Saturday, May 19, 2018

What Should Teachers Do to Prevent Gun Violence?

Lots of us have students who don't quite fit in and spend all their time alone, friendless. They might have been bullied for being different, and we can't always solve the problems they have trying to better communicate with other people. But the vast majority are completely harmless.

Lot of us have students who are really angry. These are teenagers. I was a really angry teenager, outraged at the many injustices I felt I faced in the world. Nothing is fair when you're at the centre of your own world. (I'm still pretty angry, but my focus has shifted to injustices around the globe instead.) Adolescence is a necessary time of self-obsession as people figure out their place in this life, and that can heighten every possible sleight against them, provoking an attitude of quick-tempered defensiveness. But the vast majority are completely harmless.

Lots of us have students who let slip some racist or sexist or bigoted comments in class, and we shut that down but then linger over the comment a bit later, mentally reviewing it and filing it away, and maybe mentioning it to a few colleagues looking for a pattern. But the vast majority are completely harmless.

And lots of us have students with a mean streak: students who are trying out their power, looking out for the boundaries that might be able to reign them in. If they get away with too much, they sometimes keep pushing until a consequence helps them turn a corner. We know it's important to stop cruelty in its tracks, but we can't catch everything. But the vast majority would never consider harm at this level of violence.

But I'm left wondering about all the signs we're told to monitor. Is it remotely useful to psychologically profile students?

I still have, rolling around in my head, the words that Stoneman Douglas shooting survivor, Isabelle Robinson, wrote demanding that adults protect the children in their care:
"It is the responsibility of the school administration and guidance department to seek out those students and get them the help that they need, even if it is extremely specialized attention that cannot be provided at the same institution."
I read those words with a mix of shame and defensiveness. Have I done enough in my career to sway the minds of the youth towards establishing a more compassionate humanity? And, wait a minute, aren't their actions their own responsibility? And, most importantly, what can I actually do?

How do we even begin to do this? If a 12-year-old whips an apple at another student, or side-eyes a girl's chest with a creepy vibe, what kind of test or assessment could possibly predict that he'll be a killer within a decade? Do we round up the potentials and put them through a battery of unproven inventories then ship them off to a more specialized school? Does it matter that, in that selected group, the vast majority, if not all, are completely harmless? Should our fear restrict the freedoms of people who are oblivious to or are willingly rejecting social norms?

Even if students report about that one guy over and over, and even if he's on everybody's radar, and even after the stern warnings and detentions and suspensions have no effect, then what do we do? Minority Report already clarified the problems with arresting people on a suspicion of potential harm.

Some people don't have friends for a reason. It could be that they prefer their time alone or that they have weak social skills and are difficult to be around. But sometimes they are unlikable because they are inherently cruel. Maybe the only way they've ever gotten attention is from acting out, so they continued down that path. Or maybe they get a surge of dopamine when they see a person's face crumple from a heartless remark. Who knows.

We can have greater mental health resources in our school - not just a number to call, but an actual professional in the building regularly. Absolutely! But the shooters don't always see themselves as in need of mental health interventions; they sometimes think that their thinking is perfectly justifiable. We can work on social skills training - commenting quietly on inappropriate behaviour to help them foster more age-appropriate responses without turning them into automatons - but we can't make friendships happen. We can work on fostering more kindness and compassion in our schools and workplaces, and we can shame overt acts of viciousness, but we can't eradicate the joy some people get from having power over others, from owning them. We can get guidance counsellors, sometimes trained primarily in career pathways, to talk to them about their struggles in life. And they can alert the police of any concerns, but then what?

It might be useful to consider as an analogy that domestic homicides are "the most predictable and preventable of all homicides," yet battered women have no ability to get their husbands restrained or paroled before an act of violence, even if they have very good reason to predict an impending attack.

If it's a matter of the culture, then it will help to foster a sense of community and to teach kids to modify their expectations in life. We don't all end up with jobs we love or with partners who care for us and fulfills our needs. That's life. But if the shooter lacks a conscience, then can we do anything about that? Hannah Arendt thinks evil is a matter of merely neglecting to question our own reasoning, of not thinking. In The Life of the Mind, she discusses the "two-in-one" of thinking: "the soundless dialogue between me and myself. . . . It is this duality of myself with myself that makes thinking a true activity in which I am both the one who asks and the one who answer."

She goes on to explain that Plato would take the route suggested by Robinson and monitor and restrict some people pre-emptively. But Socrates, the wiser of the two in her estimate, says that if we are true thinkers, we'll realize that,
"'It is better to be wronged than to do wrong'. . . . To Socrates, the duality of the two-in-one meant no more than that if you want to think, you must see to it that the two who carry on the dialogue be in good shape, that the partners be friends. . . . it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong, because you can remain the friend of the sufferer; who would want to be the friend of and have to live together with a murderer?" 
We should do good so we can live with ourselves. However, she also acknowledges that financial success and/or notoriety comes most easily to those who,
 "never start the soundless solitary dialogue we call 'thinking,' never go home and examine things. This is not a matter of wickedness or goodness, as it is not a matter of intelligence or stupidity. A person who does not know that silent intercourse (in which we examine what we say and what we do) will not mind contradicting himself . . . Bad people are not 'full of regrets.'" 
If this is the case, then can we foster greater thought in the inner dialogues of our charges? It is our job to develop the ability to think, but to what extent is it always possible?

With gun control, at least, here in Canada, it stands out if someone's seen with a gun. It's weird enough for authorities to be alerted. People will talk and tell. Without gun control, you have to guess the character of the people with guns. The fact that this is a problem restricted to the U.S. in its scope and magnitude - one school shooting for every week of this year so far -  makes it pretty clear that it's about the guns.

The problem of evil can't be expected to be solved by school admin or guidance departments or teachers. It's larger than all of us. We can't, with any certainty, positively affect the psychological makeup of each of the students in front of us such that they begin to see the errors in their thinking. Restricting weapons that can quickly kill many people at once is the only viable solution to this epidemic.


Brendan said...

It's interesting but this week the school my children attend had specific threats of a Columbine-like mass murder. The fact that a mere threat made national news (see the Australian Newspaper) is perhaps indicative of the efficacy of the gun laws here - a threat would not have any shock value or be deemed news worthy in a country where school shootings occur regularly.

Marie Snyder said...

That's true - it's nice living in a slightly saner country.