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School Violence: A Deadly Trend?

May 22, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: For some perspective on the Oregon school shooting we turn to Sissela Bok, a distinguished fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies and author of “Mayhem, Violence as Public Entertainment;” Franklin Zimring, Professor of Criminal Law at Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley; and John Stanford, the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools.

Welcome all. Mr. Stanford, The New York Times editorialized this morning, saying “It is no longer possible to pretend that fatal school shootings are an aberration.” Is that true? Do you agree with that?

JOHN STANFORD: Well, I guess when we say that they’re an aberration, what I–I believe that we do not have to accept them as a reality as if they are going to happen in our schools and around our schools. No, they are not an aberration. I mean, we’ve had too many of them. We can’t deny that the children have the weapons and are doing it. It is not an aberration. This is something that there is a sickness out there in our society that is causing this to happen. But we can stop it.

MARGARET WARNER: Sissela Bok, do you agree that this is a reality, maybe we don’t want to accept it, but it’s more than a fluke, or more than an aberration?

SISSELA BOK: It is definitely more than a fluke, and it’s a coming together, I think of several factors. First of all, disturbed young people, they have always existed, but what hasn’t always existed has been the amount of media violence that they grew up with from infancy on in this country, most children. And on top of that, the accessibility of firearms–all those together make it a very dangerous situation. And I do believe also that there are role models not at all just in films and videos but very much these children serve as role models for one another, unfortunately.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Zimring, do you agree, this is now at the point of being a dangerous situation?

FRANKLIN ZIMRING: Well, I–it’s obviously a lousy school year for lethal violence in the American school. But I don’t think that we’re living in a different country than we were living in last year or the year before, or the year before that. And I don’t think that either schools are particularly dangerous places in 1998, or that homicide in schools needs to become a focal concern in terms of the chief dangers that kids run.

The last time that the Center for Disease Control did a survey about one out of every hundred school–I mean, killings of a teenager was in school–that means that schools are still the safest places for our kids to be. They’re definitely not tragedy proof. That’s what we’ve learned. We’ve also learned that when we’re in the middle of this kind of a copycat epidemic, probably the best thing to hope for–we’re coming right to the end of the school year–is that three or four or five or six months without a similar episode and without the media attention that are absolutely necessary when this kind of episode occurs, and maybe that copycat phenomenon will abate. I don’t think that we’ve learned anything generally in the last couple of days or last couple of months about how the society should orient itself toward firearms, about how the society should orient itself toward media violence. And I’m terribly worried when everybody picks episodes like this to illustrate special pleading and special interest morals that we all seem to carry around in our hip pocket.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mr. Stanford, to what degree do you think this could be a copycat phenomenon and that with the break of a school summer, we might–it might abate?

JOHN STANFORD: Well, I believe it’s a copycat phenomena, but I don’t believe that we are–have a circumstance that’s going to abate. I think in one of our recent magazines we saw where students of middle school age somehow or other have great difficulty relating to death and understanding death and understanding the absolute implications of it. They are just not sensitized to that enough. And so a combination into the society’s inputs and the availability of guns, their inability to solve problems in the way that they should at home and sometimes in school that as long as you have these means of destruction, I believe that we are in for not only the rest of this school year but other school years. I guess I disagree with the previous speaker. We must do more.

MARGARET WARNER: Staying with you, Mr. Stanford, I mean, kids have always–of this age–had fights and problems. Whatever happened to fist fights?

JOHN STANFORD: Yes. The availability of guns. The vanquished always uses their most lethal weapon and so, therefore, if you can’t win a fist fight or you can’t win against the administration of your parents at home, now those who cannot win that way have this lethal weapon at their disposal in our society. You know, in this–as we look at this, the issue is, again, not one of a right to bear arms. It is illegal for children to bear arms, and yet they see all of this violence every single day and then we give them the capacity to carry out. So fist fights would be wonderful. I just have to say the other piece of this too is we would hope that it would abate. But when you look at–you know, I’ve got 50,000 parents out there who are terrified and principals and teachers across this country in every classroom, in every school. It is not just going to abate unless we do something about it. It is serious, in my view. And it’s serious because I’m down here next to it, as is every superintendent and as every principal and every teacher and every parent. It is serious.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. So, Ms. Bok, what can be done about it, and to what degree do you think the schools have a responsibility or can do something about it as a place where these kids spend so much of their time?

SISSELA BOK: I think they can do a lot, but I do think it’s important to recognize all the factors that play into this. It certainly would be wrong to say that only guns or only media or only family breakdown or only drugs matters. But I think it’s extremely important to notice that each of those matter a lot. Now, schools can do a tremendous amount. And here we have to learn from some of the communities that have already done so much in violence prevention involving parents, teachers, community members, so many others in helping kids to resolve conflict non-violently. And it is true that in some communities, for instance, Boston, where I live, that this has really worked very well over the past few years. But so few schools do this at the moment. So few parents actually care, and here I just wanted to add that I do think that the children who perform these acts live in a fantasy world. They cannot tell reality and fiction apart. They have seen so much glamorized violence since they were little. But we also–adults–do live in a fantasy world if we refuse to recognize how different the situation is now compared to ten years ago, for instance.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Zimring, pick up on either point you’d like–either the point both the other speakers have made that these kids are very desensitized to violence because of media, video games, and all of that–well, pick up on that point first, and then we’ll go back to what schools can do.

FRANKLIN ZIMRING: The best that we know about violence in media is that all of the other G-7 nations have not only had similar kinds of media exposure to violence and video games, but they had the same media that we do. Most of it’s made in America, except the video games–they’re made in Japan. Their homicide rates stay low and in some cases go down. I do think that media has been important in this academic year’s mini epidemic of these school shootings. But it’s what we are seeing on the news that gets imitated, not what we see in fictional programmatic content.

And I have one piece of advice for American media, that since you realize that it is programmatic news that is communicating to the next potential shooters out there–be they 13 or 14 or 15–I think that we have to seriously rethink using what we know of the adolescent mentality how that mentality reacts when we demonize the kids that do it. The more we make these kids look big and destructive and virile, the more we put them on in military camouflage routines, the more we may be advertising the opportunity for immaturity and revenge to mix with firearms. I think that if we start portraying this as the kind of pathetic, illness-related, cowardly activity that we might think it is, that at least the media pitch will, as a practical matter, be a little less exciting to the disturbed and the armed.

MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Bok, very briefly, because I want to get back to Mr. Stanford, what about the point that, in fact, most kids in the world today are consuming the same kinds of media, yet the rates are very different?

SISSELA BOK: They’re not at all consuming the same amount. They must spend the same number of hours. They’re not sitting in their own rooms watching their own televisions without family around, and they don’t have access to the same amount of money that Americans have to buy the video games that right now really do reward killing and shooting and raping, hitting on farm animals. So I think that we are quite different from that point of view still.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Stanford, go back now to what schools can do. I mean, are we talking about having to put metal detectors in schools? Are we talking about intervention programs as Ms. Bok was talking about? What can be done?

JOHN STANFORD: Well, first, I think we need to start with peers. I mean, peers–they know what’s going on in their schools. They know what other students are saying. We must rely on peers and break down this phenomena, which peers don’t tell about other peers. The students must let us know and let some adult know that there is someone in their midst that is behaving aberrantly, and they must tell someone and we must find a way to help them understand that they must help us control their environment. Teachers, counselors, principals, school staff, everybody, we must continue to work harder on the programs in which we work on in schools to help children understand that violence is not the way. And what we must do is when something does happen, we must get involved in de-escalation of events, rather than escalating them so that they get to the point where students will act out. And everybody must take all threats seriously from which ever way they come.

MARGARET WARNER: All right.

JOHN STANFORD: Accountability. I mean, we talk–if I could just–just 30 seconds–accountability–isn’t it very interesting that a parent that–you know–you have a 16-year-old child; you have a car. Your child goes out, hits someone, wrecks property, and you’re accountable for that, but your 14-year-old child goes out and hits someone and you’re not accountable, what is the sense of that?

MARGARET WARNER: I’m so sorry, but we’re going to have to leave it there. We are out of time, but thank you all three very much. And I’m sure we’ll be back to this subject again. Thanks.

JOHN STANFORD: Thank you very much.