Title: Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings.
Author: Katherine S. Newman with Cybelle Fox, David J. Harding, Jal Mehta, and Wendy Roth.
Genre: Non-fiction, school shootings, psychology.
Publication Date: 2004.
Summary: In the last decade, school shootings have decimated communities and terrified parents, teachers, and children in even the most “family friendly” American towns and suburbs. These tragedies appear to be the spontaneous acts of disconnected teens, but this important book argues that the roots of violence are deeply entwined in the communities themselves. This in-depth, extensively researched academic study challenges the “loner theory” of school violence and shows why so many adults and students miss the warning signs that could prevent it.
My rating: 9/10.
♥ In fact, we argue in chapters 5 and 6 that precisely the opposite problem played a role in both school shootings. It was not the weakness of social ties in Westside and Heath that proved their undoing, but the strength of those bonds. Dense, all-encompassing, interconnected networks of friends and family can make the lives of misfits unbearable and actually stifle the flow of information about potential warning signs.
♥ Rates of violent crime are indeed higher in the South. Nisbett and Cohen think that history left its traces in the personalities of contemporary southerners. To demonstrate the point, they created experiments that test responses to insults and found that southern students were more likely to be angered and less likely to be amused. Southern students showed a sharper physical reaction to these stresses, with higher levels of cortisol and testosterone. Finally, southerners tended to become more aggressive, less referential, and more domineering and were more likely to express concern that someone who had observed the insult would perceive them as less masculine.
♥ It is difficult, however, to sort out whether exposure leads to violence or kids who are already prone to violent behavior select this kind of media material. Randomized experiments - which avoid this “selection” problem - show that young children exposed to violent television engage in more violent play afterward than children in a control group. To our knowledge, no similar experiments have been performed with adolescents, whose maturity might lead them to be more sophisticated consumers of media violence. Also, there is little evidence on the cumulative effects of consuming violent media over time.
♥ Millions of young people play video games full of fistgiths, blazing guns, and body slams. Bodies litter the floor in many of our most popular films. Yet only a miniscule fraction of consumers become violent. Hence, if there is an effect, children are not all equally susceptible to it. In our own interviews, almost all adolescents scoffed at the idea that they were so easily influenced by television, music, movies, and video games.
♥ Research in imitative violence suggests that media coverage affects the form and method of crimes rather than the amount of crime. This may not be the case for individuals who are suicidal, however. There is some evidence, although it is highly contested, that youth suicides spike after highly publicized suicides, especially by celebrities. It seems inconceivable that otherwise healthy and happy adolescents would shoot up their school because others went on rampages before them. Rather, troubled youths may see a model for a solution to the problems in previous school shootings.
♥ Simple explanations cannot account for why some schools, communities, and individuals suffer or perpetuate school shootings. Violent media are part of the picture, but millions of children play “Mortal Kombat,” and only a few become murderers. The availability of guns certainly makes the task of mounting a massacre easier, but it does not explain the “epidemic” of school shootings because we have not witnessed an increase in the number of people who own guns in the United States. It would be comforting, in some respects, to think that the problem is confined to parts of the country that are more enamored of violence as a way to solve disputes. Yet school shootings have spread to the West, the East, and the North. What then, are the alternative explanations?
We will come back to this question in chapter 10, where were present our own theory of school shootings. But first, we need to lay out the elements of our alternative perspective. In part 2, we dig deep into background features that researchers have not focused on thus far. In the next chapters, we examine the organizational features of schools and communities that make it hard to identify children who are the verge of breakdown, the pressures that close-knit communities generate for those on the social margins, the ways adolescent culture contributes to depression and despair deep enough to motivate a deadly shooting, and the role of that very same culture in holding other kids back from reporting the threats they hear. These are the keys to understanding rampage shootings.
♥ Our task here, rather, is to invoke a sociological perspective to understand why no one knew that these youths were having serious problems. This means shifting the lens away from the individuals and personalities and toward the system, to look at schools as organizations. We argue that the culture and social structure of American public schools leads to information loss, which in turn obscures the pain and anger inside some students - emotions that, in rare cases, boil over into rampage shootings. The question is not how individuals could have missed the warning signs, but rather how the organization of public schools prevents them from recognizing sand processing the information correctly.
Lest anyone assume from the outset that these “design flaws” are the consequence of foolish planning or are easily remedied, we must point out that there are virtuous reasons that schools are designed in such a way as to make gathering data on students difficult. Creating sensible measures for prevention is thus an exceedingly difficult and delicate task. Indeed, an understanding of the cayuses does not necessarily suggest solutions.
♥ The starting point for Vaughan’s analysis, and indeed for the entire subfield, is Robert Merton’s observation that any system of organized social action inevitably produces secondary consequences that run either perpendicular to or directly against its primary goals. In a 1936 article, Merton identified five broad factors responsible for the generation of these unintended consequences, two of which are particularly relevant to an understanding of school officials’ lack of response. The first is simply a lack of sufficient knowledge; even when the likely adverse consequences of decisions are potentially identifiable, pressures within organizations to take immediate action often force officials to make decisions on the basis of limited information. And even if there is no need for immediate action, Merton pointed out, time and energy are costly resources that must be allocated among alternative wants, only one of which is the anticipation of consequences. A second factor contributing to the production of adverse outcomes is actual error in the appraisal of the relevant situation, in the process of making inferences to the future, in the selection of an appropriate course of action, or in its execution. Such errors are often attributable to an unwarranted assumption that the repetition of past actions will produce similar outcomes or to the allocation of attention to only one aspect of a situation because of simple neglect or of obsession.
♥ Sociologist David Bella developed the concept of “systematic distortion” to explain situations of this kind. Information that “does not support the ambitions and survival needs of [an] organization” is “filtered out.”
♥ In this chapter we argue that we can better understand why school shootings occur if we think of them as instances of organizational deviance, as failures of the system itself. Schools, too, practice structural secrecy; they ignore information that does not fit the operating paradigm, and they push toward the goals we ask them to accomplish - which blinds them to problems hiding under the surface.
♥ This is the essence of structural secrecy: the organization’s division of labor, hierarchy, and specialization tend to fragment information, because knowledge about goals and tasks is segregated.
...Schools have the technology and expertise to collect, integrate, and disseminate information. However, they deliberately refrain from centralizing what they know, and for good reason. They respect their students’ privacy. Sociological ideas - such as labeling theory - have made their way into pedagogical science and general morality. We worry about tagging people in ways the prejudice future teachers and bosses. We deliberately “lose” information about students to avoid prejudicing their chances for recovery from a bad year. The notion that adolescents deserve a clean slate runs so deep that schools may not even be made aware of run-ins students have had with the law. The Columbine massacre is a case in point. When the Sheriff’s Office investigated a complaint generated by Eric Harris’ threatening Web site, they informed the school that they were looking into a student who was trying to build a pipe bomb, but they did not tell the school deans which student was under investigation. We pay a steep a price for maintaining these privacy commitments.
...Assuming a student will do poorly or cause trouble in the classroom because of how he or she has done in other schools or with other teachers unfairly handicaps the student before class even begins. The best prophylactic against this practice is to limit access to contaminating information. This is one of the virtuous reasons for the clean-slate mentality and the structural secrecy it sustains.
♥ Schools are conflicted about whether it is their responsibility to identify and help emotionally troubled youth. We want our schools to produce children who have mastered the skills they need to compete in the economy, achieve the American Dream, and be responsible and upright citizens. However, some argue that schools should play an additional role, that of facilitating the social and emotional development of youth. This new purpose is warranted, they argue, because families are increasingly fractured and burdened by work. Extended kinship networks and close community ties are generally thought to be on the decline, resulting in a decrease in supervision and meaningful interaction between adults and children. Given the breakdown in social and emotional supports for our youth, it seems reasonable to many that schools should assume that role, particularly given that children spend much of their waking lives there. It is not clear, however, that these goals are compatible, if only because the school year it too short to take care of them all.
♥ “To develop students who are mature without being somber; become adults without abstaining from childhood; and who love life despite its hardships.”
♥ If we think about the school as a kind of business for a moment, we can grasp how complex this task is. Teachers are expected to achieve uniform outputs (standardized test scores, college admission, and so on) with highly variable inputs (students). Their success depends heavily on what happens to their students in other contexts that teachers cannot control (particularly at home), and they will be held responsible for outcomes that are powerfully influenced by those environments.
♥ Grown-ups tell themselves that they maintain a great deal of social control over children in their communities, but in fact there is a great deal of behavior they are unaware of. Adolescents are very good at hiding their actions from the watchful eyes of adults, even in places where such observation is harder to avoid than elsewhere. In small-town America, deviant behavior is sometimes driven further underground; adolescents become even better at self-monitoring and keeping information about themselves to themselves.
♥ “I’m down here in the South and I believe in the death penalty. There's a lot of people who don’t, but I’ve seen… the blood, I’ve seen the victims, I've ophut them in body bags.”
♥ “Life is unfair,” he remarked, “but it is also unfinished.”
♥ Acknowledging that school shootings are the product of a combination of factors moves us away from the futile discussion about the explanatory power of any single cause. Boys who are targets of the worst bullying or who routinely watch the most violent movies are not necessarily the ones who commit school shootings. Rather, it's the boys for whom a range of unfortunate circumstances come together - those who are socially marginal, are psychologically vulnerable, are fixated on cultural scripts that fuse violence with masculinity, live in areas where firearms are readily available, and attend schools that cannot identify this constellation - who constitute the likely universe of school shooters.
♥ First, academic, counseling, and disciplinary records should be maintained across the bureaucratic boundaries that separate different grades and different schools in the same district. The commitment to second chances, and the desire to avoid labeling kids in ways that prejudice future teachers is socially worthy, but it exacts too high a cost. Had Heath High School personnel been aware of Michael Carneal’s rocky eighth grade experience and put it together with his disciplinary problems early on in his freshman year, they might have looked into his life more closely. Nevertheless, there are incidents that never make it into any record at all, and short of creating a paperwork nightmare, there are few palatable options for change. Nor can we be sure that the preservation of records would have stopped Michael from committing murder. Yet without a paper trail, the patterns of behavior he exhibited went unnoticed. School districts simply cannot afford to burn materials that, at a minimum, help guidance counselors and administrators spot kids who need more attention.
♥ “You’ve got to have some diverse academics in your school, but you've got to have some diverse kind of personalities too. ...So if you’ve got weird kids, you need to hire some weird teachers also. Sometimes we forget that.”
♥ Good, old-fashioned ideals of sportsmanship are important to emphasize. But as we noted earlier, this is easier said than done. Schools do not exist independently of the society in which they are situated. Dozens of examples of violent, illegal, and disreputable behavior crop up every year among professional athletes. Because they bring in big money, they are tolerated, even embraced by team owners. Can we expect high school coaches to do any better? Yes. Public schools are not private, professional organizations. They belong to their communities and everyone in them has a right to expect a higher standard of behavior. Playing on a sports team is a privilege, not a right.
♥ On the whole, zero tolerance policies are too inflexible and should be avoided. School authorities need to take disciplinary problems seriously, and threats should provoke intensive investigation and, when warranted, punishment. Yet preserving the capacity for school authorities to make nuanced judgements is important not only for ensuring students’ trust and encouraging communication (especially of threats) but for preserving the exercise of adult authority. Rigid policies restrict principals from exercising the judgement we pay them to cultivate in the first place.
♥ The comparison to journalism is instructive, because the newspaper’s job is not to discover truth but rather to present the best truth it can find in a limited time frame, in a way that is responsible enough to protect the paper from libel lawsuits.