At 9:30 in the morning, December 15, 2012, 20 year old Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. He was fully armed–the most powerful person on campus. I don’t know what motivated him. From what I have read so far, no one else does either. There is plenty of speculation, but we have no clear statement from Adam himself as to why he carried his terrible actions against innocent children and adults. We do know that he killed his mother before he went to the school. Whether she was innocent or not, we may never know.
Innocence is an interesting characteristic. Was Adam innocent years before, when the now-famous picture was taken of him as a young teenager? Or was he already on the path to Sandy Hook Elementary, with guns, ammunition, and a desire to kill as many people as he could? Was he innocent one year ago, or even one month ago? When did he turn from being innocent child to being a man with a gun–the most powerful person on campus?
Was he already mentally damaged by some external event? Was he so troubled internally that no one could help him? These are real possibilities, ones people in this country will be debating for some time. That’s a problem, though. Debating these issues does little to solve them. Forming opinions might bring us mental closure for this event, but it won’t give us an actual resolution to the ongoing crisis. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary does not exist in isolation. It’s not a random act. It has happened before, and we can expect that it will happen again.
We formed opinions after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold attacked Columbine High School. I paid close attention to those opinions because I was teaching in Colorado at the time. After the Columbine attack, if I could have legally worn a gun, I would have. Guns were, however, illegal to carry on a school campus in Colorado. That doesn’t matter much to someone like Adam Lanza, though. It’s illegal to use tobacco, drugs and alcohol on campus too. Those are rules–the opinions of the legislature on how schools should operate. I wish those rules worked, but they don’t in all cases. Rules guide conduct, and provide for consequences when broken.
But we know that rules are broken in spite of the consequences. We know that people do things that counter the opinions and rules of legislatures and school districts. When you are in the halls of a school, you are dealing with the realities of that environment, not just the rules that are supposed to govern those hallways. My school had disaster plans in effect for fires, tornadoes, and bomb threats, but we didn’t really have any operable plans for dealing with a heavily armed shooter or bomber.
I was one of the teachers who sat down with our school’s administration to decide what we could do for students in our school. We searched for a good solid plan to prevent someone with a gun from harming our students. We had lots of opinions, even the opinions of combat veterans in our district. Forming opinions didn’t help us. We found that there was little we could do other than hide, block the doors of the classrooms, stay away from the windows, and call for help. I put a sheet of paper up on the window in my classroom door as protection. At least a shooter couldn’t see into my room from there. That’s the reality–a sheet of paper as a deterrent. The real answer to how we can protect our schools is, sadly, that there just isn’t much we can do to stop a determined killer from getting onto campus and hurting lots of people.
. . . there just isn’t much we can do to stop a determined killer from getting onto campus and hurting lots of people.
You can read about many of these killings online. There are many instances both in this country and in other countries. Like most of you who have read this far, I’ve looked for underlying causes. My research showed me that some were carried out by people with deep psychological issues others knew about but were unwilling or unable to take action on. Some killings seemed as if they came out of the blue with no warning or decipherable cause whatsoever.
Some, even in this country, can even be understood as acts of terrorism. The first mass school killing in our country’s history took place back in 1764. In this act-of-terror incident near Greencastle, PA., warriors from the Lenape tribe killed ten children, injured one, and killed the teacher. Justified or not, it was, in their minds an act of war and a response to laws that allowed white settlers to take Indian scalps. Yes, the law of the land gave settlers license to kill Indians. Small wonder the warriors felt they were conducting an act of war. Even under this terrible threat, though, an elder of the Lenape denounced the warriors for their actions.
The worst mass killing of school children was in Bath Township, Michigan, in 1927. The killer, 55 year old former schoolboard member Andrew Kehoe used bombs instead of guns. His access to the school allowed him to place explosives under classrooms and set them off with crude timers, killing 38 children and 6 adults. He injured even more than he killed. A jury found him sane, stating: “We find that the said Andrew P. Kehoe was sane at all times, and so conducted himself and concealed his operations that there was no cause to suspicion any of the above acts.” Kehoe left a sign on the fence at his farm, which was found after the event. It read “Criminals are made not born.” You can find out more in the coroner’s report at the Coroner’s Inquest Report.
Many of other shootings and killings were located at schools but could have taken place anywhere. A good portion of them stemmed from relationships between adults (teachers and outside love interests) that went wrong or did not develop as the killer desired. There are quite a few of these. There are also situations where students at the school attacked their girlfriends or girls who would not be their girlfriends. These acts of jealousy are not related by cause to the Sandy Hook and Columbine killings.
If we remove these types of killings, horrific as they are, from the list of incidents where intervention would have made any difference, we are left with situations where students are the target of their peers–current or former students who are caught in a state of rampage. They just need to kill. They are driven to kill, and that is what we need to look at. What, besides mental illness and jilted lovers . . . what, besides video games or the removal of religion from schools . . . what is driving these killings? Find that answer and maybe we can figure out what can be done about it.
There are two things that I have witnessed and experienced myself at school, both as a student and as a teacher. Most of you will have experienced them too, in one form or another. They are bullying and exclusion. If anything drives someone to blind rage, it can often be traced back to these, and one other factor, a lack of credible adult guidance through these tough circumstances.
In order to understand it, take a step far afield.
In order to understand it, take a step far afield. On August 22, 2000, 60 Minutes aired a show on CBS called The Delinquents. The show studied the aggressive behavior of a group of adolescent male elephants in a game preserve in North West Province, South Africa. 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon travelled to Pilanesberg Park to investigate a phenomenon that had popped up when young elephants had been transported into the park without adults to guide them.
After arriving at their new home, adolescent male elephants began to establish themselves by attacking and killing off rhinos and charging cars and buses full of frightened people. Though the rangers shot the worst agressors, as soon as they removed one bullying bull elephant, another took on the role and became unreasonably aggressive. To combat the problem, park rangers decided to relocate adult bull elephants into the park. Through their impressive size, life experience, and sheer strength, the adult bull elephants were able to establish dominance over the adolescent bulls.
The day-to-day behaviors of the mature adult bulls taught the younger ones the conventions of proper elephant conduct. Their mere presence was enough to bring about a greater calm. Problems with aggression in the park diminished. The younger bull elephants learned to live in their new social setting according to the rules established by the older bull elephants. You can read more in a recap of the original report here.
Stepping back into our world, we can use the above lesson in animal behavior as a filter to guide our understanding of how our children behave in social settings when the adults, who are supposed to be supervising students, are absent or distracted by their other duties. We know as parents that we don’t keep a close eye on everything our child is doing. We hope that our advice and guidance will carry them safely through those times when they have to decide how to behave on their own, nevertheless, every school day we send them into an environment radically different from the home lives we create for them.
When we send our children to school we hope that we are sending them into a safe environment, one where all parents have taught their children how to behave well. We know this is wishful thinking, but we hope that teachers and administrators at our school will take charge of our kids and make sure they are safe. We hope that . . . but anyone who has spent time in school as a student or teacher has seen the anarchy that arises in student groups when they are not sufficiently supervised.
Any teacher knows that leaving a classroom full of unsupervised kids is a problem. Within minutes, even seemingly well-behaved students will be off task at best, and destructive at worst. The larger the group, the worse the situation. The strong begin to prey on the weak by taunting them about the way they dress, look, and act. Bullies home in on any trait that can be brought out, examined in detail, and disdained. It doesn’t matter whether the examination is based on truth or some deliberately made-up and narrow-minded discernment commented on with a caustic wit. The goal is simply to get an emotional response from someone who looks like a good victim–that is, anyone who looks like they won’t be able to fight back effectively.
If there is evil in society, it often begins with this kind of cruelty.
If there is evil in society, it often begins with this kind of cruelty. Cruelty begets cruelty. Remember the words of Andrew Kehoe: “Criminals are made not born.” Those words should haunt us. They should shame us into taking action. We, the strong, should tremble with anger at the thought of bullying. Instead, we tolerate it and consider it a rite of passage. Some people believe victims should get over it like most students do as they go through school. It’s wishful thinking, like hoping for peace in a region of the world that has been at odds for centuries. Feeling righteous about this is not a solution.
And think about it . . . who is it that should get over bullying? It’s not the strongest among us who snap into rampage. It is the ones who are by nature unable to protect themselves from bullying. The list of bully’s victims includes smaller kids, but it also includes the awkward ones, the ones who haven’t matured at the same rate, the timid and fearful ones, the ones who are different in some way: the social outcasts. They are the most vulnerable ones.
It is these students who can be visibly bullied by one or more kids while others stand by and do nothing. No student is willing to champion them. To do so would be to risk being labeled as members of the same outcast group and becoming victimized themselves. If the bullies are not challenged in their aggressive behavior, they grow entitled and encouraged–often accelerating the taunting into to physical bullying.
Bullies escalate. They move from verbal teasing and taunting to simple physical acts like stealing belongings, increasing the states to a quick shove in the hallway. If unchecked, they move on to larger scale attacks designed to torment and humiliate the victim. When caught by a teacher or administrator, they universally claim “I was just joking!” They were not kidding; they intended to cause mental harm.
I’d prefer to say that this is strictly a male to male situation, but females bully each other with astonishing frequency, and often more subtle and skillful in their direct verbal assaults and indirect shunning techniques. Their bullying is harder to detect, but highly effective. We have seen the result in the suicides of kids who have been cyber-bullied. We state that computers are to blame, but computers are just the medium for a cruelty that has been perpetuated through other means long before the advent of Twitter, Facebook and MySpace. For every suicide due to bullying, we could say that only one died instead of a mass killing. If you look at the data, you’ll see that the majority of those who snapped and went on a killing spree ended up dead by their own hands or died in suicide by police.
As a teacher, I have seen bullying in notes passed among students long before they had access to smart phones and the Internet. I’ve heard about it from parents and student who talk of kids carrying out bullying over the phone, or on the walk home from school, or at the mall, or anywhere that adult supervision fails the victims. I’ve seen the results in the despairing faces of innocent children. I am in awe of their strength and nobility as they learn to overcome this scourge. But not everyone can overcome it. In case you are wondering–teasing is bullying. It’s not harmless, it creates invisible scars that can last a lifetime. It causes stress, and the human animal responds to stress like any animal. The mind of the victim seeks relief.
If we allow bullies to push the buttons on their victims, are we really surprised when the victims seek relief as their brains are wired to do? When under threat, we drop our thinking down into the R-brain, the reptile brain, where we see the world in terms of fight or flight mode. Most resort to flight. They find safe places, form small groups of friends who are in the same category, and learn to overcome the pain by refocusing their energies elsewhere.
Is it any wonder though, that among some few of the victims, after the flight they come back to fight? They want to inflict pain in the form of terms of retribution. Sometimes retribution is directed at a specific group. Harris and Klebold actually told their targeted victims to stand up so they could be singled out. They also told one person to leave the area because he was not an “enemy.” If we ignore the fact that events in school led up to the rampage, if we explain it away by saying the victims should just get over it, then we are ignoring the darkest reality of all, that bullies, acting like animals, bring out the animal in their victims. Take this as fact–we are failing the victims, and we are paying the price for that failure.
I wish I could say that bullying is specific, limited to certain groups in certain areas. We feel comfortable when we say things like gang members are not a real problem to society as long as they just kill other gang members. Maybe school bullies just happen in some schools. We could fool ourselves into taking comfort by wishfully limiting its scope and hopefully allowing at least some groups to feel safe. That is not the case. Bullying takes place in every school. It is carried out by every racial and cultural group, upon every racial and cultural group. It is not them versus us. Bullying is us preying on us. There is no free pass. Bullying is a unfortunate but universal part of the student experience–but it doesn’t need to be.
Bullying is a unfortunate but universal part of the student experience–but it doesn’t need to be.
I have taught at public and private schools. I have supervised students from early and upper elementary school, to middle school, to high school, and on to college. The bullying is most prominent in upper elementary, middle school and the early years of high school. It shows up in all grades, though–even college. If you have a child in school, he or she has almost certainly either witnessed bullying, been a victim of it, or been a bully.
We can ask the reasons why people bully, and there are many. Some decry the loss of fathers in modern society, pointing to the large amount of single mothers raising families. This article does not offer a solution for that situation. Placing blame on the families, however justified, is not useful. Society cannot enter every home to make sure that each child is raised properly. No matter what we might wish for in a good home life for every child, we will not be able to enforce a good upbringing in every home. Knowing a reason why is not a solution.
We must do something to address the situation. We can advocate putting guns in the hands of teachers, hiring armed guards for schools, or bringing in parents and grandparents to patrol the halls. There are merits and problems to each of these solutions. But there are other fronts we can explore to address the situation. We can ask students to step up and report bullying. I have seen good programs advanced in schools to do just that. What we are doing, though, is asking students to solve their problems for us. That is like expecting the young bull elephants to police themselves. It won’t happen . . . at least not on a large enough scale to solve the problem.
Instead, we have to look at what will work within the framework of the school. We have to allow for the human equivalent of mature bull elephants to be part of the environment. I was one of these. At times it made me unpopular, especially with the bullies, and sometimes with their parents. It meant that I would step out into the hallway and intervene when students were bullying a victim outside of my classroom. It meant that I would catch them early on as they began the rite of bullying with a little “just joking” teasing to the person who could not put up a good defense. It meant that I would let the bullies know in no uncertain terms that I would act against them, and that they would pay a consequence if they didn’t quit their predatory behavior. I took the role of the mature bull elephant. I took the role of alpha male.
I took the role of the mature bull elephant. I took the role of alpha male.
It wasn’t always easy for the administrators to allow this. Parents, influential ones who had power in the community (public school) or money in the school (private school) would resist my stance when I called their bully children on negative behaviors. That meant the administrator had to take a stance too, make a choice, one that the influential parent would resist. It meant that the administrator would have to listen to the parents’ complaints on the phone, in the office, or at a school board meeting. It meant making a choice to quiet me or to quiet the parent, and risk the wrath of a school board, a board with the power to offer or refuse a contract to the administrator every year, a board that wanted a quiet campus even if it meant turning a blind eye to the bullying, as long as it was just “normal kid stuff.” No one wanted bullying, but it was just easier to have things be quiet.
Administrators take responsibility for everything that happens on campus. They have to answer for the acts of others, but they really hold very little power. They can hire and fire teachers; they can advise students, suspend them, and even expel them. That is the power side of administration, but each such act is a difficult process with consequences, often laden with conflict and repercussions. It takes courage to take action, especially when we all want quiet, calm, safe schools.
Action requires an admission that the school is not safe, that something needs to be done, and the willingness, the heart, the courage, and the backing to follow through with that action. Action requires schools to back their administrators, administrators to back their bull elephant teachers, and action to confront parents who believe that their students are telling them the truth about not bullying others, when, in fact, they are bullies.
We can’t expect parents to accept that they have raised children who take advantage of others. Instead, we can expect mothers and fathers to defend their children against anyone, anytime, anywhere, no matter what the cause, even if their children are wrong. But we can’t let that stop us from creating a safer school by confronting the bullies in their element and bringing them back into line. Someone has to step into the hall, into the cafeteria, onto the playground, on the schoolbus, and call out the bullies. We have to give that person the permission to put an end to the bullying.
It is not enough to put just any teacher out in the hallway, the teacher who confronts bullying has to be capable of changing the situation. The teachers we choose must have the judgment to know how to respond to bullying, but they also need the power to stand up to the student bully and win. They absolutely have to win every time, just like the adult bull elephants taking on the adolescent bulls. Adult bull elephants are credible in the wild because they will win, and the adolescent bull elephants know there is no getting around that fact.
Instead, we have a system that passes the bully culture along year after year, without addressing the bully and solving the problem. Teachers weigh their careers against a system that will not back them up, a system that dislikes the noise of conflict. Teachers realize that, like the victims of bullying and they bystanders who watch it, doing and saying nothing is the safest course of action. Teachers don’t get disciplined or fired for not being at the center of a conflict. We need to change that.
7 rules the bull elephant teachers need to enforce
- Inclusion–everyone has a right to be in school the school–we need to believe this and make others understand that it is a non-negotiable right of every student.
- Discernment–the fact that a popular or powerful kid points out the defects in someone else does not indicate that anything is wrong with the victim–we need all students to recognize that bullying begins here, often before anyone takes any action against the victim.
- Strength–bull elephants do not back down from threats–not from parents, and not from kids, and they shouldn’t be forced to take a stand against the administration.
- Neutrality–no student has to like other students, but they are not allowed to visibly and actively dislike them–we cannot expect students to stop being human, but we can expect them to act like good citizens in and around the school.
- Superiority/inferiority–one student, one clique, one school group is no better than or more important than another. It is okay to choose to not be a member of a group, but not okay to be ostracized from every group.
- The strong don’t prey on the weak–any civilized society demands that the strong protect the weak.
- There is plenty of leeway for being an immature kid growing up, but none for being a bully.
Every hallway has walls. Students need to stay within the lines of behavior. Was Adam Lanza bullied? I haven’t seen anyone come forward to say that he was, but we do know that shooters from the other large scale shootings were bullied. Harris and Klebold come to mind. We had a chance after Columbine to take a stance against bullying, but have we really done anything? The biggest threat to our schools begins in school, long before the monster comes with a gun, long before the monster contemplates being a monster, long before, when the monster is still innocent and vulnerable–and not yet a monster. We need to confront bullying then and there, so that schools can be the safe environments we wish them to be.