In The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools (NYU Press), Adelphi University professor of sociology and criminal justice Jessie Klein takes a hard look at bullying: the root causes of its increasing influence on kids and the full range of social and psychological symptoms that result—school shootings being the most extreme example. In the wake of the latest such tragedy in Chardon, Ohio, the Tip Sheet spoke with Klein over e-mail.
How did your research into bullying and school shootings begin?
I started this research back in 1997 when I heard Luke Woodham in Mississippi explain why he committed his school shooting. He said: “I am not insane, I am angry. I killed because people like me are mistreated every day.” He explained that he was upset about being called “gay” and he was enraged that his girlfriend broke up with him. He killed her in the shooting.
I was struck by how similar his complaints were to American children more broadly. Kids get called “gay” in school every day and many are in pain over broken relationships. Other kids may commit suicide, become depressed, anxious, truant, cut themselves, or turn to substance abuse. I show in The Bully Society that the school shootings are only the most horrific response to the same debilitating and painful school conditions that American children face every day. Kids are getting taunted, teased and assaulted—and facing huge emotional challenges—completely on their own. The Bully Society shows that school shootings actually magnify school environments that need to be changed. I’ve written a lot of popular and scholarly articles since 1997 when I first heard about that case. You can see some of them on my website.
The Ohio school shooting on Monday has brought the issue back to the forefront almost simultaneously with the release of your book—could you have anticipated that timing? Were we "due"?
The Ohio school shooting coincides with the release of The Bully Society because school shootings continue to happen with some regularity. Anyone could have sadly predicted that there would be a shooting during the time the book would be released—and many more afterwards as well. We need to do something drastically different to prevent these kinds of tragedies, as I explain in The Bully Society. There were 191 school shootings between 1979 and 2011; and if shootings continue at the pace they have been from 2009-2011, we will have the same number of shootings in 2009- 2018 as we had in the prior three decades combined.
On my website, you can see how school shootings have increased, how they repeatedly relate to issues concerning gender (including gay-bashing, slut-bashing, violence against girls, dating violence, and various forms of masculinity challenges) and how they increasingly relate to high stakes tests and zero-tolerance policies too. Schools could use this information to become the solution for American children.
What's typical about this latest incident? What's not?
Many students reported that T.J. Lane was bullied and picked on; others said he was an outcast and had few friends. Some people insist he was not bullied. There are often controversies after a shooting regarding whether the perpetrator was bullied or not. Clearly T. J. Lane was miserable. His Facebook posts indicate rage and an obsession with death. He was clearly isolated at school. Whether or not he suffered repeated offenses, as some people define bullying, is less important than the fact that he was in pain and clearly needed help and support. Most of the perpetrators said they asked grown-ups to help them, but they were left largely on their own. School shootings often happen when students feel they don’t know what else to do with their misery and rage.
While the frequency school shootings continue to rise, do you think the national conversation about it has kept up? What is that conversation overlooking?
The real issue behind school shootings and school bullying is the hostile school environments with which our children are forced to contend. Social isolation has tripled since the eighties; and in the same time period, depression and anxiety rates for children (and adults) has soared. Many students find that to have social relationships in school they need to purchase certain brands—sneakers, cell phones, computers, clothes, watches, and bags—and if they don’t, they are likely to get picked on. Students find that they can gain popularity if they have information capital—other people’s secrets which they can trade for higher status in their schools. Many kids feel that it is immature to trust others—as they have seen time and again how private moments are broadcast on Facebook and through text messages. Studies show that children and teens are having difficulty developing face-to-face relationships as so much of their social lives are lived in cyber space.
Our kids need to learn how to develop real friendships based on sharing feelings, experiences, and interests. They need to be able to trust one another—and they need a school community which will create a safe environment where they can learn again to be empathic human beings.
What role do policy-makers play?
Politicians feel pressured to look mostly at student (and teacher) test scores. Grants were offered to schools that could document their progress with student achievement. As a result, testing has become an all-encompassing facet of American students’ education. Yet so many students are rebelling against the high stakes testing environment, and the zero tolerance policies which politicians also feel pressured to promote. On my website, you can see the number of shootings related to these issues and how they have increased during the same time period characterized by more zero-tolerance policies and hyper-testing.
I hope politicians will look at these numbers and see that creating an assessment-heavy school environment is the wrong direction. Schools need to create community and they should be rewarded and given grants for their innovative ideas on how to achieve this imperative goal.
Is there anything we can do to stem the tide of school shootings?
More than anything else, people need to care about each other and themselves. Schools need to do everything they can to create compassionate social environments where students have real friends and meaningful bonds with other students and school faculty. There is no program or one-day fix-it for these issues. This is hard and necessary work that we all need to be doing.