Society doesn’t kill students, statistical outliers do

The school shooting at Columbine in 1999 shocked the United States. The idea that children were not safe at a school, of all places, made parents of school-aged children ill with fear. Since that time the public seems to have slowly forgotten about violence in schools. That is until September 27, when the first of three school shootings in a week reclaimed the media spotlight. Although three school shootings in six days is an unprecedented phenomenon, school violence is currently declining. A recent article in The Economist cites that, “Violence in schools has fallen by half since the mid-1990s; children are more than 100 times more likely to be murdered outside the school walls than within them.”The meaning of these incidents has even experts scratching their heads. While the victims of these events were all women, the same economist article cites that rates of violence against women are also down. All three shootings were suicides, leading others to argue that these incidents are a result of a change in the way people commit suicide.The gun-control debate can go either way. Stricter gun-control would help keep weapons out of the hands of criminals, while relaxing the law might lead more teachers to carry concealed weapons and be able to prevent these incidents. One article in The Spectator argues that the killing in the Amish school in Pennsylvania may imply that sheltering a community from modern reality is responsible for this specific incident. “Even the Amish of Lancaster County, Pa., cannot protect themselves from guilt by association. That’s a pretty sobering thought. It also helps illustrate the uselessness of wishing the world were something it is not. We cannot make ourselves safe by going about our business and hoping the rest of the world will leave us alone. The world will not.” However, the author uses this argument to explain why blaming women’s pro or anti-gun control groups for tragedies like this is problematic. If the natural response to a chain of events such as recent school shootings is to place blame, then where does the blame lie here? The obvious route is to blame the criminals, and in this instance it is the appropriate route. Instead of examining statistical evidence, trends of data, sociological influences or psycho-analysis to locate a common thread that motivates such terrible criminal acts, let’s give credit where credit is due- these guys are sick! I know, it’s a ground-breaking idea, right? But, this outbreak of school violence does call something less obvious into question. In today’s modern world, social scientists are always looking for this thread that ties events together and identifies trends in human behavior. The media broadcasts research projects that identify sociological reasons for everything under the sun. From choosing a breakfast cereal to murdering innocent Amish girls, sociologists will try to tell you that society is often to blame. A psychologist will get an interview on the evening news, arguing that a shooter wasn’t hugged enough as a child and was somehow unable to decipher right from wrong. These may seem like extreme cases, but sometimes it is a social scientist’s diagnosis that distinguishes lethal injection from six months in the loony bin. So while the majority of the blame for murdering innocent children in schools should clearly fall on the shoulders of the murderer, perhaps it’s time the public thinks more fundamentally on where blame is placed in society. The social sciences are certainly valuable for examining many aspects of human behavior, but when the public sees three school shootings and asks “what is the sociological connection?” before it asks “what the f**k is wrong with those three murderers?” I start to worry. After all, while statisticians are crunching the numbers for social sciences research on school violence, the next statistical outlier is polishing his gun before he hops on the school bus in the morning.