Bullying and Murder in Our Schools

A national culture of violence and large schools that breed alienation are behind the U.S. school shootings, according to Jerome Freiberg of the University of Houston. They happen most often at large rural or suburban schools, "where people would never believe it would happen." He spoke at an international conference on school violence held in Paris on Tuesday.

According to Freiberg, the average child has witnessed 8,000 murders, through television, video games and the internet, by the time he finishes elementary school.

Freiberg feels that large schools fail to create bonds with students, who feel alienated and alone. Michel Janosz of the University of Montreal agrees. "The climate of belonging is one of the top indicators of a good school," he said.

The school shooters have similar characteristics: they tend to be white males in large rural or suburban schools, middle or upper-middle class, from a safe community. They have self- esteem problems and are victims of bullying. They are strongly influenced by the media, including video and the internet, and receive limited parental supervision. "They're isolants, in most cases," says Freiberg. "You don't see cheerleaders, quarterbacks doing these things."

The statistics changed slightly on Wednesday, when a 14 year old girl shot a 13 year old female classmate in the school cafeteria. Most of shooters have been male and this is the first time a student shooting has taken place in a Catholic school. In other ways, the shooter fit the profile, however: she was from a rural area and her classmates often picked on her, according to the other students.

The main causes of these shootings seem to be exposure to violent media, access to guns, and bullying and isolation from fellow students.

Exposure to violence can only stop when we vote with our feet and refuse to attend violent movies. But this won't happen soon-"Hannibal" was the top box office draw in the past month. Also, how are working parents going to police their kids' access to music, movies and the internet

Guns are an ongoing problem in the U.S., and no matter what side you're on when it comes to gun control, it seems clear that we've waited so long to act that if we took away citizens' guns now, criminals would be the only ones who could still defend themselves. Gun control is much easier to enact in Europe or Japan, where the average person has never had access to firearms.

That leaves bullying. Is this something new in schools Most of us can remember envying the pretty girls and the football players and feeling left out of the most popular groups. When nerds grow up, they have their revenge, because they turn into people like Bill Gates, but there's no way to reassure teenagers of that when they're worried about not being popular.

Bill Bond, who was principal of West Paducah High in 1997 when a student shot three classmates and killed them, has a simple piece of advice when it comes to bullying: take it very seriously. "In almost every case, [the shooters] have been bullied," he says. "I know it sounds simplistic, but we've got to become better listeners."

Roughly 15 percent of students are either bullied regularly or are bullies themselves, according to studies compiled by the Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. As many as 7 percent of 8th graders stay home at least once a month because of fear of bullies. The most recent shooter, who killed two teenaged boys at Santana High School in Santee, California, was home schooled for a year because he was so taunted by his fellow students.

Years ago, parents urged their children to include outcasts in their activities-to invite the unpopular kid to the birthday party, to pick the awkward boy for the baseball team. This seems to have changed. We can understand why teens are naturally exclusionary-it makes them feel "safe" to feel superior-but why should parents and teachers put up with it What kind of citizens will our teens grow up to be if we allow them to denigrate others in this way

We've known for a long time that people from poor backgrounds who were abused as kids are more likely to become criminals. We now know that middle-class kids who are relentlessly bullied are likely to kill. Knowing the social causes of deviant behavior doesn't excuse it, but if we want different results, we've got to make changes in the way we raise our kids.

--Anne Strieber

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