School shootings offer lessons First, recognize these are aberrations, not signs of society's disintegration

May 31, 1998|By CAROL TAVIS

Carol Tavris' name was misspelled in the byline and credit line for an article on school violence that appeared Sunday in the Perspective section.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Oh, no, we say, reading the news with horror and helplessness, another teen-age boy on a murderous rampage. This time it's a 15-year-old in Oregon who allegedly killed his parents and two fellow students. We haven't recovered from the incident involving the 11- and 13-year-olds in Jonesboro, Ark., who are accused of killing a teacher and four students March 24.

These acts of vengeful cruelty, occurring not in the mean big city but in close-knit small communities, are especially threatening to our sense of safety and order. But before we leap to simplistic solutions - Build more prisons! Execute teen-agers! - let's think about what these murders tell us.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

First, they are the aberrations of disturbed individuals, not necessarily signs that society is falling apart. In fact, rates of violence have plummeted in recent years, nowhere more noticeably than in Los Angeles and New York - evil cities to most of America.

Second, consider the locations of the last seven school-related killings in the United States - Pearl, Miss.; West Paducah, Ky.; Stamps, Ark.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Edinboro, Pa.; Fayetteville, Tenn.; and Springfield, Ore. All of these states promote the use of guns for hunting and "protection," and foster what social psychologist Richard Nisbett calls a "culture of honor" that teaches its males to avenge perceived slights and insults. The boys who are accused of committing these killings learned to use and value guns all their young lives.

Third, all of the perpetrators are male. Psychologists have identified a major difference in the way boys and girls handle emotional problems, starting in early adolescence. In general, girls begin to internalize anger, anxiety or low self-esteem by developing eating disorders or depression; boys externalize these problems by drinking too much alcohol or attacking others.

Fourth, from what has been reported, the psychology, history and motives of the perpetrators differ, which is why efforts to find a single explanation for their actions are likely to fail. Kipland Kinkel, the Oregon teen-ager, apparently had some of the classic symptoms of anti-social personality disorder - torturing animals and resisting parental discipline. But one of the two boys in Jonesboro might have suffered no more than normal adolescent misery, and the other normal vulnerability to a more dominant peer.

By understanding the similarities and differences of these horrible acts, we can focus on the diversity of solutions necessary to prevent further ones. Gun control is at the top of my list.

However, other interventions must be made. Boys (and girls) need to learn that loneliness, despair, anger and insecurity will always be part of the human condition, but that there are ways to cope other than by destroying oneself or others. They need skills to counter the lessons of the media, which might be summarized as "Mad at someone? Just blow the guy away." Some schools across the country have developed anger-management classes that teach kids constructive alternatives to acting out.

Further, we have cut off mental-health resources to our schools and parents at our communal peril. Parents and teachers need help recognizing the symptoms of potentially lethal aggression, especially in boys, so that they will not dismiss these symptoms as normal boyishness.

"Cultures of honor" are harder to change, but even here we can be hopeful. Cultures change when the need for violence within them diminishes.

The Vikings were the most aggressive and barbarous of men; today, you don't hear about squadrons of marauding Scandinavians. But we needn't look to other nations or centuries to see improvements; we need look no further than the progress many of our communities have made. The lesson they teach us is that violence is a symptom, not an inevitability.

Carol Tavis, a social psychologist writer, is author of "Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion." This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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