Friday, March 16, 2018

The Myth of the Bullied School Shooter (or Why Just Walking Up Won't Work)

Yesterday students in my town walked out of school as part of a National School Walkout. For a mere 17 minutes - one for each Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student and staffer who was killed last month. The practical disruption of their protest was minimal. Many of the same students also went to State House in Boston for the WalkOut for Action and March for Our Lives rally and to meet with legislators.

Personally, I'm proud of these kids for participating in an eloquent, thoughtful, and well organized student-led movement. They didn't bag off school for the whole day, using fear as a flimsy excuse to go smoke up behind the bowling alley. They didn't get violent or commit acts of vandalism. What they did was protest peacefully for 17 minutes (before peacefully returning to school and resuming their classes) in the hope that their voices would be heard.

The responses from the community were... disappointing. Many people didn't seem to be aware of the fact that the student-led protest only lasted 17 minutes, and so accused the kids of simply wanting to skip school that day. Others wrote that the students were just agitators, wholly uninformed about the issues at hand. Plenty said that these students ought to be focusing on their education (as if taking part in the kind of political action that America was supposedly built on is not in itself educational). And lots of comments referenced schools, parents, and the media pushing a leftist agenda on students who are apparently, at least according to commenters, too stupid or too young to think for themselves. 

The worst responses were not the harsh critiques but rather the seemingly benign suggestion that high school students should not be protesting but rather befriending the friendless, doing 17 nice things for their peers, or "walking up not out". On the surface, it sounds like a wonderful idea - and when you divorce it from the WalkOut for Action / March for Our Lives movement it really is. Be kind. Connect with someone who is different. Support your teachers. Stand up for the bullied. We should all be doing those things.

But let's examine the idea that the responsibility for stopping school shooters rests, even partially, on the shoulders of our students.

If we take that seriously, then we have to ask ourselves with as much seriousness whether Sand Hook could have been prevented if only someone had asked Adam Lanza to lunch. Did Chris Harper-Mercer simply need a hug? If someone had just told Jaylen Fryberg he was looking good that morning, would Marysville Pilchuck High School have had four more graduating seniors? Do the people in my town truly believe that if folks had been kinder to Jeffrey Weise, Seung-Hui Cho, or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the seeds of their violent impulses would not have had a chance to flower?

The narrative that school shooters are the bullied and not the bullies goes all the way back to Columbine, but most school shooters were not actually bullied. While some school shooters have indeed stated that their goal was to teach bullies a lesson, the data doesn't hold up. Most school shooters initially target school administrators or girls who rejected them, not peers who teased them. Half of high school shooters actually have a history of bullying others (that percentage goes up when you're looking at college-age shooters).

And most importantly, while a quarter of the more than 25 million middle and high school students in America will report having been on the receiving end of bullying, only a tiny handful of those students will ever commit an act of violence.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not the social outcasts the media made them out to be. Jeffrey Weise had numerous friends, including close friends who confided in him, and said himself that thanks to his size people who might have teased him actually left him alone. Seung-Hui Cho was probably bullied but at the same time was described by others as being menacing and having a mean streak. Cho also had a history of harassing female students. Jaylen Fryberg shot his friends first, working clockwise around the lunch table after asking some of them to skip class so they could all eat together.

Walking up would not have stopped those shooters. Smiling and saying hello would not have accomplished anything there. Looking at the biographies of the shooters, you'll see that even though these young people weren't part of the popular crowd, they nonetheless would have heard words of kindness from students and teachers. And clearly Jaylen Fryberg wouldn't have benefited from an invitation to lunch.

Mount Washington child psychologist Rebecca Wald wrote, "‘Walk Up, Not Out’ is a campaign of cowardice, promoted by adults who want there to be a solution to school shootings that asks literally nothing of us. No tough choices, no exercise of political will, no speaking out to power - just lecturing kids on how to do better.” And that's a problem. Personally, I will continue to work hard to help my children learn to be kind and to build others up instead of tearing them down, but I will not ever lie to them by suggesting that by doing so they might prevent a tragedy.

The people responsible for school shootings are school shooters, not the children staring down the barrel of a gun. If blaming the perpetrators isn't enough, then as adults let's accept some of the blame ourselves. If our children are so frightened they feel the need to mobilize to make their voices heard, the first step is to admit that we haven't been doing a very good job of protecting them. The next step? Is to listen to what they have to say.

We might actually learn something.



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