I’m not sure why the shooting at Santana High in Santee, Calif., that left two
dead and 13 injured has affected me so much.
Maybe it’s because I
live in the general vicinity and have actually been to Santee. Maybe it’s
because I have a son in high school right now, one not all that different
from Santana, though built a bit more recently. Maybe the chatter
revolving around the latest school shooting has seemed particularly vapid
this time, with the talking heads reciting their lines dutifully but with
a palpable sense of hopelessness and futility.
Parents send their children to school in part because it’s required by
law, but most parents would send them to school without that requirement,
albeit with a mixture of hope and trepidation.
We hope that they will learn skills and refine abilities that will enable them to deal with the
challenges they will face later in life. We hope they won’t be corrupted
by the sometimes-soul-deadening atmosphere of so many government schools,
by the politically correct propaganda that passes for curriculum in many
schools, by the constant pressure to conform and bow to authority figures.
We hope they won’t be inculcated with the religion of statism that is the
constant subtext of so much that is taught and done in government schools.
We hope they will be able to connect with the few really excellent
teachers who manage to survive in even the worst of schools. And we hope
against hope that schools will not only awaken their intellects, or at
least not kill them, but will keep them safe.
As much as we may be aware that school violence — despite the massive
publicity given to the horrendous incidents that do occur — is on the
decline, as much as we want to believe the officials who say that schools,
looked at statistically, are the safest places teen-agers can be, an
incident like this hits close to home, reminding us that the unpredictable
and the almost unthinkable could endanger our own children. (And that,
incidentally, is one of the reasons, besides a gun-control agenda, the
media indulge in overkill when it comes to coverage.) It is cold comfort,
when contemplating possible danger to someone you love, to remember that
none of us is safe, really, that we are all potentially at the mercy of
some unhinged maniac whenever we go out in public — and even sometimes in
the supposed safety of our homes.
Life is a constant risk, a daily balancing of the desire for safety with
the calls of duty and the desires for adventure and new knowledge — and it
doesn’t come with guarantees, at least not in this world. But knowing that
on an intellectual level and accepting it on an emotional level in regard
to somebody we have loved and tried to nurture is not always easy to
achieve. So a school shooting close to home can raise the agonizing and
ultimately unanswerable question — why, why, why? — in particularly poignant
Why that kid, and why that school? Although some news stories now intimate
that troubles and tensions were simmering at Santana High, the school and
the community would not have struck most observers as a likely candidate
for a violent outbreak — although we’re being reminded of late that these
shootings have occurred mostly in suburban schools rather than in the grim
inner-city prisons. The community had experienced growth in recent years,
which can exacerbate tensions and is not always conducive to a cohesive
sense of community. But to most people it had seemed like healthy growth
driven by prosperity.
Santana High had most of the mechanisms and institutions that most experts
have viewed as important in the wake of recent well-publicized school
shootings. Violence-prevention and anger-management programs were in place
and the counseling staff had been expanded. Staff and teachers said they
understood the importance of communication and getting parents involved in
the lives of students and the school and had made serious efforts to
improve performance in these areas.
And yet it was in suburban Santee that Charles Andrew Williams, 15, a
freshman described by some as a nice kid and by others as a dork who
endured taunts and had trouble fitting in, allegedly pulled out a
.22-caliber revolver and opened fire on classmates and teachers. Some
friends said he had talked about killing students at school but they
hadn’t thought he was serious. Some people, including the adult boyfriend
of the mother of a friend, feel remorseful now that they didn’t intervene
or report apparently joking threats to some authority.
Yet regret cannot change what has happened, and it should not be the basis
of policy changes. As we grieve and mourn and wonder it is important to
take the time to think carefully about future policies. It will not be
easy to steer a path between hasty over-reaction and simply shrugging off
the killings with a “these things happen” attitude. We shouldn’t accept
school shootings as inevitable even if rare, but neither should we revamp
schools with security as the only priority.
A few preliminary thoughts, then.
My son listened to one of the talking heads saying that students should be
encouraged to report every threatening or potentially threatening remark
from a fellow student. “If we did that in my school,” he said, “half the
kids would be in the principal’s office every other day.” An exaggeration,
but one with some validity. Most kids blow off steam with joking threats
to kill somebody from time to time, or whine about how they hate their
parents or their teacher or their coach and would like to inflict harm on
them. Most of the time it’s harmless and in some cases it might even be
healthy — talking out rather than acting out. Once in a while it’s
serious and should require attention. How do you know the difference?
There’s no easy answer to that. Learning to make educated guesses about
when people are harmlessly blowing off steam and when they are a genuine
threat is not easy. Some people seem better at it instinctively than
others — I always like to get my wife’s first impression about people
rather than trusting my own supposedly experienced judgment alone — but
it’s an imperfect art. Learning how good you are at it and how you can
improve are part of growing up. But, like most aspects of learning how to
live as an independent, responsible human being, it is often learned by
making plenty of mistakes along the way. You just have to hope that you
learn from your mistakes with nothing much worse than a bloody nose.
There’s also no easy answer to the quite real problem of bullying. We’d
like to think we can talk kids out of it by persuading them that bullies
are jerks rather than by warning them bullies might get blown away. But in
fact bullying happens in childhood, and very few victims do anything about
it but run away when they can.
Do we really want schools with metal detectors and narcs empowered to
search backpacks, book bags and pockets at any time or place they please?
That’s already the reality at some schools. But I would like to see some
reasonably objective — if that’s possible — research into and discussion
of whether such measures really do reduce violence. Any institution has to
have rules, standards and expectations, and those have to be communicated
and taken seriously. But we’ve seen enough examples of zero tolerance for
pen-knives or toy guns or aspirin to know that schools in modern America
are fully capable of taking repressive measures to absurd extremes. Is
this more likely to deter violence or inspire contempt?
Meredith Maran, whose most recent book is “Class Dismissed: A Year in the Life of an American High School,” wrote for Salon.com, “Is it right or wrong
that we send our teenagers to overcrowded schools the size of factories,
staffed with teachers paid two-thirds the salaries of prison guards and
‘counselors’ assigned to several hundred students apiece, thereby
guaranteeing that few if any adults on campus know our kids’ names, let
alone what they need?” Ms. Maran laments that most American kids don’t get
the higher-quality instruction and personal attention available only in a
few private schools.
The question is whether the success of some of the better private schools
can be duplicated in government-run schools by spending more money, hiring
more teachers, reducing the number of kids in classrooms and hiring more
counselors? It might be useful to ponder whether state-run schools exist
to serve the needs of children or the perceived needs of “society” or the
state in having well-trained but docile conformists who will make good
bureaucrats and factory or office workers.
The trend recently has been to approach the problem of achievement by
creating standardized tests students are expected to pass, with discipline
for failure imposed from the top down, preferably from the highest (and
therefore most remote) levels of government. This accomplishes something,
but does it awaken a love for learning, an intellectually adventurous
spirit? Does it reinforce the idea that each precious child is a unique
individual who deserves respect and the opportunity to grow into a life of
responsibility, discernment and achievement? Or does it provoke resentment
at “the system’s” desire to fit diverse individuals into a few pigeonholes?
Adolescence is in some ways an invention of modern industrial society. In
earlier times, in other cultures, children worked full-time at 12 and
assumed full adult responsibilities, including marriage, at 14 or 15. By
prolonging adolescence, are we taking advantage of an opportunity to give
young people more tools and a more well-rounded outlook on the freedom and
responsibility that come with adulthood? Or are we deterring the
assumption of responsibility, encouraging people to be eternal
adolescents, with the expectation of being taken care of, long after they
have reached chronological adulthood?
Milton and Rose Friedman noted in their classic book, “Free to Choose,”
that moral responsibility is an individual rather than a collective
concept. In fact, I believe, the concept of collective morality or
collective moral responsibility is literally incoherent; it degenerates
into the intellectual equivalent of meaningless babble upon reasonably
close analysis. Yet collective morality is invoked constantly in
discussions of such incidents, just as if it had some real meaning, and is
hardly ever challenged.
Do schools and other institutions encourage the assumption of individual
responsibility, which includes accepting the consequences of bad choices?
Does the plaintive cry, “we are all guilty, all responsible” mean in
practice that nobody is responsible — least of all the particular person
who actually committed some crime — and choke off intelligent discussion
of the importance of learning to accept responsibility, even to welcome
it, which is one of the hallmarks of full adulthood and full citizenship?
Does the descent of “crisis counselors” help young people to cope or send
the message that society doesn’t expect them to learn to handle problems
and tragedies themselves?
Smaller schools? Better communication? Mechanisms and habits that build
trust so students who hear disturbing things are more likely to mention
them to those who can do something to prevent or correct problems? More
intelligent security measures? Restraint by the media in the desperate
search for a talking head who will finally make sense of the kind of
violence and unfocused anger that makes reasonably normal people want to
cry in anguish and give up on humanity?
All these are interesting and potentially promising reforms. But a more
fundamental issue really should be addressed.
Are schools seen as institutions designed to help individual students, as
variegated as they are, to rise to their potential as productive and
responsible adults able to identify and fulfill their dreams without
harming others or trespassing on their rights? Or are they designed to
mold and shape students to meet the perceived needs of society?
If we decide they are the former the second question is whether the state
is capable of running institutions that serve the almost infinite
interests of students rather than the primary interest of the state in
producing obedient little citizens. Perhaps it can for a while —
certainly some teachers and administrators think they are there to help
students and treat them as unique individuals. But few of those in
positions of influence in what is laughingly called an educational system
act that way.
If they did, many other problems we’re inclined to view as
insoluble might well become less prominent — not instantly or easily, but