Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Pressure Point: How School's Today Create Mass Murderers

It's kind of hard when you ain't got no friends
He puts his life to an end
They might remember him then 

-P.O.D. "Youth of the Nation"

In the days since last Friday's horrendous shooting in Newton, Connecticut, I have been doing a lot of thinking about everything that happened.  In the days and weeks to come this story will gradually unfold.  We will hear more stories about the heroic actions of the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  We will hear more about Adam Lanza from people that knew him best to people that will be on TV for their fifteen minutes of fame.  We will hear about Connecticut gun laws and the NRA's influence in that state.  We will hear from first responders as they provide us with descriptions of a crime scene beyond what even the most grizzled E.R. nurse or doctor has ever had to deal with.  We will hear from community members about how their simple New England town will never be the same.  

In addition, we also will hear explanations for why this happened.  Glorious, glorious explanations.  Explanations that defy logic and that are made by people with zero common sense and yet who make more in one year than you or I will make in a lifetime.  Some of my favorites so far:  Teachers should have been armed, students should have been armed, we took God out of schools, it's what we get in this country for tolerating "the gays," the school featured an all female staff, etc., etc.  We then will (temporarily) have meaningful conversations about gun control and regulation, the prevalence of violence in the media, and access to mental health.  Our politicians will promise to put aside their ideological differences and will vow to work together to ensure that what happened in Newton never happens again.  

And then, it will happen again.  

And again.  

And again.   


Since 1998, there have been eleven school-related shootings across the nation.  They have taken place from Connecticut to California.  There have been shootings from as young as middle school (Jonesboro, AR) to college (Virginia Tech).  Public schools, Native American reservations, and Amish schools have all experienced a shooting during this time period.  When P.O.D. wrote their above song "Youth of the Nation" it was composed right after the Santana High School shooting in Santee, CA in March of 2001.  Since they wrote this song, there have been eight additional killings throughout the country.  The youth of the nation that the band talks about hasn't gotten any less violent.  Why?  

Since the shootings in Newtown, pundits on the left and right have offered theories about why these kind of things happen.  I've already mentioned the more absurd ones.  Yet, believe it or not, there have been some theories that warrant further discussion.  There has been talk about the media's influence as it has been revealed that Adam Lanza's mom was an avid doomsday prepper.  There have been many good articles about living with children with mental issues and how difficult it is to get these children proper support.  Lastly, there has been discussion about the breakdown of compassion in society.  Why are all these murderers seemingly loners that resort to violence rather than have meaningful conversations about their feelings and attitudes?  

With these in mind, I'd like to offer another theory that warrants consideration.  I know, I know.  You're sick of these theories by now.  And yet, this is one that hasn't been addressed as much as it should.  It is the idea that the structure of schools today is what caused these people to crack.  The high-stakes, high-pressure environment that we subject kids to from as early as the first grade.  We test kids constantly.  Tests are what allow them to take advanced classes in high school.  Tests are what get them in or out of college.  Tests are what keep their schools open, or cause their schools to close, separating them from their peers and breaking up any kind of social bonds they had been able to create.  If you're a good test taker, then college was your reward.  If you weren't a good test taker, you could still earn the respect of your peers through athletics or clubs.  Not involved in extracurricular activities or not getting good grades?  Then, the cards are stacked against you in your public school life.  

More about Adam Lanza will come out.  However, I'm willing to bet he attended Sandy Hook Elementary as a child.  Something about that experience caused him years and years of pain and suffering.  Granted, it didn't help that mom was a doomsday prepper, and that there was a hearty collection of firearms in the home.  Yet, something made the experience so miserable for Adam that he felt the need for retribution even though he had been beyond the school's walls for eight years.  Was he picked on?  Bullied?  Called names by students?  Ignored by teachers?  Was he over-tested?  Was he under appreciated?  Yes, his actions were extreme.  But is his story that uncommon?   

The answer is no.  Today's high-pressure, high-testing school environments breed tales like that of Adam Lanza.  For those of us that have been in high school since 2001, think back to your schools.  Who among your friends thought the SAT was fun?  Who among your friends got excited to take year end state tests?  Who among your friends actually high-fived the kid in math class who broke the curve and caused everyone else's grade to drop?  Who among your friends felt happiness for a peer rather than resentment when he or she got into the school that rejected them?  Schools today pit students against each other in a real life Hunger Games.  However, in this version, the losers aren't killed.  They are the ones who end up doing the killing.  

The United States tests its students more than any other country in the world.  We constantly gripe about how low are math and science scores are compared to the other industrialized nations.  We are accustomed to being number one.  In everything.  So clearly, it's not the system we have in place, it's that we haven't been doing enough practice.  So we test.  And test again.  We don't let people pass the grade or graduate unless they past the test.  We grade schools on how well they do on these tests.  If schools don't do well on these tests then we shut them down.  We begin to care about the tests and nothing but the tests.  Our classroom instruction revolves around test-taking strategies.  Our staff meetings have conversations about how to improve test scores.  If we actually pass the tests we celebrate, even though "passing" might only mean 60% proficiency, depending on the state.  

Chances are, if you are reading this blog today, you were a decent test-taker or found something you were passionate about after school. You, at least, were able to graduate high school and college.  You may have been awkward at times in school.  Maybe even picked on. And yet, you survived.  You had a fairly normal home life and you had a support system at school with either teachers or your peers.  Now, think about the opposite end of the spectrum.  Think about those kids your school left behind.  Can't think of one?  Go through your old high school yearbook.  Find someone whose name you've never heard of until tonight.  Someone's who's senior will is blank or mentions only one or two people.  Someone who didn't join any sports or clubs.  Someone who you would pass in the streets tonight and wouldn't even have any idea that he or she was from your home town.  These are your Adam Lanzas.  

Adam was clearly troubled.  His mom was troubled.  Chances are, his brother Ryan probably had a screw loose too.  Who knows what his dad's deal was.  What he did will live on in infamy.  His name will be synonymous with evil.  He probably had a mental illness.  All this will come out in the coming weeks.  And yet, at no point will you hear about how the environment of public school's today might have been a factor.  Maybe Adam was a good test-taker that had friends.  But what about Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter whose grades were slipping and who had changed his major?  What about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Columbine infamy who had been bullied constantly throughout their high school years?  These people weren't sane to begin with.  And the environment of their schools, without question, exacerbated their problems.  Until we somehow and some way of having a meaningful discussion about the pressures of school today, we unfortunately will continue to have school shootings, regardless of any temporary stop measure that politicians put in place in the coming weeks.  

As P.O.D. sang in "Youth of a Nation":  

I guess that's the way the story goes.

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