Responding to School Violence: Confronting the Columbine Effect

Responding to School Violence: Confronting the Columbine Effect

Editors: Glenn W. Muschert, Stuart Henry, Nicole L. Bracy, and Anthony A. Peguero
Publisher: Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2014. 294p.
Reviewer: Jonathan M. Kremser | January 2015

Perception and reality are often two different things. Many Americans perceive schools as unsafe, and that mass shootings are an epidemic. The reality is that school shootings are rare events. This is a key point which the authors emphasize at the very beginning of this timely and well-informed volume about school violence. The book provides a coherent analysis of school safety concerns and policy considerations from perspectives of authors whose diverse work spans the spectrum of school violence and policy research. The book concludes with alternatives to the current punitive discourse commonly encountered in mainstream media and within the education field.

For many practitioners in the field of education and law enforcement, the 1999 attack at Columbine High School marked a turning point in how school-related violence is perceived and addressed. Responding to School Violence explores the role of Columbine and other extreme incidents of school violence as the catalysts for the implementation of draconian school security and disciplinary measures. The concept of the Columbine Effect involves policymakers tapping into the anxiety created by incidents of extreme school violence as a justification for punitive disciplinary measures in order to prevent violence.

This book consists of four parts and 13 chapters. The first part, “Contexts,” provides the historical background of school security policies — academically orienting the discussions that address both minor school-based offending as well as the highly-publicized rampage shootings. In Part I, Glenn Muschert and Eric Madfis offer a critique of the punitive measures that emerged after the Columbine attack, and describe school violence as a socially constructed phenomenon. Within the historical context of school violence, the Columbine attack certainly falls on the extreme end of the youth violence continuum that now serves as a reference point in school security changes, much the same as the attacks on September 11, 2001 mark sweeping changes to security and foreign policy. The shooting at the Colorado high school resulted in school districts implementing harsher, zero-tolerance policies, mandatory suspensions or expulsions for an expanded range of offenses, an increased presence of school security and police, in addition to the profits to be made by an increased use of surveillance technology. The Columbine shootings elevated the concern about school violence to a national level. It was the impetus for the escalation of security in secondary schools. The authors offer some alternative approaches to the current airport or even prison-style approach to school security. Administrators and other stakeholders, they argue, should use evidence-based security and disciplinary measures in their buildings. The media focus should shift towards highlighting the common operation of school discipline functions in order to present a more balanced and nuanced perspective, rather than what they regard as the sensationalized and inaccurate view that school shootings have become an epidemic.

Curtis A. Brewer and Jane Clark Lindle expand upon the concept of the Columbine Effect, suggesting that the many actors present within the school environment, such as the students, teachers, administrators, parents, and the general public, all participate in generating the complex and often misperceived realities of school safety. These authors argue that risk control is a delicate balance between absolutes. These extremes are identified as zero-tolerance or other initiatives that remove any sort of discretion from authority on one side, and the overreliance on caring relationships and cultural norms within neighborhoods and communities on the other.

Aaron Kupchick and Thomas J. Catlaw discuss how neoliberal trends in policymaking and governance should form the backdrop when examining contemporary school security and punishment initiatives. They argue that the more progressive elements of American government have yielded to a somewhat conflicting blend of authority and individual choice. Neoliberalism elevates the importance of security through an exclusionary process and an expansion of police and other measures that protect financial interests, while scaling back social programs through a systematic critique of the incompetence of government in providing these services. Kupchick and Catlaw claim that this preference for exclusionary and punitive policy has manifested itself in schools in various forms of drug interdiction, zero tolerance, suspension, and expulsion—all in the name of “promoting safety.” They suggest that these long-term punitive actions diminish future civic participation by discouraging voting and volunteering in the community. While the authors focus their critique mainly on school disciplinary measures, they could have included a discussion integrating these initiatives along with other neoliberal approaches, such as mandatory standardized testing and an increase in teacher accountability, both in the face of ongoing school district budget shortfalls, while the simultaneous expansion of highly paid sinecures at the administrative level often goes unexamined.

Part 2 focuses on contemporary policies to address school violence. Lynn A. Addington explores whether specific security measures adopted by schools such as police, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors are present in schools with documented problems, or if these measures are commonplace in schools overall. The author also explores what school characteristics, if any, are associated with the use of a particular school security initiative across all grade levels. Since Columbine, the largest increase observed has been in the area of cameras and security personnel. Not surprisingly, high schools rely on security measures more than elementary schools. Schools located in urban areas are more likely to use metal detectors and security officers. But surprisingly, the actual school violence rate is not associated with the use of any security measure. Addington suggests that schools blend the use of less visible approaches, such as anti-bullying initiatives, conflict resolution classes, and the creation of a more inclusive school environment.

Aviva M. Rich-Shea and James Alan Fox’s analysis focuses on the enforcement of school zero-tolerance policies by school resource officers (SROs). In response to the perception of unsafe school environments, fueled in part by the school-based mass shootings between 1996 and 2001, many districts quickly enacted tough new disciplinary policies out of concern for another Columbine-style attack. Schools, these authors say, began implementing zero-tolerance policies as a panacea approach to address school discipline problems. They cite the evidence suggesting that these initiatives not only serve to alienate students from the adults in the school, but also fail to take the child’s developmental process into account. They critique the further introduction of police officers in schools, suggesting that boundaries between the police role of law enforcement will become intertwined with the principal’s role of administering punishment for disciplinary infractions and violations of school rules. The authors argue that the presence of an SRO reflects a more authoritarian school administration, which is likely to also incorporate the zero-tolerance approach to misbehavior. The pervasive presence of police in schools and the use of zero-tolerance, also connect with Black’s theory of law in its premise that when more formal mechanisms of social control are imposed, informal social control declines.

At the macro-level, the discussion needs to include whether the presence of police in schools reflects a reaction to the decline in the influence of informal mechanisms of social control in the family, or weakened social bonds among the youths. At the micro-level, the difficulty in suggesting a blanket “criminalization” of behavior in a school that employs SROs arises absent a careful analysis of the specific duties assigned to a particular officer. For example, in certain schools, infractions that are specifically related to school rules (i.e., tardiness, insubordination), may not come to the attention of SROs. Teachers and administrators in some districts may rely on police in enforcing school rule violations, which could lead to the criminalization of normal childhood behavior (school-to-prison pipeline). Future studies that examine the dynamics between school personnel and resource officers could shed some light on this.

Building upon the previous chapter that suggests that criminal justice initiatives undermine informal social control, Valerie Steeves and Gary T. Marx argue that the extension of police surveillance in schools restructures social relationships. This is accomplished by mandating the reporting of certain student infractions, and through harsher disciplinary practices, with “bullying” being added to an ever-growing list of behaviors captured in the zero-tolerance net. The increased use of school surveillance over student behavior and punishment for minor offenses has been reframed in a discourse of “safety.” In medicine, an iatrogenic refers to a harm or illness caused by medical treatment. Surveillance and overly restrictive rules as the “treatment” for any potential Columbine-style attack could further undermine the informal social mechanisms by which such acts of violence might be more effectively prevented.

Kelly Welch and Allison Ann Payne claim that the use of the zero-tolerance approach as a reaction to the “Columbine Effect” has had a negative impact on minority students. The authors suggest the possibility that the proportion of black students in a particular school could be partially responsible for the use of harsher punishment in that school. Furthermore, this alienation from the school could lead to an increase in delinquent behavior. Low school bonding can lead to further deviant behavior — the problem becoming more pronounced in schools with a higher proportion of minority students. The authors suggest the strengthening of the “collective efficacy” of the school environment, and the reintegration of troublesome students through the use of restorative justice practices, which would then enhance the social bonds to the school.

Jun Sung Hong, Dorothy L. Espelage, Christophe J. Ferguson, and Paula Allen-Meares examine post-Columbine school policies and programs that address youth violence within a multi-level framework. These approaches include anti-bullying initiatives, and programs to improve campus climate. The authors suggest that school practitioners should assess risk factors specific to their school that could lead to aggression. Their “whole school” approach shifts away from the focus on particular individuals and the use of zero-tolerance, and includes family-school collaboration. Actively including parents in the school violence prevention discourse is a critical component often lacking in the myriad initiatives and discussions emerging from the Columbine-effect.

Part 3 suggests comprehensive alternative approaches to the risks of school violence. This section integrates the fear in schools, failed policies, and a fresh approach to addressing school violence. Jeffrey R. Sprague, Daniel W. Close, and Hill M. Walker emphasize the importance of changing the whole school culture. Specifically, they suggest the School-Wide Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (SWPBIS) as a well-established approach to foster increased bonding and attachment to the school and prevention of problem behavior through the implementation of consistent consequences for misbehavior. Their value-teaching strategy acknowledges increasingly diverse student populations, and the challenges of involving all stakeholders in addressing the needs of at-risk youth.

Drawing from peacemaking criminology, Daniel Hillyard and M. Joan McDermott discuss alternative strategies to the fear-driven zero-tolerance initiatives that were implemented out of concern with promoting safety, and often result in unjust punishment, further fueling a toxic atmosphere by creating schools that resemble prisons. Similar to the previous chapters, the authors suggest strategies that are multi-level. The transformation of society into one that is inclusive and non-violent begins in the home. As the authors recognize, these social and individual transformations tend to be challenging and not politically popular.

Expanding upon peacemaking theory in the previous chapter, Douglas Kellner offers a spirited analysis of school shootings within the framework of critical theory. He argues that the shooters all share a socially-reproduced, hyper-aggressive masculinity, and that the attackers resolve this through their violent acts. Addressing the problem would require moving away from current societal values steeped in aggression, guns, and greed, and reconstructing a system of education that promotes positive social values.   

The book’s unifying theme is that school shootings have multiple causes, and therefore require multiple prescriptions. The book effectively reassesses the responses to the Columbine Effect (zero-tolerance, increased surveillance, and school exclusion), and points the way to a new approach using a multilevel, comprehensive, and synchronous approach that is inclusive of the community. Recognizing that schools are microcosms of the communities and neighborhoods in which they are located is essential and often overlooked. Any realistic intervention to reducing school violence also requires parental and family inclusion. Perhaps changes involving the family and discipline strategies in the home are intertwined with this issue in ways that have not been examined. These changes could then contribute to an increased reliance on law enforcement and zero-tolerance, as misbehavior which is increasingly accepted in the home, now enters the school. This is a fertile area for future work in addressing school violence.
Overall, Responding to School Violence is an excellent treatment of the contexts, policies, and alternatives to the “Columbine Effect.” The book effectively interconnects the complex micro-to macro-level processes that can help explain and prevent a rampage attack on a school, while exposing the inherent limitations and sometimes harmful effects of current practices.

Jonathan Kremser is an Assistant Professor at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. He has a Criminal Justice from Rutgers University.    

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