School Daze

On the day Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the two “Beltway snipers,” pleaded guilty to six shootings in Maryland in 2002, President Bush headlined a summit on school violence in Chevy Chase, Md., not far from the scene of one of the attacks.

School violence and street violence are part of the same picture. When I was in school, safety focused on traffic (I was a member of the safety patrol), not injuring yourself in shop class and making sure “spotters” ringed the trampoline so no one got hurt. The one student who got in trouble with the law for stabbing another student off campus was ostracized. That kind of behavior was not to be tolerated by either adults or my classmates.

While certain inner-city schools in New York were “blackboard jungles,” to recall a Glenn Ford-Sidney Poitier film from that era, most parents and students viewed their schools as safe. Then, metal detectors were devices you took to the beach to locate coins and drugs were obtained at a pharmacy with a legal prescription from a doctor. We mostly lied about sex and the few we knew were having it wore taps on their shoes, had their hair styled a certain way and if they were girls, took typing instead of Latin.

The school summit consisted mostly of bromides. No one has a real “solution” to the disturbed who bring guns to school and slaughter children. There was talk of better student-parent-teacher communication, but short of turning schools into detainee centers, there are no guarantees that even under the best of circumstances more shootings won’t occur.

The real problem lies outside of school and in the human heart and wider culture. Kids see violence celebrated throughout the world. Fanatics blow themselves and others up on orders from their god and in pursuit of a twisted view of heaven on earth. The news is filled with stories about missing and abused women, most of whom suffer a violent death. Entertainment programs are drenched in blood and gore. Gunfights are sometimes in slow motion so that the viewer can watch a bullet entering and exiting a human body, destroying tissue and splattering blood. While most who watch do not copy such behavior, some sick people do.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 16,000 people were murdered in the United States in 2004 (the latest year for which statistics are available). Murder rates in 1950 and 1960 were half those in the 1980s and ’90s before declining slightly in subsequent years.

We read and hear about kids being shot and killed for a leather jacket or a pair of high-priced sneakers. Why has human life become so cheap and why has moral conduct eroded to the point that many commit murder without a second thought?

Sociologists and culture critics have spent years studying this question and have produced mountains of paperwork analyzing violence and its causes. They have also proposed solutions, none of which appear to be working to stem school shootings.

Elizabeth Thoman, founder of the Center for Media Literacy, contributes one answer. She writes, defensively at first, “For years, like other communicators, I believed that tolerating some things I didn’t like, including depictions of violence, was the price we paid for a free and open public discourse. … The issue, I believe, is no longer one of protecting free speech, but protecting human life; it is not a question of censoring ideas but of changing behaviors that are endangering the health and safety of every citizen, young and old.”

The media won’t change and government isn’t about to make them change, other than imposing fines for broadcasting certain vulgar words. So the task falls upon the parents. Get rid of the TV, or at least prohibit children from watching violent shows. Don’t allow violent and crude music in your home. Don’t divorce, which causes children to feel abandoned and become angry. Stop aborting babies, because if human life is seen as cheap and disposable at its early stages, we lose a moral argument for preserving it at later stages.

Talking about school violence is not a bad thing. Doing the tough things that will reduce it is better. Abandoning the notion that parents should be “friends” with their children would help, along with the investment of quantity time in their lives. But that would require major changes in many households that now put building wealth ahead of building character.