The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America's Schools

The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America's Schools

The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America's Schools

The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America's Schools


In today's schools, kids abusing kids is not an occasional occurrence but rather an everyday reality where children learn early that being sensitive, respectful, and kind earns them no respect. Jessie Klein makes the provocative argument that the rise of school shootings across America, and childhood aggression more broadly, are the consequences of a society that actually promotes aggressive and competitive behaviour. The Bully Society is a call to reclaim America's schools from the vicious cycle of aggression that threatens our children and our society at large. Heartbreaking interviews illuminate how boys - but also girls - obtain status by acting masculine, displaying aggression at one another's expense as both students and adults engage in surveillance of themselves and others to enforce boy and girl codes.Klein shows that the aggressive ritual of gender policing in American culture creates emotional damage that perpetuates violence through revenge, and that this cycle is the main cause of not only the many school shootings that have shocked America, but also related problems in schools manifested in high rates of suicide, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-cutting, truancy, and substance abuse. After two decades working in schools as a school social worker and professor, Klein proposes ways to transcend these destructive trends - transforming school bully societies into compassionate communities.


In October 1997, I heard on the radio that Luke Woodham, a sixteen year-old, had killed two classmates and wounded seven others in a school shooting in Pearl, Mississippi. In a note, Luke declared: “I am not insane. I am angry. I killed because people like me are mistreated every day.”1 He explained that he was tired of being called a “faggot”; he was additionally enraged that his girlfriend—whom he killed in the shooting—had broken up with him.

At the start of the Woodham case, I began examining school shootings. Two months after the massacre in Mississippi came a shooting in Kentucky, then one in Arkansas that same month, and then another in Arkansas three months later in March 1998. There was a shooting in Pennsylvania that April, in Tennessee that May, and then in Oregon that same month, where two students were killed and twenty-two wounded. A year and a half later, on April 20, 1999, as I was driving home from my job as a school social worker, I heard about the Columbine shooting on the radio. I pulled the car over and sat paralyzed as I heard the latest terror unfold.

I continued to study these cases and began to look at shootings prior to Woodham, while also watching one after another take place. This book covers shootings over three decades: 1979 to 2009. I am still struck by the similarities among them. In almost every one, perpetrators targeted other boys who had called them names associated with homosexuality, girls who had rejected them, or both. Even in cases when the shooters lashed out against their schools for perceived injustices related to discipline or academic assessments, gender pressures often played a role: the shooters talked about these actions as challenges to their masculinity.

It became clear, as I uncovered the roots of these shootings, that children and teens continue to feel forced to conform to a narrow set of gender expectations in order to be accepted. Things have clearly grown worse, however, since my own childhood, when the dozen or so school shootings that occurred in the seventies barely registered in the national consciousness. It is more common today for those victimized in school to pick up guns and turn them on fellow students.

Some difficult economic and social circumstances have developed over these three decades, and since the turn of the century new challenges have surely made life even harder for children and adults alike. These forces add pressure to school environments, which are often the only social spaces children have. In many of the towns and cities where school shootings took place, everyone attended the same school. For those who were tormented during the school day, extracurricular activities were just extensions of the same environment. Many of these children seemed to have no way out. They felt beleaguered by other youth in their school, as well as by some school faculty who spoke derisively to them or who even joined in the bullying.

Ideally students shouldn’t need to find alternative spaces to feel safe and accepted. Schools are responsible for helping students become self-reflective, self-actualized, compassionate, and civic-minded people. Instead, teachers often become resented authority figures, while students become passive and docile, or rebellious and then accused of “acting out.” The obsession with gender, status, obedience, and competition that occupies our students undermines their relationships with themselves and with others, as well as their ability to learn and thrive. In many of our schools, precious opportunities for creating community and developing critical thinking are lost; instead, perhaps more than ever before, cutthroat competition, cruelty, isolation, and anxiety prevail.

Over the last thirty years, school shootings have gone from a rare occurrence to a frequent tragedy. From 1969 to 1978, there were 16 school shootings in the United States. (Interestingly, 3 of them were committed by state police against student protesters.) From 1979 to 1988, there were 29 school shootings, almost double those in the previous decade. Between 1989 and 1998, school shootings just about doubled again, to 52; and from 1999 to 2008 they increased again, as 63 new shootings took place. Shootings continue to increase in number; there were 22 in 2009 alone. By my count, there have been 166 shootings in schools . . .

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