Wednesday, 22 April 2009

A serious, in-depth study of US-style gun attacks in schools, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings sports a shock-factor cover that Harvard academic Katherine S. Newman evidently chose to give the book as wide an appeal as possible. She wants it to be read by as many people as possible, and this is a good thing. The more people who read books like this - not just government functionaries and school administrators - the more likely we will be to notice the early-warning signs that always lead up to an event.

Because children warn others, usually peers, of an impending attack, and sometimes these utterances are explicit in form. Children don't just snap, says Newman. They display signs of stress and tell others in advance in an effort to improve their social standing in the school community, where they are often marginalised.

Other factors contribute to stress, including mental illness and domestic pressure. And the ease of access to guns means that stress and pressure manifest themselves in the US in ways that do not as frequently happen in other countries.

Of particular interest to me was Newman's approach to the media, which she castigates for being insensitive in her summation at the end of the book. But Newman is highly beholden to the media, relying in many places on reports. Further, there are no books like this on covering similar events in Australia. This is because of the fact that perpetrators are minors. Minors are protected by stringent laws regarding privacy.

The result of these protective measures is that there is little discussion of the issues in the public sphere. Which is not a good thing. It's not good because if we only read headlines we never see the deeper motivations that contribute to the type of stress that causes children to act violently at school. And school is, as Newman says, a "sacred sanctuary".

On the one hand, the media is responsible for causing distress in the aftermath of school rampage shootings by infringing on the privacy of those involved, be they teachers, parents or just community members in the small towns where these crimes typically take place.

On the other hand, the media plays a critical role in informing us about the nature of the individuals involved. We know a lot about the children who do these things because of the large number of stories that appear in the wake of a shooting. Comments made by bystanders and community members contribute to our deeper understanding.

On balance, I would say that we need more media exposure, not less. Similarly, there is an unwritten rule that the media do not cover suicides. Given the prevalence in Australia of teenage suicide, it is surprising that there is not more information available in the public sphere. Again, a hidden motivation is a missed opportunity for understanding and hence for prevention.

Similarly, Newman records an opinion that more coverage should be given to student problems during their school career. Because adverse incidents are often not recorded and therefore are not communicated to other teachers and school staff, we miss catching indicators of poor performance. Schools consciously do not record every adverse event in an effort to prevent any student from being stigmatised later in their career. But the downside is that problems that manifest early are not pursued by those in the best position to do so.

Newman discusses a type of organisational dysfunction called "organisational deviance" where information that should be passed onto others is lost in the day-to-day performance of the organisation. Schools are not the only organisations to suffer from this effect. If information is not of a type that conventionally contributes to achieving standard organisational goals, it is often lost. The result is that warning signs are passed over by busy employees. People often simply do not 'see' things that they are not expected or encouraged to notice.

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