On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza fatally shot twenty children and six adult staff members in a mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In the storm of grief and analysis that followed one thing became clear: there is no one explanation to violence, no one step that will prevent the outrageous from occurring.
But there are common themes that tend to show up in many school shootings. In 28 random shootings in U.S. schools between 1982 and 2001, nearly all the boys who committed the violence (and it usually is boys) reported being constantly bullied, teased and gay-baited – not because they were gay, but because they were different from the other boys: shy, artistic, theatrical, musical, non-athletic or geekish.1
James Gilligan, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, was head of mental health services in Massachusetts prisons for many years and has researched and published considerably on violence. He sees the roots of violence as stemming from triggers that might appear small to us – a neighbor walking across your pristine lawn, being fired at work, being harassed at school – but that evoke feelings of shame. Gilligan writes that he has
“Yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated … and that did not represent the attempt to … undo this loss of face.”
Young men in particular have strong incentives to achieve status, and when they are bullied and deprived of all markers of status, they tend to react more violently.
Similar themes also show up in student bullying. Status is an expression of belonging, and belonging is a fundamental human need. As students struggle to secure status and belonging, they exclude or actively dominate other students. In other words, they bully. And one of the main effects of bullying is shame and humiliation, which can lead its targets to arm themselves with knives and guns, and to replicate the cycle of bullying and violence to which they are have been subject.
Similarly to school shootings, there is no one solution to school bullying. However, one part of the solution must be to address the alienation and grand lack of care that dominate so much of student life. The counter agenda needs to ground itself in a greater vision of school communities where everyone is accepted for who they are. Ultimately the foundation is compassion.
1. Kimmel & Mahler, Adolescent Masculinity, Homophobia and Violence: Random School Shootings, 1982-2001, American Behavioral Scientist, June 2003 (pp. 1439-1458).