(submitted for doctoral study, Fall 2004)
Ginsburg, Kamat, Raghu, and Weaver (1995) reason that “it is theoretically incorrect to claim that educators’ activities are apolitical” in the piece, “Educators and Politics”. The implications of this contention embedded themselves in my psyche when I recently participated in a formal school board hearing, as a character witness for a student who was charged with a policy violation.
In response to widely televised school shootings, the federal government, state departments of education and school districts wasted no time in crafting legislative ‘solutions’ to the problem of school violence. According to a 2003 report cited on theResourceCenterat edweek.org (2004), 28 states and theDistrict of Columbiahave enacted legislation aimed at preventing violence that leads to school tragedies. Indeed, as the nation reflects on Columbine and other similar tragedies, communities, lawmakers and educators continue to ask the question, ‘Why?’ Unfortunately, in the scramble to develop a defensive strategy to this problem, the solutions have been targeted to the ‘How?’ instead of ‘Why?’. Dr. Helen Smith (1999) points to the immediate (false) assumption that school shootings occur because kids have access to firearms today more so than they did in previous years. According to Dr. Smith, the percentage of American homes with guns has remained stable over the past several decades, and today’s guns are much more likely to be locked in a cabinet than in years past. The knee-jerk presumption that normal kids ‘snap’ when exposed to guns, is preposterous, and Dr Smith notes that for this to be true, the converse must also hold – that having had no access to guns, the Columbine perpetrators would have given up on their deadly plot and returned to being normal teens. In fact, it is documented that Eric Harris had displayed psychopathic thought patterns (evidenced in his journal writings, discovered post-tragedy) and that Dylan Klebold was “depressive and suicidal” (Cullen, 2004).
Ginsburg et al. (1995) note that the political work of educators in their roles as citizens include serving as “leaders, animateurs and agents of social change.” Concluding this supposition, the authors, framing the questions as if for all educators, proffer “Should I be active or passive in my roles as a citizen of local, national and global communities; on what issues should I focus my attention; with what people should I ally; and what ends and means should I emphasize?” On the issue of school violence, I contend that the answers to the questions of Ginsburg et al. are simple: passivity in response to violence in our schools is deadly. The means that are believed to be appropriate toward achieving a low risk of violence in schools, are “symbolic solutions”, and will not achieve the desired end – safer schools.
Dr Helen Smith, a Forensic Psychologist who has testified before legislative bodies in response to recent school shooting tragedies, notes that Americans will do anything to alleviate fear in the face of tragedy (1998). In her piece, “Logical Errors and Mass Hysteria: Responses to Acts of Terrorism”, Dr Smith (2001) notes that while most citizens are comforted by ‘zero tolerance’ policies, the policies are rarely designed to effect true safety, and actually serve to create a false sense of security. Dr Smith points out that while expulsion of a student who brings a weapon to school may make sense, often it is the innocent student who drew the picture of a gun, or pointed his finger at a classmate in fun who is caught in the ‘fine print net’ cast out to insure safety. The perception by the public that schools are safer is, according to Dr Smith, part and parcel of the dynamic that punishes the non-criminal elements of society. Since the proportion of law-abiding citizens far outnumber violent criminals, the visible punishment of the non-criminals serves to reassure the public that ‘something’ is being done. This sense of security lasts only until the next act of violence occurs and the public is again left to wonder, ‘Why?’
If educators desire to work in safe environments, the political nature of their roles must be examined in the context of today’s reality vis-à-vis school violence, the motivations for school shootings, and real solutions. Educators should further scrutinize the protections provided by a zero-tolerance policy on weapons – are they designed to protect students, teachers and staff from violence or to protect the school district from lawsuits? An examination of the data relative to school tragedies suggests that these types of policies do little to protect students and teachers, but serve as a safeguard from post-tragedy law suits.
InPennsylvania, the Safe School Act (1995) requires “the expulsion for at least one year of any student who possesses a weapon on school property, at a school function, or (while) going to and from school.” Many school districts have further expanded this definition to include the possession of a weapon look-alike. The Safe School Act also mandates that zero tolerance policies allow for the Superintendent to consider individual circumstances of a student and recommend to the board that is impose a less severe sentence. This is written primarily to appeal-proof expulsion decisions (Education Law Center, 2002) and further hold the school district harmless in lawsuits, but the question remains – what is this policy’s (and its related progeny) intent and does it truly effect a safer environment, and what should educators role be in upholding or questioning the policies and related legislation?
In 2002, the Secret Service partnered with the Department of Education to author a study, “The Safe School Initiative”, aimed at identifying real solutions to the tragedy of school shootings and other violent acts. The following provides a summary of those findings:
School attacks are premeditated; in almost every case reviewed, the perpetrator developed a plan in advance of its execution. Almost half of the 41 cases studied revealed that the perpetrators carefully deliberated their actions for two weeks or more. While a diagnosed mental illness was rare among the shooters identified in the study, more than half of the students involved in school shootings had a history of feeling desperate, or extremely depressed, while almost 75% of these students had some previous suicidal ideations or attempts. Taking a similar position to Dr Helen Smith, the Secret Service research contends that schools’ ‘quick fix’ responses to school violence are “unlikely to be helpful” and could even prove to be dangerous. The questions posed by the SSI/DOE report ask:
- Why rely on metal detectors and police officers in schools, when shooters often make no effort to conceal their weapons?
- Why expel students immediately for the most minor infraction (or non-compliance with the fine print letter of the law) when expulsion was the spark that pushed some students to return to the school, armed and dangerous?
Shortly after the tragedy in Littleton, Colorado, Dr Helen Smith (1999) wrote of the “flawed assumptions” that stricter gun control and zero tolerance weapons policies would have prevented the Columbine, and other, tragedies. She quotes the teaching of the United States Marine Corps that weapons are tools; people are deadly. As a psychologist in private practice, Dr Smith sees the real problem for schools relative to teen violence is not easier access to weapons, but the unchecked urge to use them. This is a societal problem that will not be corrected with political quick fixes, or reactionary legislation. These ‘symbolic solutions’ in fact create a distraction and false sense of safety, when what is needed, according to Dr Smith, is a zero-tolerance in our schools for bullying and ostracism, along with the recognition that kids in trouble with juvenile or other authorities are more likely to present a risk to themselves and others.
In “Reality Isn’t What it Used to Be”, W.T. Anderson (1999) references the work of Austrian biologist and anthropologist Rupert Riedl, who used a story about a woman and her child on a street car in Viennato illustrate how people create causes to fit the effects. Zero-tolerance policies for weapons are a response to the imagined cause (guns, gun look-alikes, pictures of guns, mis-pointed fingers, nail clippers, etc.) intended to prevent the effect – school shootings. Although school shootings actually decreased in the 1990’s as compared to earlier periods, the media coverage of Columbine and subsequent tragedies has reformulated society’s reality construct. Ginsburg, et al. (1995) encourage educators to “reflect on our own and others’ activity” and to “consider seriously the political implications of what we do or refrain from doing.” They continue, urging the reader to reject what Wexler described in 1982 as “the educational form of spectatorship…in favor of the reflexive, socially concrete individual struggling…” After observing school boards members, school district administrators and teachers response to the sentence imposed on the student for whom I testified, it became clear to me that the motivating factor for all of their votes was, “what it would look like if I voted to acquit” and “the letter of the law tied my hands” with a reckless disregard for the actual circumstance, and the impact that this letter-of-the-law interpretation of the alleged violation may have on the real safety of the school building inhabitants they are paid to represent. My initial reaction was that these educators chose to be policy readers instead of educational leaders, but a follow up assessment suggest a more sinister plot: lack of imagination, absent leadership and laziness.
Recently the FBI undertook a partnership with educators to assist them in developing an assessment tool for identification of threats. The four-pronged Assessment model encourages assessment in four contexts:
- Personality traits of the student
- Student’s family dynamics
- Student’s school dynamics
- Student’s social dynamics
“We wanted to develop a monograph that would help teachers identify what is a threat, how to evaluate a threat, and the best responses in treating threats of different levels” the FBI’s unit chief of the behavioral unit for the FBI National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime told Education World. (Dunne, 2000). The FBI report is posted on the web for convenient access by educators everywhere, but the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, Dr. Gerald Tirozzi recommends that educators participate in “ongoing, appropriate professional development, especially since a significant amount of student interaction happens in the classroom.” (Dunne, 2000) Cautions against the use of profiling are reiterated throughout Dunne’s Education World article and Dr. Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists is quoted, warning schools not to view the assessment model as a “laundry list of factors” that can be used to launch a witch hunt. Profiling students, like the quick-fix policies of installing metal detectors and catch-all weapons policies, fit our society’s desire for easy answers and fast solutions, and they have the potential to abuse kids who simply appear to fit the profile, but pose no threat.
Given the research into large-scale school tragedies, which revealed that a majority of the perpetrators exhibited some level of mental distress (Dedman, 2000), schools must recognize the role that mental health providers can play in early identification of threats. Unfortunately, the response undertaken by most schools in the aftermath of violence is an increase in the number of armed officers on campus, according to National Mental Health Association senior advisor, Kevin Dwyer, who notes that “You can’t replace a counselor with a badge.” (Dunne, 2000) Recognition of this fact at some level is evidenced by $20 million in federal grants established in 2001 by the US Department of Education for the establishment or expansion of elementary school counseling programs. Unfortunately, the majority of the school-based tragedies have occurred in middle or high schools and these institutions are more likely to hire police than counselors. Dwyer notes that in 2000, there were only 31,000 mental health professionals available to provide assistance to the nation’s more than 50 million students, further hindering schools’ ability to answer the ‘Why?’ of school violence before the ‘How?’ is evidenced on the nightly news.
Examination of the post-modern problems facing today’s educational institutions reveal complex issues with a combination of political, legal and theoretical solutions proffered by experts from multiple disciplinary perspectives. It remains questionable whether educators can refrain from political involvement in their daily decision-making, when the evidence indicates that administrative decisions are made based on politically-enacted legislation, public opinion, and fear. The challenge for educators of today and tomorrow is to critically review legislation, board decisions and policies before they are adopted as a precedent. This may require speaking up and being identified as a trouble-maker, a rebel or someone who rocks the boat, which can have, as noted in Ginsburg et al. (1995), “implications for material resources, including employment, salary and promotions…” Teachers and administrators may be the last line of defense against a tidal wave of knee-jerk legislation that serves the school district by pacifying constituents, and protects against lawsuits (Education Law Center, 2002), but does not provide the students, teachers and staff with any real protection against threats to their safety and the well-being of the community. Even teachers that choose to avoid political activism, seeking to answer the crisis by creating environments that foster inclusion and respect for others, are reacting to the political environment created by violence and the resultant legislation. Beyond curricular, pedagogical and labor/management politics, educators must remain engaged in the political processes that are increasingly dictating daily activities, resulting in a reality that may not be in the best interest of students, the greater community and future generations.
R E F E R E N C E S
Anderson, W.T. (1990). Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be: Theatrical politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World. San Francisco: Harper Collins.
Cullen, Dave. (2004, April 20). The Depressive and the Psychopath: At Last We Know Why the Columbine Killers Did It. Slate. Retrieved from http://slate.msn.com/.
Dunne, Diane W. (2000). The School Shooter: One Solution Doesn’t Fit All. Education World: The Educators Best Friend. Retrieved from http://www.education-world.com/a_issues/issues125.shtml
EducationLawCenter, 2002, Fact Sheet. When Can Your Child Be Expelled for Bringing Weapons to School? (Act 26). Retrieved from http://www.elc-pa.org/ACT%2026.rev%207-02.pdf.
Edweek.org: The Home of Education Week and Teacher Magazine (2004). Violence and Safety. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/rc/issues/violence-and-safety/.
PennsylvaniaPublic SchoolCode, P.L. 200, No. 62. Safe Schools Act § 1317.2 (1995)
Smith, Helen, PhD. (1998, July 14). School Killings: Prevention and Response. Testimony presented before Arkansas House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary. Retrieved from http://www.violentkids.com/articles/violence_article_4.html.
Smith, Helen, PhD. (1999, May 11). It’s Not the Guns. Retrieved from http://www.violentkids.com/articles/violence_article_8.html.
Smith, Helen, PhD. (2001, Sep 27). Logical Errors and Mass Hysteria: Responses to Acts of Terrorism. Retrieved from http://www.violentkids.com/articles/violence_article_9.html.
United StatesSecret Service and United States Department of Education. (2002, May). The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. Retrieved from http://www.treas.gov/usss/ntac/ssi_final_report.pdf.