From the Archives: When Did We Stop Expecting School to Be Violent?

It’s an awkward thing to say, but I’ll say it: schools have always been violent places. Since the Columbine shootings, it has become traditional to mark 1999 as the start of an era of school violence. Historically, though, there has never been an era in which schools have not been violent.InkedSchool Violence Was Expected in 1830_LI

I understand that we’re talking these days about a grim new form of school violence–the mass shooting. And please don’t get me wrong: I abhor school shootings and school violence of any kind.

As I claw through the archives today doing research for my new book, though, I came across another bit of evidence that school violence has always been an expectation. When Louisville set up its free public school system in 1830, it created a short list of rules to handle expected problems. One of them was student violence. As the Louisville rules stipulated,

For violent or pointed opposition to his authority in any particular instance, or for the repetition of any offence, the instructer [sic] may exclude a child from his school.

Between 1830 and now, we seem to have lost the expectation that students will occasionally be violent. We seem to have stopped saying out loud that when we coop students up together for long stretches of time, some amount of violence will be likely. Why? Is it just politically expedient to pretend that schools could be violence-free?

I’d love it if schools could be violence-free, but it seems to me we gain nothing by pretending to be shocked that schools experience violence. Like our forebears, let’s assume the worst and hope for the best.

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Kids: Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid

If you have kids in public schools these days, you are likely hearing about lockdown drills and run-hide-fight training. What are we supposed to think about them? On one hand, we all want our kids to be safe. On the other, watching six-year-olds cower and tremble about a threat that they will (statistically) likely never encounter seems kooky. In the Atlantic last week, Joe Pinsker asked historian Paula Fass for some context of scaring kids straight. Prof. Fass offered two good examples, but we can come up with a lot more. And that fact points us to a central, odd truth about the nature of American schooling.

Pinsker ran through some of the central dilemmas of lockdown training. In actual fact, students are extremely unlikely to experience a school shooting. Yet the training for them can be deeply upsetting. As Pinsker wrote,

These lockdowns can be scarring, causing some kids to cry and wet themselves. Others have written letters bidding their family goodbye or drafted wills that specify what to do with their belongings. . . . children are being trained to anticipate an outcome that is both terrifying and extremely unlikely to happen to them.

Pinsker wondered if there had been similar scare tactics employed in schools in the twentieth century. Paula Fass pointed out two big ones: duck-and-cover drills and kidnapping scares. Like school shootings, both threats were terrifying, but statistically speaking, both were also extremely unlikely.

Like me, SAGLRROILYBYGTH are probably now thinking the obvious: We could extend this list of unlikely-but-scary scenarios forever. Schools have always sought to terrify students into feeling an exaggerated anxiety.

Consider just a few examples:

1.) Sex. If you’ve experienced any sex-education curriculum lately, you know that they rely on a fear of STIs and unplanned pregnancies to get their points across.

2.) Drugs. It wasn’t only in the 1930s that school leaders warned students of “Reefer Madness.”

3.) Health. You might not be old enough to remember polio, but for those who lived through it, children were told not to go swimming for fear of contracting the disease. In the 1980s, too, children were warned that they could catch HIV merely from being near a positive person.

It seems to me we need to reverse Pinsker’s question. He asked,

In postwar America, have kids ever been so afraid and so regularly prompted to imagine their own suffering?

But we need to ask instead: Has there ever been a time when students were NOT regularly shocked and scared? When students were NOT shown clips of dope-smoking creeps or atomic devastation in an attempt to scare them into proper behavior?

And the big question: Why have schools always felt a need for such scare tactics?

I’ve got a couple of ideas. First, I think school leaders and parents tend to see scare tactics as developmentally appropriate. Like drivers-ed crash videos, scare tactics are thought to be necessary to pierce the adolescent fog surrounding students’ brains, to make them understand the real dangers of certain things. Also, I think school administrators and politicians understand that exaggerated fears are politically required, even if they are not practically relevant. No school leader could survive an election if she told parents she was doing nothing to prevent a threat because the actual threat was so miniscule.

Is there more? Are there other reasons you can think of why schools have always hoped to terrify children about highly unlikely dangers?

Long Island School of Doom

HT: SB

More proof: The suburbs are eating our children. It’s another terrible school-shooting story, this time from Long Island, New York. And this one has a twist that has me feeling distressed and mystified. What does this story tell us about the nature of American school and American childhood?

connetquot cache

What the cops found. Might they have found this is a thousand teenage bedrooms?

Here’s what we know. According to the local newspaper, three students at Connetquot High School in Bohemia, New York had plans to blow up their school. The kids were overheard making plans on the bus. When police searched their homes and lockers, they found a bunch of stuff, including

two laptops, three BB guns, a homemade ax and books about serial killers and forensics, along with “The Anarchist Cookbook,” which includes bomb-making instructions.

Now, I have to admit I am deeply biased. When I was a sulky suburban teen, I also owned a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook. I probably owned books about serial killers. If I could have I would have loved to own a BB gun. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I saw it as a kind of joke, nothing more.

The authorities in Bohemia weren’t predisposed to laugh it off. The kids were charged with felony conspiracy charges.

An alarming story, no? But here’s the kicker. This same high school has been the target of two more student attacks over the years. Back in 2010, two students attempted to buy guns and make bombs, presumably with a plan to destroy the school. One of the students, Christopher Franko, received a three-to-nine-year sentence.

Back in 2007, two students were arrested for planning a Columbine-style shooting spree at the very same school.

We’ve got to ask: What the hell is going on at Connetquot High School? These are students who have it all, relatively speaking. They are attending a nice school in a nice neighborhood with plenty of green grass and fresh air.

Yet instead of growing up healthy and happy, these Long Island teens keep wanting only to blow the whole thing sky high. What gives? Why do even privileged children of America—some of them, at least—feel such a deep and abiding violent resentment of the friendly school that Bohemia ‘shaped, made aware,/ Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam’?

I don’t think we can take bitter comfort that this teen violence is somehow restricted to Bohemia, New York. After all, the Connetquot shooters were merely copying generations of bomb-throwing schemes among privileged American youth.

So we have to ask the tougher version of the question: Is this town somehow merely the epitome of suburban teenage angst? Is there something rancid buried in the heart of the American suburban dream that is festering in the souls of its comfortable youth?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Jesus on dinosaurs, teachers on strike…it was another busy week here at ILYBYGTH International. Here are a few stories that caught our eye. Thanks to everyone who sent in stories and tips…

“Jesus Rode a Dinosaur:” Christian conference seeks to help youth pastors do a better job talking about science, at RNS. HT: GB.

jesus rode a dinosaur

Where your Templeton money is going…

Could it work? Arne Duncan calls for a school boycott to change gun laws. At TP.

The wrong answer to school shootings: Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at CNN.

The latest on teacher strikes:

President Carter gently mocks Trump at Liberty commencement, at RNS.

Proof: AZ changed science standards to make room for creationism, at 12NEWS.

Science missionaries confront hostile creationist locals, at BioLogos.

Christian college administrators tend to censor student newspapers, at IHE.

Why do conservatives hate public schools? One conservative’s argument at AP.

What’s Wrong with Safer Schools?

For anyone who thinks Dan Patrick has a solution to school shootings, I have a two-hundred-year-old solution to urban poverty to sell you. As-is.

NYC manual 2 diagrams alphabet wheel

The solution to urban poverty, 1820 style…

You may have seen it by now: In the aftermath to the latest horrific school shooting, Texas’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has suggested tightening up school architecture. As Patrick put it,

We may have to look at the design of our schools looking forward, and retrofitting schools that are already built and what I mean by that is there are too many entrances and too many exits. . . . There aren’t enough people to put a guard at every entrance and exit.

Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with thinking about school architecture and changing doors. What IS wrong is diverting attention from a real problem by directing conversations toward secondary considerations. In this case, we need to talk about school cultures that coerce and alienate students. We need to talk about gun laws that put deadly weapons in the hands of angry boys.

Along the way, we might ALSO talk about entrances, but it can’t be our main focus. In this case, IMHO, Dan Patrick is trying to wiggle out of a difficult political position by diverting attention from the real problems.

And, as I’m finding in my current research, this sort of diversionary tactic is the oldest trick in the school-reform book. Two hundred years ago, city planners in places such as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York faced a difficult dilemma. They had crowds of children in their streets from low-income families. The families couldn’t afford to send them to school so the children were growing up without being able to read or write.

What could be done? From London, Joseph Lancaster promised a solution. He described his system for educating poor children in meticulous detail. With the right school architecture and equipment, he promised, cities could eliminate the problem of poverty in just a few short years.

It didn’t work.

Just like Lt. Gov. Patrick’s plans to block doors and windows, Lancaster’s supposed solution treated minor symptoms in order to ignore the underlying cause. The right reading strategy is a good thing, but it is not a cure for urban poverty.

This Can’t Be For Real…

I get it, I really do. I think arming teachers is a terrible idea, but I understand that lots of people disagree with me. When it comes to ideas like the ones we’re seeing this morning, though, we can’t possibly disagree. Does anyone really think this is a good idea? More important, the kerfuffle might tell us something about how schools work in the real world.

mini bats pa school district

The superintendent explains his plan…

Here’s what we know: Some school districts in Pennsylvania have approved plans to arm their teachers…with miniature baseball bats. You know, the kind you got as a kid when you went to a Brewers game, then left on your desk in your bedroom until finally someone threw it out or something.

The head of the local teachers’ union defended the move. As he put it,

This is a tool to have in the event we have nothing else. . . . Part of the formula now is to fight back. . . . The theory behind the attack option is to create noise, distract, or defend against an active shooter. For a classroom or office setting, this translates to books, staplers, chairs, fire extinguishers, etc. being used as defensible tools.

It gets even weirder. Another district in my area doesn’t give teachers sports memorabilia, but it does provide each classroom with…wait for it…buckets of rocks. When an alert SAGLRROILYBYGTH informed me of this plan, I thought it was a joke. But it seems real. Superintendent David Helsel told Reuters he planned to put buckets of rocks in every classroom. As he explained,

We didn’t want our students to be helpless victims. . . . River stones were my idea. I thought they would be more effective than throwing books or book bags or staplers.

Can they be serious? Is there any support out there for these sorts of preposterous plans?

It seems merely wacky, but this story tells us something about the way public schools often work in practice. There will be a controversial idea—evolution, sex ed, or, as in this case, arming teachers. District leaders will want to be seen taking action, but they also want to avoid controversy at all costs. The result? Half measures that veer sharply into the ridiculous.

The School Headline We Won’t See

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the brave Parkland students who have done so much in the past few weeks to push for change. I’m as distressed as my friends when I hear conservative politicians belittling their activism. But whatever our political views on student activism, we’re likely to believe something about schools that just isn’t true. In spite of what all of us might think if we just read the papers, America’s schools are safe and getting safer. Why don’t we hear more about it?

school safety

Where are the cheers?

Here’s what we know: The National Center for Education released its new report today about school safety. By any measure, schools today are much safer places than they’ve been since 1992. Crime reports from schools are down, security measures are improved, staffs are better trained in safety measures, and students report less crime.

Why won’t we hear more culture-war blather about this news? Here’s my guess: Whether you’re a conservative, a progressive, or other, you want people to think that schools are dangerous places.

Let’s look at the conservative side first. Throughout the twentieth century, as I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, conservatives told one another that schools—especially public schools—had gone to the dogs. For example, as Reagan’s second Ed Secretary memorably lamented, by any “index of cultural indicators,” schools had failed catastrophically.

It wasn’t only Bill Bennett who worried. Religious conservatives also warned that public schools had

grown into jungles where, of no surprise to Christian educators, the old Satanic nature ‘as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’ (I Peter 5:8).  Students do well to stay alive, much less learn. . .

In most cases, if conservatives hate something, progressives will love it. But that hasn’t been the case with public schools. From the left, critics charge that public schools are abusive places, especially to students from minority backgrounds. In one recent case from Maryland, for example, activists note that African American students

are subject to daily abuse and humiliation. . . . [from] a decades-long pattern of resistance to change and the creation of a hostile environment for children of color.

Conservatives don’t agree with progressives about much. When it comes to school safety, however, both sides agree that public schools are dangerous and getting worse. Both sides, it seems, won’t allow themselves to be troubled by inconvenient truths.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Welcome to your weekly round-up of ILYBYGTH-themed stories from around the interwebs. Thanks to everyone who sent in tips.

Nun in the huddle! Sister Jean and March Madness, at NYT. HT: DW.

calvin reading

My kind of Calvinism…

White evangelicalism—the church of the “slave state,” at Forbes. [Editor’s note: The original Forbes article was taken down as “way out of bounds,” but the text is still available at this new link. Thanks to alert reader for pointing it out.]

Don’t have your copy of Fundamentalist U yet?

Campus cults and “passion plays:” “War on Cops” author Heather MacDonald talks with “What’s Happened to the University” author Frank Furedi at CJ.

What do college students think about free speech on campus? New poll numbers at KF.

What does Queen Betsy think? A tough interview at 60 Minutes.

Creationist Ken Ham praises the Oklahoma university that welcomed his lecture—see his op-ed at KHB.

The view from Greenville: An instructor at Bob Jones U explains why he voted Trump, at HNN.

Dripping Wax: Professor Amy Wax suspended from teaching mandatory class after latest disparaging racial remarks. At IHE.

Is the Museum of the Bible just an evangelical missionary outfit “masquerad[ing] as an educational institution”? That’s the charge at R&P.

Teacher pay and underpay: Check your state at Vox.

Students who walk out should be punished. So says Daniel Willingham. HT: XX

Too close for comfort? Ben Carson’s aide chummy with secretive religious charity, at the Guardian. HT: LC.

These Twelve Teachers Terrify Me

Me, I don’t think more guns in school are a good idea. But if we were to go ahead with such a plan, we have to find a better way to figure out who our gun-toters will be. A recent Gallup poll offers a frightening scenario.

The poll finds that teachers overall don’t want guns. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of polled teachers oppose the idea. A significant majority (58%) think it will make schools less safe.gallup on teachers with guns

The scary result is different. Some teachers (18%) said they’d be willing to carry guns at work. Of those, two-thirds told pollsters they were “very confident” that “with special training [they] could handle a gun effectively in a live shooting situation at [their] school.”gallup on teachers with guns 2

Am I crazy? Or are these twelve-out-of-a-hundred teachers who think they know just what to do with a deadly weapon the LAST people who should be packing heat in school? Have we forgotten the lessons of Farva?

Guns and Bibles

School needs more of both.  At least according to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

In their continuing series of year-end quotations from conservatives, the Texas Freedom Network Insider publicized this gem from Abbott’s Facebook page:

Source: Greg Abbott

Source: Greg Abbott

For those of us who are trying to understand the intellectual world of educational conservatism, Abbott’s plea is a good place to start.  The give-and-take of comments that accompanied this eye-catching poster sums up lots of the perennial debate in school culture wars.

As one back-and-forth had it,

Person 1: Satan is having a POW-WOW in our country right now….the Anti-Christ is alive and well! WAKE UP AMERICA!!!

Person 2: Good they should not be taught in school. Bible is mythology and learn to shoot at a gun range.

Abbott’s call for more Bibles and more guns in schools may seem shocking to progressives like me, but it seems many conservatives want both.  Especially after each school shooting, we hear calls for more armed guards to protect the innocent.  And of course there is never any lack of tumult for increasing the use of Bibles with America’s public school students.

Here’s a question for all you readers out there: For those agree with Abbott’s call for more Bibles and guns in schools, which should come first?  That is, if you had to pick, which would improve schools more, guns or Bibles?

And for those who are shocked with Abbott’s post, here’s a very different question: what are you more scared of, more Bibles or more guns in public schools?