The Magazine

Let Them Drop Out

A response to the killings in suburban high schools

Apr 9, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 29 • By JACKSON TOBY
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Why do white middle-class kids from seemingly normal families kill their classmates in suburban high schools like Columbine, Santana, and Granite Hills? How can these crimes be stopped? For answers, we should look to the schools where such crimes almost never happen -- bad inner-city schools. For although mass murders inside of American schools are statistically very, very rare, when they do occur, they are more likely to take place in good suburban schools than in bad inner-city schools.

Why should excellent schools incubate mass murderers? Because the more exalted the reputation of a school, the worse it is for a student who feels trapped in such a school. Trapped? Yes, students in excellent schools are learning what they need to know to get in to selective colleges and, ultimately, to land well-paid jobs in our information-oriented society. But still they can feel miserable for what adults may consider trivial reasons: the teasing of classmates, a poor body-image, athletic or romantic failures, unpopularity. What's more, they can't escape their misery because, even if they have passed the age when state laws no longer compel school attendance, dropping out of a Columbine or a Santana High School is culturally unacceptable. Their parents would be horrified. Their friends would be bewildered. Their teachers would be shocked. Consequently it is unthinkable and therefore undoable. Better to kill people and commit suicide?

No. Most of the time such students just suffer in silence, and maybe a semester later the world brightens. They lose weight and become more attractive. Or maybe they develop a skill that makes them more popular. But sometimes they take desperate measures to cope with what they perceive as a desperate situation. They steal guns and try to kill as many people as possible at their school. That is what happened at Columbine High School and the handful of other suburban and rural schools that have experienced senseless massacres in recent years.

There are occasional murders in inner-city high schools, but they are nothing like suburban school shootings. In February 1992, for example, a black teenager fatally shot two of his classmates in the hallway of Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn an hour before the mayor of New York City at the time, David Dinkins, was to deliver a speech at a school assembly telling students that they had the power to break free of the violence and drugs of their neighborhoods. Why did this make so little news? Probably because the 15-year-old shooter was on probation for a street robbery two years earlier to which he had pleaded guilty. And he was carrying out a grudge murder against a former partner in crime. Had the shooting not taken place in the high school, it might well have occurred on the streets of a neighborhood where, alas, quarrels frequently escalate into lethal violence; on those streets more than a dozen Thomas Jefferson students had been killed within recent memory.

But why are inner-city high schools themselves, though located in violent neighborhoods and plagued by much more everyday school violence, far less likely to experience the promiscuous mass murders of successful suburban schools like Columbine, Santana, and Granite Hills? The explanation lies in the different causes of school violence. Everyday school violence is fostered when students do not perceive school as contributing to their futures, have little incentive to be respectful to their teachers or to try to please them, and must cope with being compelled to spend a good part of their time in an environment they dislike. Some become truants. Some clown around for the amusement of their friends and themselves. Some come to school drunk or high. Some wander the halls looking for friends to speak with or enemies to fight. Some assault other kids or extort money or valuables from them, partly for profit but also for kicks. Everyday school violence results from internal dropouts -- students going through the motions of education, unconvinced that education will lead anywhere. But everyday school violence is tame stuff compared with the explosive violence that sometimes erupts in middle-class schools.

Why so tame? Because escape is possible before frustration reaches a flashpoint. These internal dropouts become chronic truants or actual dropouts; schoolwork does not enjoy sufficient parental or peer group support to keep them in class. They are less trapped than middle-class kids in suburban schools. The silver lining to a high dropout and a high truancy rate in inner-city schools is that no one need reach the breaking point that occurs occasionally in suburban high schools like Columbine.