Public response to school violence tends to be shock and disbelief. Such response might be naïve. Perhaps the public should be relieved schools experience so little violence. While school personnel deserve much credit for this absence, school safety might be more in the hands of students than the public would like to believe.
Media outlets give concentrated attention to school shootings. National conversations about gun control and mental illness usually follow these tragedies. News media can host partisan debates and use these to bolster ratings. The public feeds the sensationalism by watching and clicking. Mass shootings in schools have happened most frequently in middle class communities in which people aren’t accustomed to violence. The disturbing familiarity of the victims and even the culprits makes the stories resound in these communities.
These same media outlets give less attention to the daily violence particular to urban schools. Though mass shootings are less common in them, violence can be endemic. Fights happen in all schools, but fights in the crowded hallways of urban schools sometimes escalate into small riots. Staff members in these schools often report fearing for their safety. A culture of antagonism and disrespect may exist. Relationships between staff and students often are tense. Violence can be seconds away at every moment.
In urban schools—perhaps in all schools—safety might be at the consent of the student body. Despite metal detectors, police officers, and cameras, no school is a fortress. No one wants believe civil order in schools might be more a matter of student choice than staff control. Consider for a moment that civil order in the general population largely relies on people choosing to not commit crimes. Anyone can commit a violent act if so moved. Students in public schools are no different. If a student wants to hurt someone, her or she probably can with sufficient planning or bravado. This possibility makes the public uncomfortable, so it gets little attention.
A few weeks into my first year of teaching, I felt a chilling and revealing example of this possibility. I team-taught in a large urban high school. As a special education teacher, I worked with an English teacher to instruct groups of roughly thirty students per class. I gave most of my attention to the ten or so special education students, a few of whom were assigned to my caseload.
A special education student returned to the school following a stint in a psychiatric hospital. This stint was following a brief incarceration, though no one told me why that was needed. The student came to class and introduced himself to me. He dressed loudly and much differently than his peers, but he was polite, articulate, and likeable. His small stature and affable demeanor defied any reputation he may have carried. As class commenced, he involved himself appropriately. Then the police arrived.
Two officers and a vice principal entered the room, interrupting class. They surrounded the student and calmly but swiftly removed him. He didn’t resist. I never saw him again. Later in the day, my supervisor updated me. That morning, the student allegedly forced a girl into a bathroom and raped her—at machete-point. He had a thirteen-inch machete on his person when taken from class. No one knew how he snuck it into the building, or what else he planned to do with it.
This school had police officers patrolling the hallways and security guards at every entrance. Students entered through metal detectors. A freshman circumvented these measures. Had he wished to use that machete in class, my colleague and I could’ve done little to stop him. He simply chose not to attack anyone else. The safety of those around him was at his will. I never forgot that students in any school are under control only as much as they choose to be.
A student dedicated to hurting others might only need the will. The logistics of carrying out an attack in a school probably discourages most potential threats. As demonstrated through attacks resulting in casualties, students can overcome logistics. In most school buildings, an armed student only has to neutralize a security officer to access the campus. Lone assailants are the norm in school attacks, but a small yet organized squadron of students could be devastating. An impromptu mass of students deciding to riot within a school could be close to unstoppable, weapons or not. Though rarely considered and with few substantiating cases, almost nothing prevents a staff member from causing havoc.
Any absence of violence in schools might have more to do with students choosing to be civil than to do with staff control of buildings. Like most adults, most students aren’t inclined to hurt others. The number of students who are inclined is difficult to ascertain, but it is definitely higher than the number who act on the inclination. In light of this, control could be a mirage and safety an illusion. The illusion feels real because of the scarcity of incidents. Security measures help tremendously, but truly preventing further chaos could be the lack of precedent in some communities and the fear of reprimand in others. Again, the relatively small number of students bent on violence might be the most significant factor. We all like to believe the number of students thinking about it is smaller than it probably is.