Guest column: School violence... who is to blame?Guest Column by Alan D. Wood
Special to The Newnan Times-Herald
As a former Newnan High School principal, I remember being quoted by a reporter from The New York Times when I told him, “We’re playing by a different set of rules now; to serve and protect has become our motto. It used to be on the sides of police cars.”
Given the most recent terrible school shootings, I thought back to more than a decade ago when six shooting rampages at American schools occurred within a 20-month period.
I told her then and the same holds true now that what should be crystal clear is that educators are charged with maintaining the welfare and safety of students. Adding security, tightening dress standards, improving speech and civility rules, implementing anti-bullying measures, instituting safety procedures which encompass threat assessment measures, and safety drills are necessary steps schools must take to ward off the next tragedy wherever it could take place.
More importantly, the interviewer’s question wrongly framed the focus for discussions the media should facilitate. Splitting hairs between hypothetical conveniences and freedoms only fills air time while creating frustration, but it doesn’t zero in on the real problems facing America. Too many Americans are civically illiterate and that should be a wake-up call, because school violence and violence in society at large are symptoms of a much larger pathology. Both are symptomatic manifestations of a larger mosaic.
Abraham Lincoln said, “Knowledge is the currency of democracy.”
Americans must use knowledge to solve the problem of school violence. We can no longer allow a sense of futility to pervade the general population. Rational solutions can be found to this institutional affliction if certain realities are understood and dealt with. We must focus on a basic truth as a starting point: School and societal violence are symptoms of a much larger communal problem.
America is experiencing a loss of social order. This larger problem creates the symptoms of school and societal violence and all the unadulterated evils that come with them. Experts feel there are a number of factors contributing to the malaise of a dysfunctional social order. The drug problem, unattended mental illness, the availability of guns, a diminishing connectedness of people to people, media violence, economic conditions and a lack of informed citizenry top the list. Unless these factors are confronted, social order in our nation will continue to unravel.
A report from the United Nations Children’s Fund underscores the geopolitical fact that our youth are placed squarely in the middle of societal disorder and violence. It states, “Nine of 10 murders of youth in the industrialized world occur in the United States.”
Two major causes of this grim statistic are guns and drugs. One national columnist asserted that “America’s drug problem should be blamed on America and its appetite for drugs.” A staff writer for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution once advised, “Because of Georgia’s lax gun-control laws, guns bought here are involved in an ever-increasing number of crimes.”
Researchers are also drawing a parallel between the diminishing presence of the traditional family and the loss of social order. Their view is that human connectedness is being compromised. Hence, sensitivity is lost without a sense of family and family values. The problem? Researchers contend family stability is affected by many wrong messages purveyed in the mass media -- materialism, drug and alcohol use, hedonistic (pleasure-seeking) lifestyles, easy sex and violence. For example, one report stated television violence alone subjects a child before he or she finishes elementary school to 100,000 violent acts and 8,000 murders. Life in America now imitates the false art we call television.
Let me say it again. America is experiencing a loss of social order. School violence and a host of other problems are symptoms of this trend. All of this speaks to a compelling need for change. If we choose to act, things can change for the better. Three specific courses of action can be used to confront the negative factors that are causing our crisis.
THE AUTHORITY OF THE DOLLAR
We must also pay attention to the fact economic conditions play an indisputable role in the maintenance of social order. Nations rise and fall on this truth. In America, one child in five lives in poverty. Poverty’s worst by-product is despair. Children without hope come from parents without hope. A former United States Supreme Court Chief Justice explained it best: “The statistical map of violence and the statistical map of poverty are all too close of a match.” Sociologists offer the bottom line. Positive social changes only come from positive economic opportunities.
We are empowered as consumers, and in this way have a say in matters that affect social order. Years ago, an “ABC News” segment featured some of Hollywood’s script writers discussing the issue of television and video game violence. When asked about what should be done to reduce the onslaught of images inappropriate for young people, their consensus revealed an obvious truth: Producers make what consumers will watch or pay for.
If we find material objectionable, we should write producers and advertisers. Few people want out-and-out censorship, but many do find television and video game violence excessive.
A former director of a top rated show added importance to making our feelings known by saying, “If you say television or extreme video games have no effect, you’re just deceiving yourself.”
THE POWER OF THE VOTE
Active citizens understand government is not an inaccessible land inhabited by a privileged few. People make things happen. However, as voting citizens we must address contradictions.
One editor of a national magazine with a large circulation explains: “The culture says you shouldn’t put this or that on television, but you can buy an AK-47 with multiple bullet clips legally.”
Given FBI estimates of lawful private firearm ownership at 200 million in this nation, by example, AK-47 regulation through more comprehensive background checks, not confiscation, is part of obvious anti-crime measures since even the Second Amendment emphasizes “a well-regulated” militia. But remember, a national media commentator recently said, “More people in America are killed each year by blunt objects and fists than by firearms.”
Maintaining all legal freedoms, there could be voluntary moratoriums within media’s use of the First Amendment involving less saturation of the airwaves when covering tragic events, especially school shootings. Of the 41 school shootings that have occurred in America, the shooters almost always talked of their intent ahead of time, indicating a desire for chronicling their plans and wanting notoriety. Excessive coverage raises the propensity for more documented copy cat trends.
Toning down television and radio sensationalism separates the subtle rotating theme differences people are exposed to in the news. Reporting the news should not involve making the news. (A sizeable percentage of viewers and listeners have an unquenchable thirst for exposure to and curiosity about societal peculiarities and maladies.) Contrasting reasonable ideas against disassociated political motives ensures that murderers are not infamously elevated press time-wise from never-ending story lines debating a host of non-related variables tied to alternative agendas.
Another reality that must be confronted is the fact social order rests upon viewpoints deemed acceptable on tolerance. We are a forgiving society, one that values the individual. However, the value of individual redemption should have limits. I remember reading an article that summarized societal inaction in fewer than 12 words after an account of a police roundup in the killing of a man in Florida. “The 17-year-old suspect has a record of 56 previous arrests.” Here alone is just one example of why authorities need to take whatever action is necessary to strengthen truth in sentencing laws.
THE FORCE IN TIME GIVING
When malevolence enters a darkened heart, tragedy occurs. Although some secularists attempt to marginalize eschatological views as nothing more than superstitions, I believe evil is real, but so is the power and glory of God. I’m not alone. Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the three largest religions in the world, all share teaching the lessons of moral accountability from the Old Testament in the Bible and have done so for thousands of years. In actuality, civilization itself has sought a higher authority and meaning to life since global human kind began.
Regardless of pop culture noise, situational morality is a myth. There’s always a right and a wrong when it comes to social order. Community workers and volunteers determine the moral landscape of towns across America. Big government does not. If we are to effect change in a diminishing social order, we must demonstrate that duty to service and nation is more than a motto. Indeed, it’s a natural law of civic literacy. Volunteer time-giving to worthwhile causes such as working to address mental illness issues in America creates an active presence of opportunity for those in need or who need help. No amount of tax dollars can replace caring people. The toil of volunteers still remains America’s greatest resource and strength.
Other time-consuming but necessary measures involve coordinating and incorporating correctional statistical applications to enhance psychological and dimensional data for predicting covert behaviors. Creative rehabilitative outreaches can be designed to identify aberrant responses before a fringe element or elements act. This sociological blend of anti-poverty and social health proactive posture is a viable component of how people-to-people can help. Housing adequacy, job training by volunteer entrepreneurs, and community support for family structures can add to breaking the cycle of crime and violence that often are fueled by domestic problems and outcast behavior.
The authority of the dollar, the power of the vote and the force of time-giving are immeasurable strengths that every citizens has to effect change. Used wisely, these strengths can restore a proper cadence to our stumbling society. They can create a new defining moment for the coming years ahead. In doing so, future generations can have a model of working accountability that both vendors and consumers of cultural image can use. It’s our choice to effect change. Enough is enough. We must change the fact that these days bulletproof vests come in children’s sizes.
Need I say more?
(Alan D. Wood, former Newnan High School principal, is director of After School Programs for the Coweta County School System.)