Once again, bullying is implicated in a school shooting -
the Virginia Tech massacre. Whether Seung-Hui Cho had a mental illness that
also contributed to his shooting spree, the bullying he and every other school
shooter experienced is vital to understanding why these shootings take place
and what pushes these young males over the edge.
It also highlights the misery plaguing students across the United States.
Curbing the bullying culture can prevent murders and will also improve life for
many other victimized youngsters.
Many shooters thought they were martyrs for their peers. "I do this on
behalf of all students who are mistreated," declared 16-year-old Luke Woodham,
who killed his ex-girlfriend and her best friend in the 1997 school shooting in
Pearl, Miss. Cho likened himself to Jesus Christ "to inspire generations of
the weak and the defenseless people."
Cho's family, roommates, teachers, professors and judges all recognized
that he needed help. They knew he was bullied, and they saw that he was
miserable and angry (visible in his written plays, his affect in class, his
behavior). In response, people tried to get him committed and to move his class
seat. Some students stopped coming to class because he made them uncomfortable.
The overwhelming response was not about helping Cho improve his
relationships with other people, nor were there efforts to address the larger
problems in his communities that, as in schools across America, maintain and
even encourage a bully culture.
Almost every school shooter in cases studied over the last decade cited
bullying as a motivating factor for the crime. In my research in schools across
the country, students talk about bullying as a normal part of their day that
no one seems able to control.
Adults, too, assume that bullying has and always will take place. Some
parents encourage their children to fight back and win if provoked. A culture
that accepts and even encourages bullying provides the impetus toward the
violent response that Cho chose. But school shootings are only the most
horrific responses to everyday bullying.
In the United States, various studies reflect that 25 to 80 percent of
students are bullied. Most research shows that bullied victims most often
commit suicide, experience severe depression and anxiety, become truants and
dropouts or engage in cutting and other self-destructive behaviors.
The essential question is not just how to stop school shootings, but how to
dismantle the bully culture. How do we respond to troubled kids in a way that
both protects other students from potential violence and also helps these
students develop more fulfilling relationships?
As a school social worker, I have had success helping many troubled kids,
some of whom even threatened shootings. Building relationships in a school
community profoundly helps otherwise isolated students, and in certain cases
might save lives.
In Arkansas in 1998, counseling was made available after a school shooting.
Yet, most students, parents and teachers said they refused the help because of
the stigma attached to getting support. After most of the shootings, there
were new metal detectors, fences and other security measures, but fewer
interventions focusing on relationships.
We have not adequately implemented the supportive programs used in Europe
that almost immediately reduced bullying by 50 percent. One such intervention
begun in The Netherlands directly challenges a school's bullying culture using
a method that supports the victims, bystanders, teachers, parents - and even
We have had many more school shootings in the United States than Europe.
Yet, national anti-bullying policies are undermined by some Christian
fundamentalist organizations suspecting that these policies are pro-gay. Their
resistance acknowledges that typical bullying often entails gay-bashing of both
homosexual and heterosexual students who do not meet typical expectations for
boys - including being athletic, muscular and powerful.
We need to make sure students feel connected to each other. This will stem
the tide of many self-destructive behaviors, not just shootings.