Saturday, December 29, 2012

In the Aftermath of Newtown

This school shooting, just as those before it, was horrific — but this one especially horrific because it involved innocent, joyous first-graders who had not yet lived long enough to become sassy tweens, back-talking teens, or know-it-all college students.  It is particularly painful to think of all the already wrapped presents still hidden in closets; painful that what was once a happy holiday will forever be marred.  A bleak anniversary of unimaginable horribly real loss — in a family, at a school, on a playground, and everywhere in their community.

It's startling to realize this is the fourth such tragedy during the President's tenure — what is it in our society that sparks such rage and ignites such devastation?  Since Columbine there is always talk of safer schools or greater gun control or, in the most superficial way, the need for character education.

There is no one solution.  If someone is compelled or chooses to manifest their emotional outrage as an assault on others, this cannot be stopped.  Despite the current rhetoric, we cannot arm our teachers nor surround our schools with a bullet-proof web.  But we can try more consistently and uniformly to create a culture of character in the places where our children spend most of their days (if we are lucky).

Character and citizenship were the purview of families, schools, and faith-based communities.  But this triumvirate of support systems which taught, practiced and reinforced the moral upbringing of children has been under siege from all fronts — most especially from the bombardment of violence and violence-themed messages permeating television, movies, music, and video games.  We no longer have a society that filters and protects its young — what was always deemed inappropriate, now is the norm.

Though there will always be families, faith-based organizations, and classrooms committed to developing kind and caring young people, often these forces are fighting an uphill (at best) or losing battle (at worst).

We have allowed violence to become a staple of everyday living.  We celebrate cell-phone-throwing-DWI divas and promote "reality" TV that glorifies back-stabbing, road rage, and vengeance.  

WHY do we watch this?  What is so appealing about this side of our humanity? I don't understand it, but I know we as a society implicitly condone it and consumerize it.

I know that to address these acts of horror — that seem to occur with uncomfortable regularity — means to look at all facets of the issue.  This includes rethinking access to weapons and the kind of weapons we allow — and more focus on identifying and treating mental health without stigmatization.  But I also know that we need to commit to character development — not just the trait of the month in elementary school or the occasional week-long  middle school activity to get involved in local elections or high-school admonitions not to cheat.  With some school exceptions, most of our present efforts are all too fragmented, too little, too late.

Here are a few findings I want to share from a 2002 study the Secret Service conducted on school shootings after Columbine:

  • There is no accurate or useful "profile" of students who engaged in targeted school violence — they varied considerably in age, demographic, background and other characteristics.
  • All were male; three-quarters of the attackers were white 
  • Almost two-thirds of the attackers came from two-parent families 
  • Very few of the attackers were known to be failing in school; most were doing well in school at the time of the attack, generally receiving As and Bs in their courses
  • Over half of the attackers demonstrated some interest in violence, through movies, video games, books, and other media 
  • Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack
  • Almost three-quarters of the attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others prior to the incident
  • In several cases, individual attackers had experienced bullying and harassment that was long-standing and severe.  In some of these cases the experience of being bullied seemed to have a significant impact on the attacker and appeared to have been a factor in his decision to mount an attack at the school.
The shooters came from intact families and broken ones; they belonged to religious communities and they didn't; they had good grades for the most part.  Two factors were prevalent: access to weapons and being bullied.

We need to face up to the fact that placing paramount emphasis on grades and test scores is falling far short of what the best educational system in the world should have as its outcome — educating honest and compassionate students who value civic engagement and service.  If we build a curriculum that has at its core a regular and routine focus on building character, than we stand a chance of creating a culture of caring for students and perhaps having more children make it to the second grade and beyond.

Don't we owe our kids that much?


  1. Thank you, Mel, for saying it so well. Your reminders and the research and facts you share make me want to continue down the list of stats that all point to what you say about some of the conditions that are so often behind these problems and tragedies. There are so many pieces to this puzzle, some of which really can be fit in the "right" place if "we" each do just a little bit of what "we" can with what "we" know. Everyone is "we." No exceptions.

    1. I agree ... if we all do our part things WILL change. What I failed to say is that the report I refer to was done TEN years ago and still, we haven't done our part. Thanks for your comment.