Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

School Killers

School Violence and the Media

A year after the Columbine incident, Time magazine published a poll that had been conducted in conjunction with the Discovery Channel and the National Campaign Against Youth Violence. Accordingly, parents and their children appear to have differing perceptions about how safe children feel at school.

Right after Columbine, just over half of the students said they didn't feel "very safe" at school. A year later, that number rose to two-thirds, despite the fact that there had been no significant media-reported school violence over that year. However, the number of parents who felt that their children were safe had increased from 27% to 42%. That means they had relaxed about the issue, but their kids had not.

One-third of the teens questioned said they'd witnessed a violent incident, but less than 10% of their parents thought that was true. Half of the kids said they'd been picked on or threatened, but less than a quarter of the parents had any idea that their kids had had such an experience. Clearly, there's a gap in communication. In fact, a greater percentage of parents claim to have had a serious talk with their children about school violence than the percentage of kids who agreed that their parents had talked with them. Yet less then one out of five even wanted such a talk.

"My parents don't really know what it's like," said one fifteen-year-old girl. "They didn't have this when they went to school. It's hard to talk with them about it."

As for beliefs about confrontations, the generation gap is wide: Parents believe that kids would have a hard time walking away from an angry confrontation without being teased, but two-thirds of the students disagreed with that. All of them — parents and children — felt that school-related violence was on the rise, although statistics contradict that. It may be that media coverage has affected their perception, and there are people who claim that it has certainly provoked more incidents.

Nearly a month after the shootings in Littleton, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Associated Student Press joined ranks to discuss how school violence ought to be covered. The point is to try to balance reporting the news with minimizing harm to students across the country. If shooters get their "fifteen minutes of fame"—especially garbed as the heroic outlaw—increasingly more disenfranchised "nobodies" may view violence as the way to become noticed. Reporters pressured to get the story and make it central on the nightly news may not be sensitive to the effects of their coverage in the larger scheme of things.

Thus, an alliance of students and professionals on this issue may have benefits for both groups:

  1. The student journalists hope to educate the professionals about how to deal with people their age and how to be more aware of their concerns. In turn, the professionals can guide students in how best to cover stories.
  2. Student journalists can get kids to talk without pressuring them or invading their privacy the way many journalists from out of town have done. Yet working together with the professionals can help them through the process and through the trauma. It may also be the case that student journalists can get through to other students in ways that adults can't, because students will more readily read something about violence written by another student. "We want to read it from the point of view of someone who knows what we're experiencing," said one student.
  3. Whereas professional reporters come in, get the story, and leave, kids at a school where violence has occurred can continue to cover the story in a long-range manner, and with more breadth and depth. "Kids know there is more depth [in a story]," said Laura Schaub, of the Oklahoma Inter-Scholastic Press Association, "but they can use professional assistance conceptualizing how to get it into the paper."

Regardless of how the media reports school killings in the future, it's clear that we need to develop better ways of dealing with kids who view violence as the best means for solving their problems. It's also clear that we need to encourage students who hear one of their friends make a threat to take it seriously, even if they don't believe that person would ever really follow through. Bullying by peers may never be eradicated, but listening to kids whose manner of processing such taunts is distorted and disturbed may be the only way to develop appropriate interventions and stop the violence. It has to be treated on the inside rather than through external controls, because kids who feel resentful and angry, and who view the world in violent terms, will always find some way to act out.


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