By Judith Kafka
In the spring of 1999, when two male students went on a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., killing 13 others before turning the guns on themselves, it didn’t take long for politicians, journalists, and advocates of small-school-centered reform to point to the large size of Columbine as a key factor in the tragedy. The sheer size of the facility, they argued, and the fact that the school enrolled close to 2,000 students, created an alienating environment, one in which troubled youths like the two shooters were allowed to drift unknown, becoming increasingly angry and isolated.
Hillary Clinton, while campaigning for the U.S. Senate in
Blaming the size of schools for acts of gun violence is at best naive, and at worst opportunistic and disingenuous.
By then, the specter of Columbine had been used to promote small-school reform nationwide. The
Yet as the school shooting this past October at SuccessTech, a 250-student school in
The gun violence at SuccessTech, in which a 14-year-old boy shot and injured two students and two teachers before killing himself, was not the first such incident to occur in a small school.
Unlike these other schools, however, SuccessTech is one of the many small schools of choice opened in urban districts across the country since Columbine—schools often promoted, at least in part, as a solution to school violence and student alienation. In fact, SuccessTech is precisely the kind of small school that reform advocates recommend. Funded in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, it is a highly selective school of choice, intentionally small, and has been successful by many measures—including a 94 percent graduation rate in a school system with an average rate of just 55 percent. Yet despite SuccessTech’s smallness and selectivity, on
Predictably, in the days immediately following the shooting, questions were raised about what the school could have done to prevent it from occurring. Why hadn’t more guards been assigned to SuccessTech? Why weren’t students required to go through metal detectors as they entered school? Of course, one of the rationales for schools like SuccessTech is that such security measures are unnecessary in small settings where everyone is known and feels safe. And by most accounts students at SuccessTech were known, and did feel safe. Indeed, being known was not the problem for the shooter. He was known. But he was also troubled, regularly teased, and, most importantly, he had access to a gun.
In fact, what draws all the school shootings together, and what accounts for all of the gun violence in schools across the country, is that a troubled male youth had access to a gun. Certainly school leaders want to take whatever actions they can to prevent such horrors from occurring, but blaming the organizational structure or size of schools for acts of gun violence creates an expedient scapegoat and avoids targeting the real problem: guns themselves. Using tragedies like Columbine or SuccessTech to promote specific school reforms shifts attention away from the issue of gun control, and mutes what should be national outrage directed at those who oppose even the mildest measures intended to limit access to firearms.
There may be good reasons for reconfiguring large urban high schools into smaller ones, but preventing school shootings is not one of them.
Without guns, the shooters at Columbine and SuccessTech would still have been angry, even violent, boys, but they would not have been able to harm so many others so quickly—nor would they have been able to end their own lives so easily once they were done.
There are other solutions to consider beyond gun control, of course. One would be to bar all troubled boys from school, and the increased focus on psychological profiling since the deadly shooting at Virginia Tech last spring seems to point in this direction. Yet even if we could correctly identify all troubled young men, most do not open fire on their classmates and teachers, and they should be allowed to benefit from an education.
Another solution would be to eradicate all teasing and “bullying” in school, and in fact anti-bullying programs have become increasingly popular, and are even mandated in many districts—as are so-called “zero tolerance” discipline policies for bullying. But while they should never be condoned, teasing and bullying are somewhat nebulous acts. It is often difficult to distinguish the bully from the bullied, the students lashing out in self-defense from the instigators of the conflict. Nor is it clear that bullying itself is the cause of student alienation and malaise. We know that most youths who are bullied do not show up at school with a gun. Would the SuccessTech gunman not have opened fire on his classmates and teachers if he hadn’t been teased in school? We don’t know. We do know that he would not have been able to do so without a gun.
Blaming schools and school size for the gun violence that occurs within them is not only unfair and unreasonable, but it also distracts attention from the cause that those who care about school safety and youth violence should be fighting for: getting guns off our nation’s streets and out of the hands of our nation’s youths.
Judith Kafka is an assistant professor of educational policy, history, and leadership at
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