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Terrorism, School Shootings, and Public Education

November 21, 2015

The recent horrific events in Paris are serving as a backdrop for much of my reading of late, and two articles I just completed resonated in light of the killings last weekend. Taken together in the context of the terrorism in France they chart a course for public education in our country.

Earlier this month the New Yorker featured an article by Malcolm Gladwell titled “The Thresholds of Violence: How School Shootings Spread“. In typical Gladwell fashion, he takes one case involving a school shooter who was caught by police before he was able to complete the slaughter he planned and uses it to explain the root causes of an emerging trend. In this case the trend is school shootings and the explanation is a decision theory concept concept called “Thresholds”. The term was coined four decades ago by Stanford psychologist Mark Granovetter who sought to answer this question:

What explains a person or a group of people doing things that seem at odds with who they are or what they think is right? Granovetter took riots as one of his main examples, because a riot is a case of destructive violence that involves a great number of otherwise quite normal people who would not usually be disposed to violence.

Granovetter used the term “threshold” to answer the question:

A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.

Gladwell convincingly asserts that school shootings are proliferating because individuals with a high threshold are contemplating school shootings because in he universe they live in they believe everyone is contemplating the same action. Returning to the riot metaphor Granovetter used to explain the threshold theory, Gladwell concludes his article with this chilling paragraph:

In the day of Eric Harris (one of the Columbine shooters profiled in depth in the article), we could try to console ourselves with the thought that there was nothing we could do, that no law or intervention or restrictions on guns could make a difference in the face of someone so evil. But the riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement. The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.

In the context of Gladwell’s conclusion and the events last weekend where radicalized young men engaged in acts of terror in Paris, last Sunday’s NYTimes article by Julie Scelfo titled “Teaching Peace in Elementary School” describes a broader but critically important roles for public education. Scelfo describes S.E.L., a recent trend in elementary education that is clearly for more important to the well being of our children and our nation than anything we measure using standardized achievement tests:

In many communities, elementary teachers, guidance counselors and administrators are embracing what is known as social and emotional learning, or S.E.L., a process through which people become more aware of their feelings and learn to relate more peacefully to others.

Feeling left out? Angry at your mom? Embarrassed to speak out loud during class? Proponents of S.E.L. say these feelings aren’t insignificant issues to be ignored in favor of the three R’s. Unless emotions are properly dealt with, they believe, children won’t be able to reach their full academic potential.

Worse, based on Gladwell’s assertions and the evidence we can see around us in the world, if these feelings are ignored our schools will perpetuate the climate where “boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement” might contemplate school shootings or be radicalized. Ever since Columbine we’ve spent billions on surveillance cameras and hiring SROs. Ever since 9-11 we’ve spent even more on personnel and computer technology to keep us safe from terrorists. And during that same time period we’ve spent every marginal dollar available to schools on testing and test preparation. It’s time to spend more on peace and less on armaments and surveillance.

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