Monday, December 17, 2012

School Tragedy in CT

I have posted before about NIU and VA Tech, but I feel that this new tragedy deserves a sociological understanding and it is my hope that students will feel that they can understand this tragedy better and from a more complex perspective by reading this post.

First of all, please understand that in general, schools are still among the safest places for students to be.  Here is an article from Bloomberg news that highlights how much safer schools are now than 20 years ago.  Statistically, you are more likely to be injured in a car accident than at school.  Try to take solace in that.  Also, please know that if  you are having trouble processing this tragedy and it is emotionally upsetting, you are not alone! It is normal, especially if you have been through traumatic events before, that this is difficult and emotionally draining.  Take care to get some extra sleep, try to go through your daily events, get some exercise, and limit your exposure to the media barrage.  And know that schools are aware that these events are difficult.  There are lots of resources at school to help you: talk to a teacher, a counselor, social worker, psychologist.  Do not hesitate or feel weird about talking about what is difficult for you.  This is especially true for males; there is an unhealthy stigma for males in our society to not talk about their feelings.  Please do not buy into this unhealthy attitude.

That being said, I still think the tragedy deserves our attention.  We have talked lots about sociological mindfulness and I think that can provide us an outlet for our rage and horror at these events.  We can start to make small choices about who and what we support as individuals and about the dialogue is this nation around these events.  This is not easy or simple, though we have a tendency to try and see it that way, partly because of the media and politics that do not allow such a detailed an complex analysis.

We know its complex from sociology studies that have analyzed the problem.  Two very worthwhile studies in understanding the random school shooting phenomena are:
Katharine Newman's book, Rampage; the Social Roots of School Shootings.  There is a detailed review of the book here.  Here is a brief description:

Newman and her research team investigated the Kentucky and Arkansas incidents, visiting those communities, and conducting 163 interviews with families, students, teachers, administrators, journalists, and professionals. The book devotes detailed chapters to each case, and then several more to construct a sociological theory for the 25 rampage shootings that occurred in the USA between 1974 and 2002. In contrast to most popular explanations, no shooter suddenly 'snapped' in a psychotic rage. Rather, each perpetuator carefully planned their assault well in advance. Further, while American inner cities may be global symbols of violence and mayhem, almost all rampages occurred in small communities, those idealized by many as tight-knit, family-oriented, and relatively peaceable. Most shooters had histories of strained family lives, but few were products of single-parent homes. Newman thus set out to situate these facts in broad sociological context.  Here is an op-ed written by Newman on in response to the CT tragedy.

The other sociological study we have looked at is Kimmel and Mahler's Adolescent Masculinity, Homophobia and Violence; Random School Shootings 1982-2001That study is available here.
Here is the abstract:
Since 1982, there have been 28 cases of random school shootings in American high schools and middle schools. The authors find (a) that the shootings were not a national problem but a series of local problems that occurred in “red states” or counties (places that voted Republican in the 2000 election); (b) that most of the boys who opened fire were mercilessly and routinely teased and bullied and that their violence was retaliatory against the threats to manhood; (c) that White boys in particular might be more likely than African American boys to randomly open fire; and (d) that the specific content of the teasing and bullying is homophobia. A link between adolescent masculinity, homophobia, and violence is proposed. Finally, the authors offer a few possible explanations as to how most boys who are teased and bullied achieve the psychological resilience that enables them to weather adolescence without recourse to random school violence.


Together these pieces provide lots of insight into the tragedy and lots of complexity. First, there is a hegemonic association between violence and masculinity in the United States. We see everyday and all day: commercials, television shows, video games, sports, our foreign policy, movies all reflect a culture that associates violence, toughness, lack of emotion with masculinity. Perhaps this association is what has fueled and continues to fuel the obsession with guns in America; it's an attitude like this, "Guns make me tough and violent and therefore a real man." When a male's identity is challenged and taken away, and he feels that he no longer matters or is no longer taken seriously then the way he sees that the culture tells him he can be taken seriously is through violence. From Newman's CNN piece,
"...once a shooter starts to talk about killing people, ostracism can turn to inclusion. Suddenly, he is getting the attention he has been craving. Michael Carneal, who killed three high school girls and paralyzed a fourth when he was a freshman in a Kentucky high school, pulled pranks, told loud silly jokes and stole CD's in an attempt to impress. None of it worked. But the day he started talking about shooting people, that began to change. The Goth group he desperately wanted to join wheeled in his direction for the first time. Carneal never thought about how his actions would destroy lives or send his neighbors into a lifetime of angry mourning. Interviewed after the shooting, he said he thought that those boys would at last become his friends. He would be asked over to their houses and they would visit him. He would be cool. He was a skinny 13-year-old with glasses, a bright boy fond of reading and terrible at football -- all he was after was another identity...Many of these young men are trying to cast themselves as stars of a movie that ends in a blaze of suicidal gunfire and notoriety. Our research on earlier shootings showed the attack is on a school because that is the center stage in a small town, where the young men can rivet the entire community..."

 Kimmel and Mahler confirm this in their research as well.  Here is an editorial by Kimmel from
From an early age, boys learn that violence is not only an acceptable form of conflict resolution, but one that is admired. However the belief that violence is an inherently male characteristic is a fallacy. Most boys don't carry weapons, and almost all don't kill: are they not boys? Boys learn it. They learn it from their fathers. They learn it from a media that glorifies it, from sports heroes who commit felonies and get big contracts, from a culture saturated in images of heroic and redemptive violence. They learn it from each other.
As individuals we can think about how we treat others - especially those who we don't want to accept and those who think are weird.  But we can also think about how we reinforce this idea of violent masculinity or do we work against it?  Can we embrace new masculinities? 

Mental Health
Obviously, someone who is able to shoot random people who they do not know has serious mental health issues.  However, these mental health issues exist in relation to the society that the individuals inhabit.  In other words, someone who loses his mind, loses it in reference to the cultural constructs around him.  In this case, it means that someone who is unstable mentally is unstable in a culture that associates violence with masculine identity.  So when he goes off the deep end it is a violent splash.  However, that being said, there needs to be serious discussion about how we address mental health in the United States.  I think we made it clear in our lessons on deviance that there are more people with mental health issues in prison than in mental health facilities in the United States.  And this means that 16percent of everyone in prison has some mental health issue! What happens to these people who are not getting treatment when they are released back into society?  And what resources do we have for parents with children who have mental health needs?  We do not provide help for these individuals. Furthermore, our culture believes in an extreme form of individualism that prevents a lot of sharing of mental health records with those who can help.  Perhaps this extreme individualism is also what leads to isolation of these individuals and only makes it worse for them.


We are all familiar with the second amendment in the United States Constitution. I think that first, the fascination with gun rights can be linked to cultural values that we see affecting the above: individualism, masculinity, violence and, I would add, vigilantism. The idea for many Americans is that one should take care of himself and protect himself and guns provide that protection and for males guns help to validate one's manhood. I am armed and I am tough so I am a man. My second thought here is that when the second amendment was written there was no organized military so citizens needed to own guns in the event of an invasion; that is a militia. Furthermore, guns at that time took 30 seconds to reload a single shot. A 242 Bushmaster can now shoot 90 rounds in the same 30 seconds! That is not what I believe the founding fathers had in mind. Lastly, I believe that the issue is complex as I said above. That complexity is extremely hard to pinpoint, discuss and change. But in the meantime, if you can keep guns out of the hands of those who are troubled, you can prevent these shootings. Cross-cultural analysis will show that the United States has an enormous gun homicide rate than other western nations, According to an ABC news report in July,
“among the world’s 23 wealthiest countries, 80 percent of all gun deaths are American deaths and 87 percent of all kids killed by guns are American kids.”
Statistically, a gun in anyone's home is more likely to injure the homeowner or someone living there than it is likely to stop an intruder. 
 Here is a radio show about how Australia reformed it's gunlaws after a mass shooting killed over 30 people in 1996.  There hasn't been another mass shooting since.  Featured on the show is the Harvard injury control center which studies and publishes about violence.

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