Violent films, referred to as action movies, all but dominate our film industry and TV options. Today, Americans not only engage in violence, they are entertained by it. And it starts with the parents who choose to buy their children macabre video games to pass their time.

Nicholas Thompson, in his New Yorker article, America’s Culture of Violence, reminds us we supply 75 percent of the world’s arms trade and we also supply most of the world’s violent entertainment. This technically makes America the world leader in slaughter — both in real life, and digital.

SCHOOLS AS MICROCOSMIC SOCIETIES

Education systems provide so much more than teaching and learning. They involve more than debates on political platforms, funding and learning gaps. In a 2004 New Times article, The Kids Aren’t All Right, schools were compared to miniature cities. Inside these petri dish cities of daily dramas is an agar solution of bubbling, breathing children.

But each day, schools keep meticulous logs of these dramas — from graffiti and gun threats to falls and fights, to stings and sordid parents — and reports them up the chain of command. Thankfully, most incidents are not worth mentioning, some are comedic, but others are tragic game changers.

ARE THE KIDS ALL RIGHT?

As long as there have been confused and angry kids and available weaponry, people have been killed or injured. Epic stories from West Side Story to Toy Story, are just samplings of how young adults unleash anger.

The data shows that violent gun incidents — as a whole — have dropped. But it’s evident that violence is still with us — a cyber bullying incident here, a bomb threat there, a school yard stabbing, a hallway assault. Not too long ago, in our own local community, a gun-toting teen posted a school threat on social media that sent parents and media scrambling to the principal for answers. Whether it’s real or a hoax, why does school violence feel so pervasive?

HISTORY OF SCHOOL VIOLENCE

As illustrated in a K-12 Academics.com article, History of School Shootings in the United States, violence in and around school is not new. The earliest-known U.S. school shooting was the Pontiac’s Rebellion school massacre in 1764. Four Lenape American Indians shot and killed a schoolmaster and several children. In Kentucky in 1853, a student bought a self-cocking pistol in the morning, went to school and killed the schoolmaster for excessively punishing his brother the day before. The historical record throughout the next 200-plus years is riddled with accounts of shootings that range in motivation from pupil-teacher revenge, unrequited romances and bullying.

The first-known U.S. mass shooting involving students was in 1891, when a man fired a shotgun at a group of students in a New York school playground. From 1900-30, there were scant reports of mass or multiple school shootings — the three most violent school attacks involved arson or explosions. Gun violence in schools through the 1940s and ’50s continued to involve mostly single cases.

The 1960-70s ushered in a period of unrest and multiple shootings on school campuses. The most notable ones being the Kent State and Jackson State mass shootings — both of which involved the police and National Guard. The mid to late 1970s was considered to be the second-most violent period in U.S. schools history involving single assailants inflicting mass casualties. The 1980s saw only a few multi-victim school shootings — but the type of gun began to change from pistols to assault weapons.

The late 1980 through ’90s saw a sharp increase in gun violence in U.S. schools. The U.S. Department of Education reported that in one school year alone (1998-99), 3,523 students (57 percent high school, 33 percent junior high, 10 percent elementary) were expelled for bringing a firearm to school.

From 1992-2000, some of the most violent school shootings unfolded, totaling nearly 300 deaths. This included the notorious Colombine High School shooting. Since Colombine, there have been 31 school shootings, including Sandy Hook Elementary and the deadliest U.S. school shooting, at Virigina Tech.

The sheer potential firepower is what makes 2016 qualitatively different than 1813 or even 1913. It gives bullied or angry kids power — but not one based in fantasy like the videos and movies they watch, but one that is all too real.

Violent crime in schools has actually decreased significantly over the past 15 years, Thompson says, making schools the safest place for a student to be. Although school violence is on the decline, it hasn’t disappeared. Some schools are still struggling to create a safe environment for their students. In many of these situations, the violence in the school is a reflection of the high crime communities in which the schools are embedded.

MEDIA EFFECTS ON KIDS

GreatSchools.org says in its article, Violence and Aggression: Media Mayhem Affects Kids, that the sheer number of murders and acts of violence seen on TV, film and video games affects children’s behavior. The article comments on the ubiquitous nature of violent and aggressive behaviors that have solidified their presence — everywhere.

Before reaching middle school, the typical child has seen something like 8,000 murders and 10,000 acts of violence on TV alone.

▪ Gaming: It’s not just a spectator sport. Video games allow players to maim, kill and create all kinds of havoc, especially if they want to win. Aggressive gaming affects kids — so much so that the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that “playing violent video games leads to adolescent violence like smoking leads to lung cancer.”

Constant marinating in aggressive entertainment can increase anti-social activity and bullying, and more importantly, decrease empathy for victims of violence. The more aggressive behavior kids see, the more it becomes an acceptable way to settle conflicts. The intimacy of mayhem and murder create such a huge emotional impact that they alter brain chemistry. The younger kids are most vulnerable because they don’t readily distinguish between fantasy and reality and because the effects — like nightmares and anxieties — are longer lasting.

▪ Film: A 2013 study revealed that gun violence in U.S. movies is on the rise and has more than tripled since 1985 in those rated as acceptable for teenagers 13 and older. According to Raw Story in 2012, PG-13 movies had more gun violence than films rated R for mature audiences. Compared to the average 2012 top R-rated films, where gun violence appeared in about 2.2 five-minute segments/hour, gun violence was present for about three five minute segments/hour in PG-13 movies.

▪ Cellphones and social media sites: SchoolSecurity.org says that social media has most definitely impacted the escalation of school violence and violent threats. Although most threats are anonymous and turn out to be hoaxes, each threat has to be investigated and considered serious. All this unfortunate focus impacts teaching time, wastes limited community resources, and creates alarm in kids, parents and educators alike.

National School Safety and Security Service says that cellphones and text messaging, in particular, are responsible for creating an inordinate amount of angst and unrest. Not too long ago, I witnessed a school altercation. But more concerning than the premeditative and vicious nature of the altercation, was the dystopic behavior of the reflexive mob. Instead of calling for help or breaking up the fight, the majority of the crowd encircled the fight and within seconds videotaped footage was being uploaded to social media sites.

With the lightning speed that information is shared to an infinite number of recipients, Generation Text, as this generation is referred to, has created an infrastructure in which threats can become greater than the issue or incident itself. With digital media, rumors can circulate through an entire school population within minutes and have been known to influence attendance overnight.

Laurie Futterman chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.

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