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?

Youth Gone Wild

It was a fluke, you might say. A rare event. You’d be right, but that won’t stop people from being terrified of packs of young people going on the rampage, as a group apparently did in my neighborhood this week. And, in fact, the history of schools has always been, in part, a history of adults trying to control the potential violent threat of youth going wild.

Here’s what we know: Here in sunny Binghamton, New York, a 76-year-old man was beaten into the hospital by a group of kids. Apparently, he said “hello” to them and they started a confrontation that escalated rapidly.  The group of four to seven children ages twelve to fifteen began shouting at the man, then punching, kicking, and biting him. The man ended up with bite wounds, cuts, and, according to his granddaughter, a neck injury.

On one hand, it’s a story that gets attention precisely because it’s so unusual. On the other hand, America’s fear of young people runs deep. And that fear has influenced America’s schools for centuries.

Consider comedian John Mulaney’s take. As Mulaney puts it,

Thirteen-year-olds are the meanest people in the world. They terrify me to this day.

For the founders of America’s public school systems, there was nothing funny about it.

As I’m discovering in the research for my new book, the dawn of the 1800s brought renewed fears of what wild children might do. Joseph Lancaster, founder of a new type of urban school for poor children, warned in 1807, left out of school, kids

will become the burden and pests of Society. . . .  It is in vain that laws are made for the punishment of crimes, or that good men attempt to stem the torrent of irreligion and vice, if the evil is not checked at its source; and the means of prevention, by the salutary discipline of early education, seasonably applied.

LOOK AT ME

Notes from 1804…or is it 2019?

The kind of school Lancaster had in mind was all about teaching children to obey, obey, obey. Like students in today’s ‘no-excuses’ charter schools, Lancaster insisted that his students learn to behave in a submissive, docile way. As he put it in 1804,

That whenever they are spoken to they give a respectful attention by looking at those who address them make the necessary reply without delay or hesitation but always be careful to speak consistently with their knowledge and to express themselves in as few comprehensive words as they are able.

Did it help? Back in 1804, when Lancaster promised to corral and control wild urban youth, did it work? Not really. Then and now, the promises of urban school reformers can’t keep up with the harsher realities of urban life.

I don’t think young people are really any more violent or explosive than adults, but for centuries Americans have been terrified of what might happen if more youth go wild. I can’t help but think that my 76-year-old neighbor will think twice before he says “hello” to any more kids on his block.

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

What a week–dancing on graves, predatory Liberty, and chicken controversies. Here are some of the biggest stories:

Another view of conservative sex ed: A review of Nancy Pearcey’s Love Thy Body at FT.

Wow: What NYC looked like in 1911, thanks to restored Swedish film.

White evangelicals and Trump: Greg Carey reviews John Fea’s Believe Me at RD.

Chik-fil-A’s “creepy infiltration” of New York.

Did “lax discipline policies” cause the Parkland school shooting? RCI.

How Liberty Online U. got so big, at NYT.

Here’s a weird one: Michigan high school closed after Confederate-flag-waving trucks parked outside. At DN.

And it gets even weirder–I missed this story when it first came out, but schools in my neighborhood are arming students with buckets of rocks to repel invaders. At Reuters. HT: SMSL.

Lovin Trump: White evangelical support higher than ever, at PRRI.PRRI-Trump-Favorability-and-white-evangelicals-2015-2018-1-1024x683

Are we dancing on graves now? The Randa Jarrar/Barbara Bush story. HT: MM.