Judge not

Monday, May 21, 2018

With each mass murder that occurs in our country’s schools, we immediately see the typical debates on weaponry, school policy and law enforcement protocols. Many conflate the cause for these events as due primarily to bullying. It seems as though in the nearly 20 years since the events at Columbine High School, people are still split over what is the root cause for these terrible acts; with mental illness, access to weapons, bullying, modern culture, taste in art and even “slipping through the cracks” thrown around in equal measure.

As far as I’m concerned, I have little reason to participate or listen to the usual debates on the topic. From what I’ve listened to in the past few years, they have all boiled down to the same talking points and an opinion. We can scream “Australia” and “Shall not be infringed” all day to no avail, meaningful change will not come about unless an overwhelming majority of our country agree on how to tackle the issue, and that doesn’t seem to be on the horizon anytime soon.

At some point, these murderers were regular kids. Somewhere along the line, they transitioned to the point where they believed it was OK or necessary to kill their peers and teachers wholesale. It’s disgusting. I grew up in both the pre and post-Columbine school system, and after spending a great deal of thought on it, I believe there is at least one way to impact these atrocities with very little social change necessary.

This starts with communities doing their utmost to avoid labeling their youth with labels like “bad,” “troubled,” “criminal” or “lost causes.” Children, especially high schoolers, are finding their identity, defining who they are as a person. Labeling them negatively as they grow up and mature may become something they incorporate into their identity of who they are — perhaps following a path of negativity instead of positivity. If their peers, teachers, neighbors all tell a person they are “trouble,” the individual may end up agreeing with them in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, if a young person decides to make a poor choice, forgiveness is paramount. It’s possible to solve the why behind their behavior and rehabilitate the person behind deviant behavior. Assigning them a reputation would be sure to follow them otherwise.

As an anecdotal example, I remember getting yelled at by a guidance counselor in middle school, berating me in front of my class because I had lost a pencil to write with. He was screaming, saying “you’ve proven that you’ll never succeed in life, don’t bother even coming to school, you’ll spend your life making minimum wage until you die.” Very un-guidance counselor words, but he had me pegged for some kind of troublemaker, so he thought he’d just let loose on me. I remember his words all the time. At that moment in time, his idea of me as a person was so distant from the “me” that I perceived of myself that it actually encouraged me to succeed in my own endeavors to prove him wrong. I succeeded. But what if I had agreed with his assessment of my character? What if I fancied myself as a “born loser” or some other terrible label you shouldn’t describe children as? I could easily have fulfilled his description of me in the right scenario, his words echoing in my head for being right instead of being wrong.

The sociologist and criminologist William Joseph Chambliss wrote an article in 1973 on two gangs of high schoolers, their behaviors and their treatment/reputation in life. The two groups were “The Saints,” which was a group of upper-class high schoolers who had a good reputation in the community and “The Roughnecks,” who were blue-collar high schoolers with a reputation as troublemakers and criminals. Both groups, committed the same level of criminal activity, with “The Saints” sometimes causing even more trouble in a week’s time than the lesser thought of gang. However, the perception of both groups held by their community led to a self-fulfilling prophecy, and in later years most of “The Saints” ended up finding much success leading lives where their members were well-thought of and productive members of society, and most of “The Roughnecks” ended up becoming more deviant or criminals, even though their deviant actions as adolescents were the same.

While communal perception may not be the “be all, end all,” to ending something as terrible as school shootings, it is incredibly powerful and underrated. As our country tries to grasp a solution, it should be considered that doing something as small as not referencing someone as “so-and-so’s kid, he committed this or that crime,” or as “a future serial killer,” may make a difference, because those labels do not encourage good behavior. Although it seems sappy, I believe how we label children holds a piece of the puzzle to encourage young people to adopt good behavior, find a version of themselves fully incorporated in their community and to live upright lives. But, it starts by not labeling them as a pariah while only being children. They might decide they should live that way.