of issues have arisen from school shooting
s, the newest social trend the country is worried about now that it has entered middle-class suburbia. The slain
have become poster
children for gun
control, parental intervention and responsibility, or just reminders of how difficult
adolescence can be. One issue I have yet to see raised has a history just as long and torrid
as gun control, and has perhaps even more commercial value than any other buzzword: the presence of discrimination
s in these crimes.
None of the shootings has been cited as racially, religiously or sexually motivated. They have not been characterized as hate crimes. But these shootings are motivated by hate. Hate of one's peers and an absence of effort to become acquainted with them past their stereotypical label. Jock. Skater. Pothead. Teacher's pet. Loser.
These are stereotypes too, just as unfair and insufficient a reason to shoot a person as saying he's black. When we make students read "The Outsiders" in middle school, do we explain the origins of the segregation or the history behind its elimination? Or do we leave them to read about "Greasers" and "Socs" and wonder which group they belong to? What kind of choice is that to ask them to make? Do you identify with the victim or the victimizer? The rich or the poor? What label best describes you? Have we really moved on from the discriminatory superficiality of the last generation?
Is it any coincidence that these shootings are occurring in schools and not in parks, malls or other public venues? Schools are the breeding grounds for discriminating behavior, such as deciding who's cool enough to hang out with, or who's incidental enough to torment. A professor wondered why nothing like this had ever happened when he was in high school, until a student pointed out that segregation still existed then, and he had not had to wonder whether his opinions were appropriate, because no diversity had existed to challenge them. It turned out that our professor's high school district line was redrawn every year to keep black students from attending public schools outside the South Central district.
If we really understand the inadequacy and inaccuracy of typifying individuals based on shared, superficial characteristics or backgrounds, why are we not ensuring that those shortcomings are at least addressed in pre-collegiate classrooms? When we educate them, are we adequately addressing the ideas most meaningful to them? The value students find in material depends on how they can relate to it. Recall the provocative speech in the film version of "Six Degrees of Separation." The writer mentions several murderers who claim to be motivated by Holden Caufield. Or "The Great Gatsby," another staple of American classrooms. Does any teacher take the time to openly address anti-Semitism, or is vague consideration via class struggle adequate? Money is easier to attack than religion; we all agree it's dirty, whereas our sensitivity to issues such as religion and race prevents us from addressing these at all.
Children are looking for guidance, much of which comes from their school environment. The books we assign them deal with issues of discrimination, but the society they were written for was saturated with the issue. Arguably, we still are, but are we as aware of it? We don't have Freedom Riders, lunch counter sit-ins, abolitionists or pilgrims. Instead, we have sweatshops, school shootings and we retain the mentality that some are inferior to others. Maybe we don't want to think of ourselves as having grown no wiser than our predecessors, who, with the convenient barrier of time, we feel comfortable demonizing. Our transgressions don't stray any further than the titillating buzzword "hate crime," a phrase that we vulgarly flaunt as if we should be rewarded for identifying our sins, as if by knowing that such crimes are wrong we excuse some of the offense.
These offenses cannot be allowed to endure. We cannot excuse ourselves by asking who are we to interfere, to construct another's beliefs, and then wonder where we went wrong, saying that the parents failed by not intervening, the teachers failed by not seriously considering students threats, the web servers failed by not shutting down offensive fights. We have forgotten the distinction between interfering and intervening, and our reluctance to be cast as oppressors has cost children their lives.
So how to solve the problem in our schools? Begin by engaging the students and encouraging them to freely discuss their ideas in class. Don't overlook issues of isolation, ostracism and discrimination in order to dwell on the brilliant use of symbolism, doubling or some other frivolous literary convention in which high school students will find little value. They are looking for themselves, how to define who they see in the mirror every day while grooming their hair or popping their zits. Make them read material that celebrates difference, individuality and the unconventional while deprecating discrimination, stereotypes and passivity in the face of injustice. The material is there: Franklin, Whitman, Emerson and so many others whose brave efforts could enlighten a nation.
Or, at the very least, perhaps save a child, either the one killing, or the one being killed.