This is a project that was completed and submitted for review the day before the events at Virginia Tech. It is focused on theory and situational forces on middle and high school adolescents since that is where the majority of school shooters have come from. In that respect it is less applicable to Cho but many will find that some of the underlying factors in this case and school shootings in general are more understandable in light of this paper. I highly recommend viewing the original and complete piece with pictures here. This was a team project and the other two members prefer to remain anonymous.
Once again, keep in mind that this was written before the events at Virginia Tech, but we think you will find it useful none the less.
Research and generalizations
According to the Secret Service’s study of 41 school shooters in 37 incidents, “Almost three-quarters of the attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others prior to the incident (71percent, n=29). In several cases, individual attackers had experienced bullying and harassment that was long-standing and severe. In some of these cases the experience of being bullied seemed to have a significant impact on the attacker and appeared to have been a factor in his decision to mount an attack at the school. In one case, most of the attacker’s schoolmates described the attacker as “the kid everyone teased.” In witness statements from that incident, schoolmates alleged that nearly every child in the school had at some point thrown the attacker against a locker, tripped him in the hall, held his head under water in the pool, or thrown things at him. Several schoolmates had noted that the attacker seemed more annoyed by, and less tolerant of, the teasing than usual in the days preceding the attack.” (Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Reddy, M., Borum, R., Modzeleski, W., 2002, pg 30)
Also, “Although most attackers had not received a formal mental health evaluation or diagnosis, most attackers exhibited a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts at some point prior to their attack (78 percent, n=32). More than half of the attackers had a documented history of feeling extremely depressed or desperate (61 percent, n=25).” (Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Reddy, M., Borum, R., Modzeleski, W., 2002, pg 31)
As we mentioned earlier, suicidal ideation is more common than previous violent behavior in individuals who engage in extreme forms of interpersonal violence (Rigby, K., Slee, P., 1999). Also, “both bullies and their victims express more suicidality than their non-involved peers.”(Lubell, Keri M., Vetter, James B., 2006)
In sum, Aronson puts it best in comments he made about the Columbine tragedy in regards to situational forces and attribution theory, “I gave you two basic facts about humans as social animals as a way of inviting you to take another look at the behavior or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters in the Columbine massacre. I have described their behavior as pathological – and I want to repeat that here. Ordinary human beings do not bring weapons to school and kill their classmates. The question is: Was their behavior caused by a deep-seated inner pathology (‘craziness’ or ‘evil’)? Had they been crazy or evil for a number of years people around them just hadn’t noticed? Or was there something about the situation they were in that triggered the pathological behavior? We will probably never answer that question definitively. But understanding the power of the situation they were in might help us find ways to reduce future outbreaks of this lethal violence.” (Aronson, 2000, Nobody Left to Hate, pg 34)
He later goes on to describe the essence of the solution for dealing with aggression, “Empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another person to feel with that person, to gain an awareness and understanding of what that person must be feeling, and to identify your own feelings accurately and respond appropriately.” “Why should schools be concerned with fostering empathy in students? Children who are more empathic tend to be more cooperative and less aggressive. Once a child has learned to put himself in the shoes of another person, it is very difficult to aggress against that person. If we have learned to put ourselves in the shoes of a great many other people, aggressive responses, in general, become less available to us.” (pg 112-113)
Clearly the well being of millions of children and adolescents could be affected for the better as well as addressing some of the underlying issues involved in school shootings if solutions or methods for reducing bullying, social exclusion and inter-group predation and bias were implemented.
Parents, the community, and schools have several choices in the matter. They can simply ignore the problem and chalk it up to random violence performed by a handful of disturbed young people; charge in with tough zero-tolerance policies; take a step back and implement a more scientific approach to prevent future tragedies. In answer, schools have chosen all three methods in one form or another.
Some feel parents should be held accountable for their children’s violent behavior; after all, it is their parenting that led to such hostile children. Profiling students then keeping surveillance on them is an easy way to keep those types of students in check; many schools have encouraged students and parents to inform the faculty of any student that may fit the profile of a violent student such as wearing a black trench coat. Numerous schools have implemented a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and any form of weapon on school campuses is strictly forbidden. Students who make any kind of threat may be suspended, expelled, or even arrested. Various schools have also taken the initiative to increase security measures by implementing a mandatory student IDs, putting in metal detectors, and having security or police on duty.
All of these solutions provide a quick fix to the problem and help school administrators and parents feel like something is being done to protect students. But at what cost and what are the real benefits? While it is true metal detectors and an increase in campus security has helped to curb the amount of violence in dangerous communities and zero-tolerance policies have helped bring awareness to bullying, none of these quick fixes actually provide a solution to the real problem: frustration and aggressive behavior. Generations of American students have complained that the junior high and high school years were the worst time in their life; problems between the in-crowd and out-crowd will still remain despite these quick fixes. They also focus on negative solutions, only protect the students from physical harm inside the building, do nothing to protect students from emotional abuse, and create a depressed, prison-like atmosphere rather than an educationally-rich environment.
The good news is there are some positive and creative solutions to help students overcome their differences. One example is a program called Challenge Day: a one day workshop designed to break down barriers between students while discussing important topics like tobacco, alcohol and drug use, racism, and teasing. The organizational founders, Rich & Yvonne St. John-Dutra, believe that “young people are not isolated due to a lack of people around them, but rather due to a lack of connection with those people” and Challenge Day is “designed to help stop the violence and alienation that youth face every day (www.challengeday.org).” For $3000 a school or youth organization can put on a Challenge Day which promises to help create an “environment of compassion, acceptance and respect.” The program has had positive results in schools all over the country. Oprah Winfrey highlighted the program on her show and sent a correspondent to participate with students at Monroe High School in Monroe, Michigan. She believes this program is a fulfillment of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream.
Another positive program is the Boomerang Project: a program designed to help students connect with each other while increasing attendance, decreasing discipline issues, and improving educational performance (www.boomerangproject.com). Link Crew is their transitional program for incoming freshman to help them feel comfortable their first year of high school and succeed throughout their high school years. Juniors and seniors are trained to work with a group of 10-12 freshmen. Assistant Principal Kim Whitworth of Ballard High School in Seattle, Washington said, “Link Crew was implemented to address 9th grade transition issues. The hope is that it provides freshman with skills and resources to navigate high school at an earlier time, while providing upperclassmen with an opportunity to learn and apply mentoring skills.” The successful high school program helped to launch its junior high counter-part, WEB or Where Everybody Belongs. The principle is the same; WEB trains 8th graders to help the incoming 6th or 7th graders transition more successfully into junior high.
The Jigsaw Classroom
While these are good programs with some measure of success there are programs that provide long-term solutions. In 1954 Gordon Allport developed the social contact theory to help decrease prejudice. His theory states if differing social groups have to depend on each other to reach a common goal, are equal in status, have enough time with frequent encounters for a relationship to develop, and have support from some kind of authority figure then prejudice between social groups can be reduced (Taylor, Peplau, Sears, 2006, pg. 199). Social Psychologists have developed educational materials using his theory to help reduce conflict in the classroom; the “jigsaw classroom” is an example.
During the early 70’s Austin, Texas was desegregating its public schools. African-American, Hispanic, and white children were attending the same schools for the first time and racial tension was causing a volatile situation. A principle of one of the schools contacted his previous professor, Dr. Elliot Aronson, who observed several classrooms and determined the hostility between the social groups was intensified by the competitive nature of the classroom. He worked with his graduate students to develop a strategy to “shift the emphasis from a relentlessly competitive atmosphere to a more cooperative one.” Using the principles of the social contact theory the concept of the jigsaw classroom was formed. In 1971 his team implemented the strategy using several fifth grade classrooms as a starting point. After a few weeks there was a noted decrease in prejudice, an increase in self-confidence, an increase in the amount of material learned, and students liked school more than those in a conventional classroom.
The jigsaw method is a group learning process that requires each member’s effort to work on a project; each student is a piece to the finished puzzle. The teacher divides a classroom into diverse groups of five to six students. Each member of a group is given a different task to learn about and come back to present to the group. The students from different groups with the same task meet as an “expert group” to help each other learn the researched material and with presentation skills. After each student gives their presentation within their main group a test is given. The teacher helps the students understand the importance of listening to each other since the test depends on the understanding of all the material.
Dr. Aronson remembers one of the students from his test classes in Texas (Aronson, 2000, Nobody Left to Hate, pg 141). Carlos was a Mexican-American student bused to a new school in Austin, 1971. He spoke with an accent, came from a substandard school, and had only attended schools with other Mexican-American students. The small jigsaw groups required him to participate; he could no longer be a wallflower in the class. At first he fumbled through his presentations to the group and they took the opportunity to remind him he was stupid. A research assistant suggested their comments to Carlos may have seemed funny but they needed his presentation to do well on the test that followed. After a few weeks of practice Carlos’ skills and confidence grew; the other students realized it was in their best interest to help him rather than taunt him. A cyclical effect was now happening: the students began to ask prodding questions that made him feel comfortable and the more comfortable he became the better he was able to communicate. After a few weeks Carlos felt he was an important contributor to the group and the group no longer viewed him as “stupid”.
Just as the jigsaw classroom was an answer to racial tension in the 70’s so Aronson believes it is the answer for today’s issues with bullying and violence. In Nobody Left to Hate, Aronson states there are peripheral interventions, metal detectors or bullying policies, and root cause interventions, intervening at the core cause of the problem. Competition can be healthy while exclusion can be harmful and jigsaw gets at the root of the problem by removing exclusivity. In a letter to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he writes, “These perpetrators [Harris and Klebold] were reacting to a general school atmosphere that breeds an environment of exclusion, mockery and taunting. A glance at teen-age chat groups on the Internet confirms this analysis.” (Aronson, B.3) The positive benefits of introducing jigsaw into these kinds of environments, according to Aronson’s group, “students in jigsaw classrooms increased their liking for their groupmates without decreasing their liking for other people in their classroom; students in jigsaw classrooms tended to increase their liking for school to a greater extent than children in nonjigsaw classrooms; children in jigsaw classrooms increased in self-esteem, decreased in competitiveness, and viewed their classmates as learning resources in relation to students in nonjigsaw classrooms.” (Aronson, Elliot, Blaney, Nancy, Stephan, Cookie, Sikes, Jev, Snapp, Mathew, 1978, pg 120)
Teachers also benefit from the jigsaw classroom. They find it easy and fun to use and it can be introduced to teaching methods already in place. The program is free and for just an hour a day it accomplishes great things with the students. Absenteeism drops while the student’s enjoyment and understanding of material improves. Students appreciate each other more; the classroom is no longer a battlefield but a cooperative academic arena. The jigsaw method has greater benefits when children begin using it in elementary school; these same students will have a different appreciation of themselves, their peers, and the learning process during the junior high and high school years.
Aronson admits that some students pose a problem. “Inevitably in almost any classroom there will be a student who, in relation to his classmates, is immature or recalcitrant. Such a student is commonly called a ‘trouble maker.’ In a jigsaw classroom we would be surprised if there were not at least one or two students who simply will not work effectively in a group or who may even go so far as to sabotage efforts at cooperation by persistent attempts at mischief.” (Aronson, Elliot, Blaney, Nancy, Stephan, Cookie, Sikes, Jev, Snapp, Mathew, 1978, The Jigsaw Classroom, pg 83). He goes on to state that the solution is to give individualized attention and instruction to the student and have them “earn” their way in to the jigsaw classroom which from the outside often looks “fun”. Interestingly, few school shooters so far would fall in to this category and even those who would, would be under individualized instruction and behavioral, emotional and cognitive problems would get greater attention. Within the jigsaw group the teacher can help the dominant student learn to let others lead by assigning each group’s leader and rotate with each lesson. The expert groups will help the slow student improve their understanding of the material as well as improve delivery methods. Teachers should monitor the expert group until the students have a good grasp of this process. Students enjoy having the chance to play the teacher and a co-operative learning style allows the bright student who gets bored easily to challenge themselves more than in a traditional classroom. The teacher can encourage these students to further challenge themselves. (http://www.jigsaw.org/tips.htm)
Not everyone is singing jigsaw praises. The Charleston Gazette ran an article about jigsaw in West Virginia schools (Eyre, 2003, 3.A). Guy Vitaglione, professor of psychology at West Virginia University-Tech, was suggesting implementing the method; West Virginia schools have more guns brought to school per student than New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit. The conservative Christian group, West Virginia Family Foundation, protested the method’s “homosexual agenda”. Vitaglione said “There’s no agenda, no ideology. It’s just typical classroom material rearranged.” The school board concluded there wasn’t any objectionable material but the program was never reinstated. J. Martin Rochester wrote a letter to the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch stating he believes Aronson and others are placing the wrong emphasis on reforms. He writes, “…the proliferation of school shootings has coincided with the growing emphasis schools have placed during the past two decades on self-esteem, cooperative learning, diversity sensitivity training and other such bromides.” (Rochester, 2001, pg. 31)
Social psychologists are still studying intergroup relations and are inclined to agree with Aronson’s approach. A previous hypothesis of the frustration-aggression theory stated prejudice was a way of scapegoating and may be pathological; current studies are suggesting rather than pathological, prejudice may result from conflict between groups (Wolfe, Spencer, 1996). Contact between opposing groups may intensify the conflict and competition in the classroom can magnify it. Introducing cooperation between the conflicting groups actually reduces the hostility. Hostile comments and actions of an attacker towards a victim threatens the self-esteem of the victim; by introducing a cooperative atmosphere where each party needs the other to achieve a goal the hostility begins to diminish and cooperation and mutual liking take its place. Aronson’s research shows, “children in jigsaw classrooms (compared to children in competitive classrooms) showed a greater ability to put themselves in the role of another person, even outside of the school environment. Taken together, these results show a strong, positive pattern of behaviors, feelings, and abilities which can be attributed to jigsaw groups.” (Aronson, Elliot, Blaney, Nancy, Stephan, Cookie, Sikes, Jev, Snapp, Mathew, 1978, pg 120)
Adults would never tolerate a work atmosphere of bullying and exclusion, yet children are expected to endure it. Schools feel it is necessary to educate children in math, reading, and science but why not prepare them to deal with people? After all in college and the work environment, adults often have to work in groups to accomplish goals. Working in groups helps to share the workload, accomplish more with a team than an individual, and build working relationships; young people deserve the opportunity to learn how to function in that kind of environment. As Aronson’s group put it, “Because the jigsaw group tends to bring conflicts to the surface, it provides the setting and the tools for the children to work through those conflicts and learn something about themselves and one another in the process.” (Aronson, Elliot, Blaney, Nancy, Stephan, Cookie, Sikes, Jev, Snapp, Mathew, 1978, pg. 72)
While many adults have emotional scars from their school years as a result of bullying, Aronson suggests the bully is also a victim when he says, “Bullies tend to become more hostile over time.” He goes on to say that bullies are more likely to be convicted of crimes thus “allowing students to bully one another in school is akin to giving aggressive children training for a life of crime.” (Aronson, 2000, Nobody Left to Hate, pg 102-103). By working in small groups aggressive children learn how to control their emotions and temper their behavior; at the same time children who lack social skills learn how to function with other students and develop those needed skills. “One of the beauties of the small-group arrangement of a jigsaw classroom is that it provides the student with an opportunity for observing their own behavior as it affects others. It also provides opportunities for learning how to handle feelings of anger, impatience, shyness, or affection.” (Aronson, Elliot, Blaney, Nancy, Stephan, Cookie, Sikes, Jev, Snapp, Mathew, 1978, pg. 76)
Mentioning other public acts of violence, Aronson puts his finger on the problem and solution in, The Social Animal, “We can deplore the process of dehumanization, but, at the same time, an understanding of the process can help us to reverse it. Specifically, if it is true that most individuals must dehumanize their victims in order to commit an extreme act of aggression, then, by building empathy among people, aggressive acts will become more difficult to commit.” (Aronson, 1980,The Social Animal, pg. 193) He suggests mentorship programs between older and younger students help to build empathy. These kinds of programs are an important part of helping young people transition into junior high and high school. Programs comparable to Link Crew mentioned earlier help older students develop a feeling of responsibility and empathy for another student. The incoming student makes a connection early on while taking away the fear of older students. “Froshing” is still a fear for incoming high school students; pairing a freshman with a junior or senior in a mentorship role helps to build trust rather than fear. He notes that Columbine has recently instituted a similar program (Aronson, 2000, Nobody Left to Hate, pg 117).
It is heartbreaking that it took such horrendous tragedies to awaken, and in some cases re-awaken people and organizations to take action. The chance to implement such programs is quite hopeful. The tools are there. Communities need to demand focus and resources be brought to bear. There are a lot of dedicated people that can do this if they are educated about it and encouraged.
Of the several methods, the jigsaw classroom is clearly among the best. It has a proven, well studied track record of over 30 years; it has the confirmed ability to help young people learn how to accept those with differences. It is simple. Society has the knowledge and tools necessary to help most young people learn well, and as an added benefit, to learn to accept others with empathy, reduce school violence, decrease absenteeism, increase kids appreciation and attraction to school, and just plain making childrens and teachers lives more enjoyable and productive.
Before you know it, if you’re not careful, you can get to feeling for everybody and there’s nobody left to hate.
–William Wharton, Birdy
Original paper along with bibliography and other useful links here