School Climate & Safety

At School, a Cruel Culture

By Darcia Harris Bowman — March 21, 2001 8 min read
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Elizabeth Catherine Bush’s parents hoped her life would improve after they removed her from the reach of bullies in the Jersey Shore Area School District in Pennsylvania last year and placed her in a small private school.

But even at Bishop Neumann High School—a 230-student Roman Catholic institution in nearby Williamsport with a mission to educate “in a climate of love and hope"—the teasing continued. When the distraught 14-year-old shot and injured a popular cheerleader in the school cafeteria on March 7, and then threatened to turn the gun on herself, some believed the treatment she had received at the hands of other students was to blame.

“At Jersey Shore, she had stones thrown at her, she was chased. There was a note left in her locker that said, ‘Get out of this school, get out of this town, or we’ll harm your parents,’” said the girl’s mother, Catherine A. Bush. "[The bullies] just gravitated to her. I think it’s anyone who chooses a different path ... or believes something different from what other kids think.”

Teasing, name-calling, and bullying have long been synonymous with adolescence, but the possible consequences of a schoolwide culture of casual cruelty have never been as deadly as they are today.

From Jonesboro, Ark., to Santee, Calif., teenagers allegedly abused by classmates have been fighting back with bullets. In the bloodiest of those vengeful rampages, two teenagers in Jefferson County, Colo., killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher before taking their own lives in April of 1999.

While the incidents have prompted many districts to heighten security and crack down on bullies, some experts argue that not enough attention is being paid to changing the unfeeling or openly hostile way so many students treat one another on a day-to-day basis.

“One of the issues that seems to be surfacing more and more is the need to focus on bullies—anti-bullying rules, zero tolerance, classes on how to deal with bullies,” said Nancy Guerra, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. “My only concern here is that bullies are defined as extreme cases of kids who taunt others, pick on those weaker. [They] are few and far between.

“What is really happening,” she said, “is that there is a more general atmosphere of meanness, where teasing and taunting are the norm among most students, rather than the exception.”

Young people seem to agree.

In a nationwide survey of nearly 70,000 students in grades 6-12, only 37 percent of the respondents said students showed respect for one another. Fewer than half considered themselves positive role models for other students. And, while 80 percent of the girls surveyed said it bothered them “when others are insulted or hurt verbally,” only 57 percent of the boys expressed a similar attitude.

“The only zero tolerance that happens in schools is the zero tolerance between kids,” said Russell J. Quaglia, the director of the National Center for Student Aspirations, located at the University of Maine in Orono. “I think we’re worse off now than we were in the 1950s with the race issues. We’ve got ‘people’ issues now. It’s a lack of sensitivity [among students], but it’s also a lack of a sense of responsibility for someone other than themselves.”

Angry Young Men

Elizabeth Bush of Bishop Neumann High, who according to her lawyer was ridiculed for her strong religious beliefs and her tendency to befriend other ostracized teenagers, is a rarity among the school shooters who have grabbed headlines in recent years. Overwhelmingly, the attackers have been boys: Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark; Kip Kinkel at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore.; and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School in Colorado.

The country saw yet another name added to the list of boys angry enough to kill on March 5, when 14-year-old Charles Andrew “Andy” Williams, allegedly opened fire in a restroom at Santana High School in Santee, Calif. (“Student Tips Called Key To Avert Violence,” March 14, 2001.)

Mr. Williams reloaded his father’s .22-caliber handgun four times during the course of the shooting, according to a police affidavit for a search warrant of the boy’s home unsealed last week. Two students were killed, and 13 other students or staff members were wounded.

The 9th grader, who faces being prosecuted as an adult, was described by other students as the target of incessant teasing and physical bullying. According to investigators, he said the people in Santee were different from those he had known when he lived in Frederick County, Md., until moving to California with his father last year. And, although he told police he had friends at Santana High, he also said he was disappointed with the school.

What many of the teenagers seem to have in common is a sense of alienation from peers.

In about two-thirds of school shootings that the U.S. Secret Service reviewed for a study last year, the attackers had felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others. The agency found that a number of the teenagers had suffered sustained, severe bullying and harassment. The experience appeared to play a major role in motivating the ensuing violence. (“Gunmen in School Attacks Sought Revenge, Revealed Plans,” Oct. 25, 2000.)

“I think the biggest problem we have is the amount of alienation and rage in our young people,” U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said March 11 on the CBS News program “Face the Nation,” after the school shootings in Santee and Williamsport.

“We [have] to figure out ways to make sure that a quality adult is in the life of every child, and we hope that quality adult would be a parent,” Mr. Paige said. “But if it’s not going to be a parent, then the school has to step in and fill the void.”

But many researchers contend that some hallmark features of American schools contribute to the isolation of certain students.

Aaron R. Kipnis, the author of the 1999 book Angry Young Men: How Parents, Teachers, and Counselors Can Help ‘Bad Boys’ Become Good Men, maintains that schools condone bullying, teasing, and cliques by labeling and dividing students according to their academic and athletic gifts.

That automatic sorting, he argues, strengthens cliques and leaves some students— particularly nonathletic boys—out in the cold.

“The fact that schools issue varsity sweaters with letters to the top athletes, and not the top physics students, underscores this idea that physical prowess and athletic achievement is really what’s most important,” Mr. Kipnis said in an interview. “Anything else is geeky, nerdy, kooky, or uncool.”

Once the lines have been drawn, he said, the groups on top will do what it takes to stay there. “One of the ways cliques reinforce themselves is by putting down whoever isn’t in with them with teasing, taunting, and—in the case of some of these boys we’ve seen—physical abuse,” he said.

Setting an Example

If administrators and teachers hope to prevent violence from erupting in their schools, researchers say, they must reshape not only the attitudes of their students, but their own as well.

“Sometimes, we focus too much on the kids and not enough on the adults who are creating the culture,” said Jean A. Baker, the director of the school psychology program at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “Kids see what we choose to show them. Schools that are very effective in preventing this kind of treatment are actively shaping their culture. Modeling the right behavior is a great way to start.”

That work in large part falls to teachers and coaches, the adults with whom students have the most contact at school. But whether those authority figures are sending the right messages remains unclear, experts say.

Fewer than half of the students polled by the National Center for Student Aspirations said their teachers valued their opinions, and just 56 percent said teachers respected their thoughts.

“Things aren’t going to change because there’s a sign on the door that says, ‘We care,’ ” Mr. Quaglia said. “We really need to teach kids respect and tolerance. So how do teachers model this behavior? I’m not sure they do, judging from the data, but I know they can.”

Some experts suggest suburban and rural schools, where most of the highly publicized shooting incidents of recent years have taken place, should look to schools in urban areas for clues on how to foster safer and more tolerant environments. There, where violence is often an everyday part of life, educators must work hard to promote peace and understanding among students from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.

At T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., a 2,000-student school in a diverse district outside Washington, students are offered a number of avenues for working out their differences, including peer mediation and counseling. But more importantly, Principal John L. Porter said, the adults try to abide by the same code of conduct they want students to follow.

“You don’t get on the PA and say ‘Hey, we all gotta love one another,’” Mr. Porter said. “You’ve got to try to promote and show the reasons and the rationale for the behavior and have students understand that we’re all different, and we’re all people.”

In Pennsylvania, Catherine A. Bush has only good things to say about Bishop Neumann High School’s efforts and refuses to place the blame for her daughter’s actions on students there. But as Elizabeth Bush awaits an uncertain fate in a nearby juvenile jail, her mother can’t help but wonder if the cruelty of other students helped put her there.

“I don’t know what can be done about this, but we have to do something,” Ms. Bush said. “These are children, and we have to help them.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as At School, a Cruel Culture

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