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Schoolyard Risks

ONE MORNING THIS past fall, the university in my hometown in North Carolina went into lockdown based on reports of a man near campus carrying an assault rifle. The university blared warnings of “a dangerous incident” while police swept the area. There were rumors that the gunman had taken hostages on a bus or in a class building. Eventually, authorities tracked down the suspect, a senior at the university. It turned out that he was just carrying an umbrella. “I was in a German class and I was the one that told my class there was an armed man. … I had no idea it was me,” the student later told a local news station.

While on the surface amusing—an umbrella and an assault rifle look quite different, after all—this incident speaks volumes about the impact that school shootings have had in the United States. Certainly, they have propelled schools to alter their security procedures and sparked debates about gun control (as well as violent video games and Marilyn Manson). On a more fundamental level, however, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and other tragedies have altered the American psyche. We collectively harbor the fear that another young person might open fire on his fellow students, this time at a school we know. We crave knowing what might compel a shooter to act, so that we can understand what scares us. Our fear ebbs and flows, spiking each time a new shooting occurs, but at even its lowest levels, it is high enough to set people’s imaginations spinning toward worst-case scenarios. And so a sturdy umbrella becomes, in the eye of the beholder, a deadly weapon carried by a young person with revenge or statement-making in mind.

In her well-intentioned but flawed book, Jessie Klein, a professor of sociology and criminal justice, seeks to explain why school shootings happen and to analyze their consequences. She argues that bullying is the crux of the problem: bullying, whether inflicted by individual students or school environments more broadly, motivates shooters (“a recipe for violence ensues when boys are pressured to be hypermasculine and then are marginalized”); and it is on display when they act (“[shooters] believed their violent response, a quick and easy demonstration of masculine prowess, would win them the recognition they desperately craved”). This theory is what frames Klein’s discussion of the taunting, name-calling, reputation-trashing, beating, and other cruelties that have become “an intrinsic part of the cutthroat status wars … commonplace at school.”

There are several problems with Klein’s execution of this argument. Although her discussion of the widespread social, economic, and cultural tendencies that she believes lead to bullying in American schools—aggression, dominance, the prizing of beauty and wealth—hold some truth, her effort to explain why these tendencies exist is a jumble of finger-pointing at everything she thinks ails us: capitalism, Reaganism, suburban culture, mass media, the Internet, corporations, advertising, sports teams, fraternities, standardized testing, the fact that we are not more like Europe. Similarly, her assertions about what should be done to fix this grab-bag of problems are often banal. (“There is a crucial need in our society, I believe, for less Facebook and more ‘face.’”)

When she does describe specific anti-bullying programs that she believes take a good approach by seeking to build “cooperative, compassionate” school communities—an admirable goal, which contrasts with the security- and punishment-focused policies more frequently adopted by schools—Klein often fails to provide evidence that they are effective. When discussing the Sports Leadership Institute, started at Adelphi University (where Klein works), she provides anecdotes from its director attesting to its value and mentions the number of students it served before it was cancelled for budgetary reasons, but she does not offer concrete proof that it reduced rates of bullying. This is not to say that the program was unsuccessful; and perhaps data on its impact do not exist because the program was cut off too soon. But in putting forward programs that allegedly “work,” Klein should have done more to show that they actually do.

The central defect of The Bully Society, however, is Klein’s use of school shootings as a framing device. It distracts from what should be the central discussion—why do we have a bullying crisis and how do we fix it? —by playing, whether inadvertently or not, to the fear already induced by school shootings that they could happen to anyone, anywhere. If the young men (and they are mostly young men) who have perpetrated shootings were bullied, and thousands of students are bullied every day, does that mean there are ticking time bombs everywhere? (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009, nearly 20 percent of students in high school reported being bullied in the year before the CDC conducted a survey on the topic.) Although Klein does not pose it directly, this question is implicit in the incomplete theory that she puts forward in the book.

Klein counts 166 school shootings between 1979 and 2009, and is able to assess the motives of 93 of them, based on press and scholarly reports. Setting aside seven incidents that were related to drugs, money, or political protests, she offers evidence that shooters were bullied—such as courtroom testimony from the classmates of Barry Loukaitis, who killed three people at his middle school in Moses Lake, Washington, including one who regularly called him “faggot.” Yet Klein fails to account for why the number of shooters pales in comparison to the number of students bullied across the country. Klein hints at other factors that might have influenced shooters—for instance, that Loukaitis had been diagnosed with depression—but she does not place them fully in her narrative. (Similarly, she does seem to not know where to situate the issue of race; most school shooters have been white, but she never offers a robust explanation as to why.) She also employs alarmist statements, such as this one: “Bullying is dangerous to the target of abuse and to the perpetrator, as well as to the innocent students who may find themselves in harm’s way when the target unleashes his or her wrath.”

Certainly, Klein does not ignore those individuals who are bullied and never act violently—they comprise the vast majority of those bullied, and they suffer from elevated rates of, among other things, depression, isolation, and self-harm. In fact, her book is at its strongest, in the chapters entitled “Gay Bashing” and “Girl Bashing,” when she details the heartbreaking plight of male students who are targeted for seeming too feminine and female students who are called “sluts” for liking certain boys or mocked because they don’t wear the right clothes. Klein describes the story of James Nabozny, who in 1996 successfully brought a case against his school district for failing to prevent anti-gay bullying:

James Nobozny suffered years of relentless verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. He was called antigay epithets, urinated on, made to suffer repeated assaults and indignities, including a mock rape. Eventually he was beaten to the point of requiring surgery, and he and his family began to receive death threats. … “After the mock rape in the eighth grade,” Jamie said in an interview, “I went directly to the principal’s office and told her … what happened. Her response was, ‘If you’re going to be openly gay you have to expect this kind of thing. Boys will be boys.’”

Why didn’t Klein choose Nobozny and other bullying victims who have suffered without becoming mass murderers to be the centerpieces of her book? (Eight of her ten chapters begin with anecdotes about shootings.) After all, their experiences are the ones that are more widespread and that, despite our fears of angry gunmen on campuses, constitute the most day-to-day suffering.

I do not mean to suggest that school shootings are not a pressing concern, or are not worth discussing in a book about bullying. On the contrary, they should be part of the public discussion about how to make schools safer. But The Bully Society would have been a much stronger work if shootings had been presented, perhaps in a single chapter, as extreme examples of the potential ramifications of bullying.

Klein laments that “it takes violent responses like these shootings to make headlines, but gay bashing, and the culture that produces it, are everyday facts of life in schools across the country.” The same could be said of “Girl Bashing” and other modes of bullying. Yet in giving school shootings top billing in her book, Klein did not heed her own observation. The Bully Society represents a missed opportunity to give one of the most potent and often overlooked crises in American education the treatment it deserves.

Seyward Darby is a freelance writer based in Connecticut and a former online editor of The New Republic. She is a volunteer for The Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth.