Sandy Hook Elementary

Cover of "Rampage: The Social Roots of Sc...

Cover via Amazon

The Anusara Yoga Teacher Training manual talks about the cultivation of three qualities: soft heart, sharp mind, and vibrant body. I have a friend who lives and has raised her children in Newtown, CT, and my longest friend spent much of his childhood here. Like so many coming together on social media, my heart is broken. It breaks, also for the dozens of children who have died of hunger since I’ve been typing this, for the slow attrition of young people in inner cities, and for children killed by our unmanned drones in Pakistan and Yemen.

Sharp mind comes into play here, and I cannot help but share what I have learned in the process of teaching sociology to college students for the past eight years. In doing so, I will draw upon explanations of rampage school shootings advanced in the research of Katherine S. Newman. While what happened at Sandy Hook elementary was not perpetrated by a student, a young adult does appear to have been involved. Newman points out that school shootings themselves are more similar to workplace mass homicides perpetrated by adults, than to other kinds of youth violence. For these two reasons let us assume for the moment that Newman’s findings are instructive here.

In Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings (2004), Katherine S. Newman identifies five “necessary but insufficient conditions” for a school shooting to occur. First, a word about this difficult language. This is social scientific jargon for a weak predictive model. It means that for school shootings to occur, all five factors must be present, but the presence of all five factors does not guarantee a school shooting. This is to say that all five factors may be present in any given social setting, and a school shooting will not necessarily occur.

Second, it is important to attend to the way in which Newman’s conclusions were derived.

In 1999 [after Columbine], the House of Representatives added a provision to the “Missing, Runaway, and Exploited Children’s Act” requiring the U.S. Department of Education to study rampage shootings in schools. Representative James Greenwood, a Republican from eastern Pennsylvania who had previously been a social worker, asked the department for research that would explain why such tragedies were occurring in American communities that appeared to be so safe. Greenwood was not after a raft of numbers. What he wanted was a set of in-depth community studies. The Department of Education in turn contact the National Academy of Sciences, the most prestigious research organization in the country, which has provided scientific advisers to every administration since Abraham Lincoln’s. I (KSN) was surprised to get a call from the Academy asking for my help in this effort. As a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and Dean of Social Science at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, I have authored a number of books on urban poverty and the consequences of economic stress for American families, but knew little about the sociological study of crime.… (2004: ix-x)As the director of a new doctoral program in government sociology and social policy, Newman then sent David J. Harding and Jal Mehta to Heath, KY, and Cybelle Fox and Wendy Roth to Westside, AK, two communities that had experienced school shootings. Collectively, they amassed 163 in-depth interviews in those and neighboring communities. They used these interviews to build a theory of school shootings (x). Then they tested it using three sources of data about school shootings: a national database of school–associated violent deaths provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Safe School Initiative report by the U. S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education, and their own homegrown database of newspaper accounts of school shootings dating back to the 1970s (231-5).

The proceeds from the sale of Newman’s book go to the communities she studied; Newman’s findings belong to us all.

The following are the five factors:

  1. the perception of oneself as socially marginal, which incorporates the impact of bullying and school climate;
  2. individual vulnerabilities, such as psychological conditions that magnify the impact of marginalization;
  3. cultural scripts which “delimit the options for reaction”;
  4. the failure of school surveillance systems to detect troubled individuals (“under the radar”); and of course,
  5. the availability of guns (235-261).

I think our American individualism will tend to highlight the first two factors. The emphasis given will depend on one’s own experience (or lack thereof) with bullying. Suffice it to say that we are making some inroads, particularly here in Massachusetts, into supporting schools’ efforts to counter bullying.

The “culturally available” frame, however, is mental illness. It is a factor, but it is not the only factor, and it is insufficient to cause a school shooting. Therefore this should not diminish the significance of the other factors. It is politically convenient for some to diminish the other factors, especially gun availability.

To put a finer point on the issue of cultural scripts, this has to do with violent media such as movies and video games. It is not to scapegoat creators and purveyors of the media. This would be another political expedience, rightly dismissed by the argument that many who consume such media do not go on to become rampage shooters. It is, however, to recognize that for people already socially marginal and mentally ill, the scripts available for an armed attack are all too conveniently available.

The failure of school surveillance systems happens for two reasons: First, schools have insufficient resources for mental health generally. Second, there are some good features of schools we would want to preserve that have this dark side. For instance, the idea of a “blank slate” in which students get a “fresh start” with each new teacher or each new semester, means that schools cannot often form a coherent picture of a troubled individual. Moreover, as Katherine Newman argues in the case of the Virginia Tech shooting, schools can have done everything right to identify a troubled individual and law enforcement may still not have responded in a timely or appropriate fashion. The point is not to blame the victim, for schools, as deliberately chosen stages for these attacks, are themselves very much victims. It is to suggest that schools are a site in which we can tweak adolescent culture, improve school climate, improve mental health services (for all), and enhance detection of troubled individuals. Since the alleged perpetrator in this case was not a student in the elementary school, it’s hard to argue for the salience of this factor in this case, but he is a young adult, and likely was recently a student in someone’s school somewhere.

The remaining issue is gun availability. A meaningful national conversation about gun control is long overdue. There appear to be three commonsense things that could be done very quickly to improve the situation: reinstate the assault weapons ban, banning high–capacity magazines, and regulating sniper rifles. In the current political climate, it will take political courage to engage in such meaningful national conversation. We need both that courage and that conversation, and we need it yesterday.

At the end of the day, understanding these factors cannot keep us and our children safe from all eventualities. It cannot protect us from a disturbed and determined individual. But in aggregate, social policies informed by good empirical social science can reduce the overall incidence of such horrors.

I weep for the individual and collective loss we feel in this tragedy. I weep, also, with the burden of knowledge that there are things we as a society can be doing, and are not because we lack sufficient political will and moral courage.

When it is appropriate, may we parlay our grief into determination to change this. May we transform our incomprehension into greater understanding. May our paralysis melt into action.

This post has been edited from one I published on January 9, 2011 to an iWeb blog no longer available.

About Richard Hudak

I'm a college teacher, writer, practitioner of hatha yoga, and an avid cyclist.
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4 Responses to Sandy Hook Elementary

  1. Pingback: The Heart is the Context | The Considered Kula

  2. Pingback: Aftermath: the Media | The Considered Kula

  3. Pingback: An Inescapable Network of Mutuality | The Considered Kula

  4. Richard Hudak says:

    Reblogged this on The Considered Kula and commented:

    From the archives, sadly…

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