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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True, the high dropout rate of the inner city is widely deplored, and inner-city kids, too, are under pressure to remain enrolled whether they find school meaningful or not: formal pressure from compulsory attendance laws, informal dropout-prevention arguments from teachers, parents, and the larger society, threats of depriving dropouts of driver's licenses or welfare benefits, and incentives like part-time jobs, promises to finance college attendance, and even money payments. For instance, the Red Bank Regional High School in Little Silver, New Jersey, has used a grant of $ 108,000 from the Labor Department to pay potential dropouts $ 25 a week to stay in school, attending regularly, and bringing books and pencils to class. Perhaps fortunately, these programs are not very successful; the dropout rate in such schools is high. If they were more successful -- that is, retaining more reluctantly enrolled students -- the violence rate of inner-city high schools, already too high, might explode.

So how can suburban school massacres be prevented? The conventional wisdom relies on one or both of two remedies: (1) Identify possible mass murderers early and send them for psychotherapy; (2) Prevent lethal weapons from getting into the hands of kids.

Neither of these remedies looks practical. True, some desperate kids talk about their fantasy of shooting up the school. But most of the time this is idle chatter -- false positives, as researchers call them. And some mass murderers do not signal their intention to anybody, including the psychotherapists they are already seeing. As for keeping lethal weapons where kids cannot get at them, remember that Americans own more than 200,000,000 guns for hunting, target practice, self-defense, and collecting. Why should kids be less likely to get hold of them for school murders than adults are for more common crimes like armed robberies and fatal quarrels?

A more practical approach to preventing some mass murders at school would be to give children who are miserable at school for whatever reason more options. For those old enough to drop out and go to work, make it legitimate to stop school for a while and try a job in the real world. (The Swedes speak of kids being "school-tired" and do not stigmatize those who leave for a time-out; most eventually return a year or two later.) In the torrent of words commenting on the murders at Columbine in Littleton, Colorado, an obvious question was not raised: Why, if Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were so miserable at school, didn't they simply drop out and try a job in a nearby ski resort?

The first step in legitimating leaving school temporarily is to dispel two myths. One myth is that dropping out is tantamount to suicide because dropouts are doomed to live an economically and culturally impoverished life. What kind of job can a dropout get? Flipping hamburgers at the minimum wage? Fast-food restaurants have a reputation for offering dead-end jobs, yet they are actually a major trainer of the poorly educated for jobs that lead into the middle class. McDonald's is more successful at training egocentric teenagers, including dropouts, to become workers good enough to move on to better jobs than most government training programs. Of course, some have to be fired and others quit. But those teenage employees who stick it out learn to be less shy with other people, to cooperate with fellow workers, to smile even in the face of customer abuse, to say, "Thank you; please come again," to get to work on time, and to work hard and fast.