An Englishwoman in Washington

'Despite the attention of the world's media, attempted murder in American schools is still extremely rare.'

Helen Searls

Topics Politics

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America is in a state of shock after a school student went on a killing rampage at his high school in San Diego, California.

On Monday 5 March, 15-year-old Charles ‘Andy’ Williams opened fire on his classmates, killing two students and wounding 13 others. It was the worst incidence of school violence since the deadly events at Columbine High School nearly two years ago. Once again, parents and politicians are asking how and why such a thing could happen.

The school shootings of recent years have caused an immense amount of anxiety within American society. Of course there is something deeply disturbing about children being gunned down and maimed for no apparent reason. It is made all the worse when such violence happens in a school – a place where children are meant to be safe and nurtured – and at the hands of another child.

But the anxiety generated by these incidents is not simply a normal reaction to a tragic and senseless event. Such shootings tend to send a wave of self-doubt and general unease throughout the whole of society, as though they represent something dark and sinister about the nature of America itself.

In reaction to the San Diego shooting, many are already bemoaning the ‘deep cancers’ within American culture. Gun control advocates are out in force, blaming America’s ‘gun culture’ for the incident. Bullying and ‘jock culture’ have also been blamed, as we are told that – as in previous school shootings – this shooter, Williams, was an outcast who suffered taunts from fellow students.

Over the next few days, we will hear much about the emotional inadequacy of boys which provides them with little opportunity to express their feelings and frustrations. And it will only be a matter of time before somebody finds some connection with a violent video or the internet, and blames these demons for inspiring such action.

But while such explanations are widespread, they are less than convincing. American youths have long had access to firearms, but it is only in the past few years that school shootings seem to have hit the headlines. American children have doubtless also bullied and taunted one another for centuries without sparking such a violent reaction.

It is difficult to imagine that boys raised in the sensitive 1990s are somehow less in touch with their emotions than their older counterparts. And there is, as yet, no study that proves any link between videos or the internet and real-life violence.

It is hard to find an explanation for these events because, despite the attention of the world’s media, attempted murder in American schools is still extremely rare. In 1999, there were 26 school-associated violent deaths. This sounds high; but when you consider that there are 52million school students in the USA, the chance of a school student dying such a death is one in two million.

By definition, rare events happen only rarely. They occur in such unusual and exceptional circumstances that it is doubtful whether any one factor can explain them.

But whatever the explanation for why a few weird and unstable American teenagers choose to vent their spleen through shooting their classmates, the preoccupation with school safety that has made fear of violence in schools into a national obsession probably has not helped.

The preoccupation with safety in schools and the fear of violence in schools predates the infamous school shootings in Columbine (April 1999) or even Jonesboro (March 1998). Since the early 1990s, school boards and principals have been keen to enact high-profile ‘zero tolerance’ campaigns against weapons in school.

State legislatures have also put much energy into being seen to take the matter of school safety seriously. A whole range of measures are now commonplace in US schools, from surveillance cameras on school buses to metal detectors at school entrances, and from the banning of anything that could be deemed gang insignia to the permanent police presence within some school campuses.

Charles Williams’ own school in San Diego apparently ran ‘an aggressive anti-violence education programme’ with all students. Such is the sensitivity about school violence that even making a joke about it in the school dining room is now a suspendable offence in many states.

When all of this is taken together, it is clear that US schools convey a very clear message to students. Students – especially teenagers – are to be feared and, without rigorous regulation and policing, adults believe students will naturally be violent and dangerous.

In this kind of atmosphere, is it so incredible that some nutcases choose to play the part?

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Topics Politics


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