Get ready, after today's shooting at Chardon High School in Ohio, for yet another round of superficial analysis of what lies behind these deadly episodes. Media accounts of school shootings almost always focus on the availability of guns or, sometimes, on the influence of violent video games or other media.
What's typically lacking, though, is a deeper analysis of the social tensions in U.S. schools and the way these tensions, in conjunction with new media, feed age-old bullying dynamics among kids.
For this reason, we should welcome a new book on school shootings and bullying by the sociologist Jessica Klein. The book, The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools, documents how most of the shooters in cases stretching back 15 years were bullied, often in homophobic ways or otherwise had their masculinity challenged. Shooters also tended to be social outsiders who felt tyrannized by a popular set which included jocks. Klein argues that bullies often act as "gender police," enforcing traditional gender norms and punishing those who deviate.
While little is yet known about the shooter at Chardon High School, T.J. Lane, or the circumstances that led him to open fire, my hunch is that Klein's analysis will apply here as it has to other cases. In fact, sure enough, according to CBS News:
FBI officials would not comment on a motive. But 15-year-old Danny Komertz, who witnessed the shooting, said the gunman was known as an outcast who had apparently been bullied.
Beyond her incisive analysis of gender, Klein offers a much clearer picture of the link between bullying and social hierarchy in school found in typical media accounts. She writes:
Right now, students find themselves in a minefield—where one false move renders them a pariah. . . .
They acquire status in school if they wear the right clothes, participate in the right activities, and hang out with the right people—flaunting their economic, cultural, and social capital. They use one another’s confidences and sexual reputations as fodder for their own efforts to climb their school’s social ladder and prevent their own social annihilation. Everyone watches their back as students often speak badly about one another—knowing they could easily be next.
In addition to the bully society kids navigate, they also grapple with new social media which has taken over a significant portion of face-to-face communication. Research shows that this increased technology use decreases empathy among kids (and adults) and makes it more difficult for kids (and adults) to develop authentic relationships with one another. Empathy is diminished when people engage with each other less—even when they are in the same room. People need to pay attention to one another, show that they care, and be present—everything that doesn’t happen when texting, instant messaging, and conversing on Facebook.
The solution, Klein argues, is not more anti-bullying laws of the kind passed in New Jersey -- laws that take a largely punitive approach to bullying. Rather, it is to find ways to build stronger ties between students, address the pernicious ways that "gender police" dominate schools, and challenge negative social hierarchies among students. As long as kids like T.J. Lane feel bullied and persecuted in the most heavily armed society on earth, bad things will keep happening.
In turn, all this requires that school administrators and teachers better understand what is really going on in their schools and commit themselves to changing it. Right now, unfortunately, the opposite is often the case, says Klein. The adults in schools are either clueless or, worse, side with jocks and other popular kids that preside over a Lord of the Flies social order.
Let's hope that after today's shooting at Chardon High School, more adults will get it.