Volume 1, Number 2
19 March 2001

School Shootings

Dear Friends,

Here I've been on the job for only a week, and already I want to take a break. These Letters were designed to analyze the world economy, but a news item has gripped my attention, and I want to talk about it. Because it is about me.

School shootings have occurred throughout our country, some leading to deaths of high-school children. The first to gain national attention took place in Littleton, Colorado, only thirty miles from my home. Only this month a 14-year-old girl shot a classmate in a school in central Pennsylvania, and a 15-year-old, who killed two classmates in Santee, California, faces possible life imprisonment without parole. There have been others.

Why is this about me? Because, like the children who committed these shootings, I was bulllied by my classmates. My mother, brought up on a farm in Scotland, had dropped out of school in the sixth grade. Later she studied nursing in a New York hospital and became an R.N. She had always felt ashamed of her lack of education, though I was proud of her for putting three children through college after my father died, bankrupt in the depression, at age 49. She had wanted her children to receive the best education there was. So she taught me to read before I entered kindergarten and then arranged for me to skip a grade. Always thereafter I was with older boys and girls, and I never adjusted.

As if that weren't enough, I was given a scholarship at the most chic school in town, called Pebble Hill. It was populated by the "rich crowd," to which my family didn't belong. One day a mother was driving several of us home from some sporting event. One of my classmates noticed our laundry hanging on the line, something he had never seen before. For the next several days the boys called out to me, "Nyah Nyah, laundry hanging on the line!" One time they pinned me to the floor and pounded my shoulders until they hurt because I wouldn't tell them my middle name. Once as I was going out the front door, the older boys were having a snowball fight. As soon as they saw me, both sides turned on me — it was fifty against one — and chased me into the silo (the school was on an old farm). There they pummeled me with snowballs until they tired of it and went away laughing. I ran crying into the headmaster's office, which was the worst thing I could have done.

As soon as I heard of the Littleton shooting, I thought, "Well, I wouldn't shoot anyone, but I know exactly how they felt!!"

All during high school and into college, I had few friends. I was always the "odd-one-out," playing in the bushleagues while my classmates were on the team. At prep school — yes, I was sent away to school to have the "best" education — I lived in a sophomore house while I was a senior, because no one would room with me on the senior campus. Only when I was in college did I begin to "come out of it."

One summer while in college I had a job in the Berkshires, where I learned square and contra dancing. Later, I started a square dance group with the Young Friends in New York. The American Friends Service Committee heard of this and asked me to call square dances and conduct discussions on economics at their high-school institutes. Then they invited me to do the same on a student ship going to Europe right after the war. As I stood on the top deck calling the dances for hundreds of joyous young people, I knew I was not the same guy who had run crying into the headmaster's office at Pebble Hill.

What had happened? The AFSC had given me positions of responsibility, where I could serve others, and where others would look up to me. Many Friends speak of the AFSC as their "introduction to Quakerism." For me, the AFSC provided the "introduction to life," for which I am eternally grateful.

In college, I had envied my professors but thought they knew so much more than I did, that I could never become one. Somehow, calling dances and lecturing in economics for the AFSC gave me more confidence. I went to grad school, got my PhD, and I am still teaching at age 80. (Well, it wasn't all that simple, but the AFSC did play a role that it never knew).

Still later, one of our daughters was "picked on" in school, as Robin (my wife) and I looked on helplessly. Later, majoring in physics in college, she decided there were not enough women physicists, so she offered to tutor (free) any woman who wanted to go into physics. Her students looked up to her, praised her, and brought her gifts. She became a respected woman, and now she holds an important position in Silicon Valley.

From all of this, I have concluded that high schools should reach out to those who are picked on. These misfits should be put into positions of importance, where others will look up to them. This will be difficult, because such positions of are usually gained by merit. Whatever is done for the "picked-on" must be done quietly and carefully, so that they do not appear to be "favored."

Unfortunately, when a murder has been committed, it is too late. The child must be punished, but the kind of punishment is widely debated. A 14-year-old in Florida has just been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for killing a 6-year-old. Surely this is too severe, and it must be hoped that Governor Jeb Bush will re-set the balance.

Why did I not pull a gun at Pebble Hill? Times were different (so I was lucky). Today, child psychiatrists "point to the easy availability of guns, but they also wonder whether the violent student outbursts are a byproduct of communities like [Santee], where children come and go as they please, and where the ups and downs of student life and cliques are magnified by a school's position as the center of the local universe" (New York Times, 3/9/01).

Dorothy Rabinovitz of the Wall Street Journal (3/9/01) is less sympathetic. She blames more the premises of the world in which students live than she does bullying, which has occurred through the centuries. "It is a world that has elevated pains like harassment — bullying — to a crime second only to homicide. And it is a world whose premises the young ... have entirely internalized. Given the assumptions of a society that stresses, as ours now does, the inviolable right to freedom from insult, and from all the slings and arrows that are and always will be a part of life's experience, it shouldn't be surprising that a teenager who perceives himself as bullied will absorb the message that he has been made victim of a monstrous crime, and that the entire world around him will understand it as such — as they will also understand why he had to wipe out his oppressors."

It is not necessary to decide whether it is one thing rather than another. I believe it is all of these. But I am persuaded by Dr. Daniel R. Weinberger, Director of the Clinical Brain Disorders Laboratory at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Weinberger writes (New York Times, 3/10/01) that "the human brain has required many millennia and many evolutionary stages to reach its current complex status. It enables us to do all kinds of amazing and uniquely human things: to unravel the human genome, to imagine the future, to fall in love. As part of its capacity for achievement, it must also be able to exercise control that stops maladaptive behavior. Everyone gets angry; everybody has felt a desire for vengeance. The capacity to control impulses that arise from these feelings is a function of the prefrontal cortex." He goes on to say that the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed in the brain of a 15-year-old, and therefore he or she will not understand the realities of what he or she does. That is why teen-agers need supervision from parents and school. I believe, along with Ms. Rabinovitz, that not only has our society changed as she says but also that parental supervision has declined. I have witnessed the change, taking place gradually, slowly, ever since I left grad school in 1950.

You don't have to agree with me. Please write what you think. Try to keep it short, because I expect (hope?) that many Friends will have ideas, and I may have problems publishing them all.

In the meantime, I promise to get back to an economics focus for the next letter.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

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Jack, it was a very moving letter, with much clarity earned from experience and thought.

— Joe Franco, American Friends Service Committee.

I think that all kids need to be given responsibilities and ways to make a positive contribution to their homes, schools, communities -- not just those who are picked on. Not all of the kids who are shooting other kids are doing so because they themselves were picked on. Some of them are probably totally alienated from their peers and families, just don't care about anyone or anything much. Some do cause trouble to retaliate against general or specific others, but some do it because they don't know who else to be except the Bad Kid. If they had any other way to be someone, they might not have to act out. Anyway, I do know that the way to stop it is not just to put more armed police offers in schools. That sort of low level intervention will be all that people like Dubya can think of.

— Rachel Janney, Blacksburg (VA) Friends Meeting.

I would try to make the practice of bullying and insulting socially unacceptable. I have seen the miracles that occurred in the Alternatives to Violence Project workshops that many of us conducted in the California medium-security prison in San Diego County. At the beginning of the workshops, we listed the ground rules. The most important, in my view, was NO PUT DOWNS. We strictly enforced that rule, and I think that is what made it possible for the different races and groups to come together at the end as friends. We even found members of two different gangs becoming friends during the workshops! Of course this wouldn't eliminate the put downs that occurred outside our controlled environment, but if the rule were enforced where possible, the perpetrators at least might feel a twinge of guilt outside the classroom. There would still be plenty of opportunity for the victims to learn to adapt to the real world.

— Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.

Something only implied in the article was the effect of the example our national "leaders" set using guns and bombs to solve problems. Unfortunately the kids don't perceive how ineffective that strategy is or the multiplicity of alternative strategies that were not covered by the press. Do we get the children we deserve? God help us!

— Bruce Hawkins, Northampton (MA) Friends Meeting.

Thanks you so very much for interrupting your planned schedule of topics to deal with your concern about school shootings. I am most impressed that you are willing to expose your very un-macho feelings and experiences in order to suggest a possible course of action to deal with this very painful issue.

— Janet Minshall, Atlanta (GA) Friends Meeting and co-editor of The Friendly Woman.

The tendency for people, including children, to take the law into their own hands exists when the world around them is sufficiently permissive (or the perceived abuse is great enough) is widespread--think of the Red Guards in China, and currently the Bakassi boys in Nigeria, and uprisings in Palestine and elsewhere all over the world. Why, when you and I were growing up, did we not take such action? Mainly, I think, because we were impregnated from an early age onwards with respect for authority (and the law) by our immediate surroundings, our parents, and other adults. Maybe self-esteem has something to do with it, but mainly it was just that such extreme violence was outside our frame of reference. Today, that is not the case. Whether it is the violent TV (remember that kids watch many hours a week) or the video-games, or lack of parental role-models, or the permissive school environment (even mild corporal punishment is not permitted), kids don't have the kind of restraints today that used to exist.

— Tom Selldorff, Weston (MA).

One time I was at my job cleaning the coaches' office, and I found a starters blank gun, apparently without shells in it. Of course I had a little imaginary drama with it, and imagine my horror when the 5th pull of the trigger finally brought its one blank shell into the top position and it made a deafening blast in that small office. Fortunately no one heard it and I aired out the smoke and got away with it. Just illustrates that give a kid a gun, even a non-violent kid, and it can be bad news. So I do blame the availability of weapons.

— Steve Willey, Sandpoint (ID) Friends Meeting.

I, too, was bullied in public school. I think that's where I learned the lesson that violence doesn't solve anything. The bullies didn't materially affect my life, and when I fought back, I didn't stop them either.

— Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting.

Like Jack, I too was bullied. Like many kids now, I had fantasies about shooting up the school. I never acted on them, even though I had access to guns. Perhaps it was the times; perhaps it was my caring and loving parents who devoted hours every week to the family; and perhaps it was the Scouts where I could be a leader and achieve the success I didn't find in school.

— Doug Stevenson, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.

Why are we surprised about school shootings? They have been happening for years, but mostly in the inner cities among minorities. Now they have moved into the suburbs and we are shocked! This is only one of a number of trends that have moved into the white world. How do we stop them? With positive community action, positive adults being with kids, providing positive role models, in thousands of little and big ways. Check out the Search Institute's web site "www.search-intitute.org" for the many ways adults must become involved with today's youth.

— Rollie & Richard Butler, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting

One means of softening the blow and the possibility of ganging up may be by shrinking the size of the public schools. Cliques would be smaller and this might mean they could do less damage. It would be easier to identify perpetrators and to deal with them.

In a similar vein, why is the debate about schools focused almost entirely on education? Surely lots of parents would love to get their kids out of public schools because their fear violence, don't like the idea of having their kids go through metal detectors every morning, and rail at the ridiculous "zero tolerance" policies that suspend a grade school boy for pointing a fish finger from his lunch at the teacher and saying, "pow, pow, pow." The public school may be more important as a social mechanism than the public school as an educational institution could ever be.

— J.D. Von Pischke, Reston (VA) Friends Meeting.

The 7th and 8th grades took music class together in the school assembly room. Two 8th grade boys had seats immediately behind mine. They would make my life miserable by jamming the sharp ends of pencils through the crack between the back and the seat of my chair, or by banging me in the back of the head with their elbows. One day I was hit suddenly and unexpectedly on the shoulder. As I turned around to face them, one of them jammed several cigarette butts into my mouth.

When the class was dismissed I leaped out at one of them and kicked him in the shins as hard as I could, and then gave him both fists with a one-two set of punches. I left him writhing on the floor crying. Life changed after that. I found that the bully types let me alone. I had learned the fundamental lesson that bullies back off when they meet sufficient resistance that they may be the ones getting hurt instead of their intended victims.

I have not been able to reconcile these things with Quaker ideas of the basic good will of human kind.

— Tom Todd, Germantown (PA) Friends Meeting, now living in Jamestown (RI).


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Herbert Fraser, Richmond (IN) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Friends Meeting.
  • Gusten Lutter, Mountain View Friends Meeting, Denver (CO).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Bob Schutz, Santa Rosa (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Wilmer Tjossem, Des Moines Valley (IA) Friends Meeting.
  • Faith Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

This newsletter was formerly known as The Classic Liberal Quaker.

Copyright © 2001 by Jack Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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