School Climate & Safety Commentary

It’s Guns, Not School Size

By Judith Kafka — December 26, 2007 5 min read

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 New York, noted that the principal of Columbine High School had never heard of the “trench coat mafia,” a group to which the two students responsible for the shootings were said to have belonged, and faulted the school’s size in part for what had occurred there. Educational researchers and activists who supported small-school reform made similar claims—often in the pages of Education Week. They ominously warned that shootings were likely to happen in other large schools where students lacked a sense of community and belonging. Their words seemed prophetic when, nearly two years later, a male student at a large high school in suburban Southern California opened fire, killing two and injuring 13.

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 Clinton administration cited the need to prevent similar tragedies as it set aside $120 million for a “Small, Safe, and Successful High Schools” initiative in 2000. An oft-cited report on small-school reform in Chicago referred to Columbine as a “reminder” of what could happen in large schools in which students and teachers failed to form strong relationships. Advocates of small schools have continued to blame the large, “factory model” high school for school shootings in the years since, arguing that acts of gun violence are unlikely to occur in small schools—where everyone is known, students have a sense of belonging, and personal relationships exist between young people and caring adults.

Yet as the school shooting this past October at SuccessTech, a 250-student school in Cleveland, demonstrated, blaming the size of schools for acts of gun violence is at best naive, and at worst opportunistic and disingenuous. There may be other good reasons for reconfiguring large urban high schools into smaller ones, but preventing school shootings is not one of them.

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. Westside Middle School, near Jonesboro, Ark., for example, enrolled only 250 students in 1998, when two boys shot and killed four students and a teacher there and wounded many others. Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., had an enrollment of around 550 when a 14-year-old boy opened fire at a group of students in 1997, killing three girls and wounding five others.

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 Oct. 10, 2007, a boy came to school with a gun and opened fire.

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.

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