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What Schools Can Do to Reduce School Shootings

June 9, 2020

The young man is alone. He has no friends. He has been expelled from school. He has no relation with his family: they are dead or at least dead to him. He has been told all his life that he is a bad person. He now believes it. He hates himself. And, because he hates himself, he hates everything around him. The world is a giant conspiracy aimed at keeping him down, preventing him from being who he is. Most of all he feels powerless. Nothing he does has any effect on his hated environment.

Except for one thing: his guns. He knows very well what guns are: machines for killing things. It takes no special talent to be able to buy weapons, including assault rifles, semi-automatics that can be made nearly automatic with a bump stock, and large magazines of ammo, so there is no need to stop firing for reloading. Yes, he has power to change his environment. And, he has power to get back at all those kids who hate him and all those adults who rejected him. He has no need to hunt down the individuals who caused him pain. No, random mass killing does the job better. He gets to create chaos, inflict pain, be a man.

Maybe this young man is named Adam Lanza. Maybe he is called Nikolas Cruz. Perhaps he is called Dylann Roof or Dylan Klebold. After their hideous deeds, we read their biographies and all too easily conclude that they are mentally ill, that we cannot reach them, that bad stuff happens. If we are Republicans, we may conclude that stricter school discipline and better school security would help. If we are Democrats, we know that there needs to be gun control. What we fail to do, however, is understand our role in the shooting.

Kids who shoot school students feel alone, isolated, rejected, alienated, powerless. They are possessed of a massive level of self-loathing. That self-hate is nurtured through their formative years both by their home situation and, more relevantly, by school. Schools are aversive places for many boys. They are criticized, they are corrected, they are marginalized, they are expelled. The solution to school shootings, to the extent there is a solution, is to nurture self-love in young boys.

There are two critical approaches to this. Schools, in the main, use consequence-based behavior systems to extinguish maladaptive behavior. Failure to conform results in exclusion from the mainstream education environment. This exclusion, whether it means separate classrooms, in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, or expulsion fosters the very alienation we need to avoid. Praise for positive behavior (not positive outcomes and certainly not positive attributes, such as “You are so smart” or “You are so beautiful”) and silence for negative behavior fosters the type of self-respect we want in children. Point systems and contingent rewards systems work for some children, but are counterproductive for others. Certainly, we need to protect the learning environment for the non-disruptive student. At the same time, we need to end the isolation, the rejection, and stigmatization of the disruptive student. Particularly, we need to end completely the alienation producing exclusionary practices of suspension and expulsion. Expulsion and suspension deprive the most needy kids of what they need at the most critical time. Public education exists, in substantial part, to mold children into productive members of society. Expulsion is rejection. Expulsion tells the child that he is unwanted and unworthy and powerless.

Second, and perhaps most important, social/emotional education needs to focus on building friendship and connections. Much of the American public education enterprise is built around individual achievement and performance. We need to move away from that model and towards a model where the connection between peers is the most valued object of education. If a child, particularly a young boy, is alone, we need to move aggressively to find ways to connect him with others. Loners commit violence. Kids with connections do not. There are some well-demonstrated ways to make this happen.

Obviously, the rise of digital technology pulls in the opposite direction. Video games give kids an illusion of power and control, without the messiness and the pain of interpersonal relations. Increasingly, schools are relying on placing a student on a computer and having them participate in an “educational” program. The Smarter Balanced Assessment, given each year to all Connecticut students in grades 3 to 8, is a computer-based test. This sort of education creates isolation and, in some cases, alienation.

Nothing that we, as a society can do is guaranteed to stop future school shootings. Yet, there is a lot we can do to reduce the isolation, alienation, and perceived powerlessness that leads to these tragedies.