A Jigsaw of School Shootings

Originally posted by Yetimonk on 04/22/07

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. The original piece with pictures can be seen here. This was a team project and the other two members prefer to remain anonymous. I apologize for it’s length but I think posting it in installments would lessen it’s impact. 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.

Cross-posted elsewhere.

A Jigsaw of School Shootings

Warning, some of the media links in this document contain adult language and graphic images.

Even as youth violence was declining from disturbingly high rates in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, several instances of school shootings shocked and captured the world’s attention (Surgeon General, 2001). Many cast recriminations at the media for its portrayal and glorification of youth violence, especially Oliver Stone for his movie, “Natural Born Killers” (Warner Bros., 1994) and Stephen King for his book, Rage (Bachman, Richard, 1977). King went so far as to offer a mea culpa criticizing the influence his own book and the media in general may have had as well as having his book removed from publication because of its similarity to some of the actual killings (Vermont Library Conference, 1999). A dream sequence(Youtube: sequence starts at 6 minutes) with Leonardo DiCaprio in “Basketball Diaries” (New Line Cinema, 1995) was eerily re-enacted in a home movie Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold made named “Hitmen for Hire”(Youtube), and then in real life in front of school security cameras(Real audio), when they went on their rampage at Columbine High School. Gun Lobby groups came under attack for their seeming support of kids easy access to guns. School officials, teachers and even sheriff’s departments were called in to question over their handling of warning signs. Bullying was implicated as were outcast groups such as Goths and others. Zero tolerance policies for nearly every adolescent malady and quirk were instituted in schools nation wide.

Such was the general distress and fear that in struggling to come to terms with this phenomenon it seems that no one escaped accusation including the kids who were themselves afraid and at risk. Exploring some of the underlying reasons for these extreme instances of aggression can help alleviate the fear through understanding and offering real solutions. Social psychologists study what motivates people to behave the way they do. They focus on the person’s current social situation: which could include a person’s attitude, behavior and relationships to others, including their peers. Psychologists follow the line of reasoning that “people are malleable, flexible and adaptable. Change the social context and the individual will change.” (Social Psychology, 2006, Taylor, Pg 4) Although it has evolved over time, one of the oldest theories on aggression in the field of Social Psychology is the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis and is of particular relevance to school shootings.

The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis
In 1939 a group of Yale social scientists led by John Dollard wrote a book called Frustration and Aggression in which they unveiled their new Frustration/Aggression theory. According to the theory, “people are driven to attack others when they are frustrated: when they are unable to reach their goals, or they do not obtain the rewards they expect.” Dollard assumed that frustration would always result in aggression and that the greater the frustration, the greater the aggression against the source of frustration.” (The Logic of Violence, Muro-Ruiz, Diego, 2002) Two years later the group modified its statement of the theory to explain, “the absence of open aggression after a frustration as being due to inhibitions evoked by the threat of punishment.” (Frustration/Aggression Hypotheses: Examination and Reformulation, Berkowitz, 1989, Pg 59).

Leonard Berkowitz later added some amendments to the 1939 hypothesis. He observed that, “people engage in instrumental aggression, attacking others because they think this action will bring them some benefit other than the infliction of injury, not because they have been frustrated in the past, but because they think this action will bring them some other benefits (other than the infliction of injury).” Dollard assumed that that aggression was always aimed at doing harm, “which failed to make a distinction between instrumental aggression and hostile aggression. With hostile aggression the primary goal is to do harm, whereas instrumental aggression is oriented toward an objective such as gaining money, social status or territory.” (Frustration/Aggression Reformulation, Berkowitz, 1989, Pg 62)

Berkowitz also argues that “frustrations can give rise to aggressive inclinations because they are aversive.” (Frustration/Aggression Reformulation, Berkowitz, 1989, Pg 62) His proposal that frustrations as aversive events, evoke negative affect (a feeling a person would typically seek to lessen), and it is this negative feeling that generates the aggressive inclinations. “From this perspective, an unexpected interference is more apt to provoke an aggressive reaction than is an anticipated barrier to goal attainment because the interference is usually more unpleasant.” Berkowitz also contends in his present formulation of the Frustration/Aggression Hypothesis that “not all frustrations are equally bothersome, and not all insults generate the same displeasure. Someone can be very disappointed at not reaching an attractive and expected goal and regard another’s insult as just mildly unpleasant. It isn’t the exact nature of the aversive incident that is important but how intense the resulting negative affect is.” (Frustration/Aggression Reformulation, Berkowitz, Leonard, Pg. 68). Elliot Aronson clarifies the factors that accentuate frustration; “Frustration is increased when a goal is near and your progress toward it is interrupted. When the interruption is unexpected or when it seems illegitimate, the frustration is increased still further…” (Aronson, 1980, The Social Animal, pg 181).

One of the primary reasons is, “that frustrating situations make people angry and increase their tendency to act aggressively.” “When people are blocked from achieving a desired goal they feel angry and frustrated and are more likely to lash out.” (Social Psychology, 2006, Taylor, Pg 4) The effect of frustration is one explanation for the violent behavior we have seen all too often of late in some of our schools.

Frustration is considered the blocking of goal-directed behavior. “Frustration occurs each time a goal, no matter how small is not met.” (Wells, Miller, 1993, Adolescent Affective Aggression) Competition can be considered a frustration. “Competitive encounters are at least partly frustrating as the contestants block each others attempts to reach the disputed goal. Even though the competitors often frustrate each other legitimately, sometimes they also become somewhat hostile to each other and try to hurt each other.” “Many of the studies of the effects of competitive games suggest that competition is more likely to arouse aggressive tendencies than to provide a release of supposedly pent-up hostile urges.” (Berkowitz,Frustration/Aggression Reformulation, Pg.66). Kids are constantly being bombarded with frustrating circumstances, and generally have had very little experience in how to handle these situations.

“Aggression can be defined as any behavior directed toward another individual that is carried out with the immediate intent to cause harm. Accidental harm is not aggressive because it is not intended. Harm that is an incidental by-product of helpful action is not aggressive.” (Human Aggression, Anderson, Craig, pg 29) “A barrier keeping people from reaching a goal they had expected to reach can lead to open aggression. Perhaps the most important single cause of human aggression is interpersonal provocation. These provocations could include insults, slights, and other forms of verbal aggression, physical aggression and bullying.” (pg. 37). Elliot Aronson suggests that instituting a change in the “social atmosphere of the classroom might succeed in making the schools a safer place (reducing the possibility that students become so frustrated they go over the edge and commit acts of extreme violence). This may also provide the kind of social environment that would make school more pleasant, more compassionate and humane place for all the students.” Shouldn’t that be the goal? (Aronson, Nobody Left to Hate,Pg 13-14)

Adolescent pressures
Adolescence is a difficult time for many. Social and physical boundaries are in flux and in the best of situations are confusing if not difficult. For some kids with poor coping skills who lack support and may have been subjected to abuse or have cognitive problems it can be a devastating experience. In the cases of Kip Kinkel, Michael Carneal, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, it ended in catastrophe for entire communities when these kids expressed their aggression at school with firearms. Recent school shootings have been committed with small exception by adolescent boys. At this stage in life they often have testosterone (a hormone that is associated with aggression) up to eighteen times that of normal childhood levels. (Arnonson, 2000, Nobody Left to Hate, pg 65)

There is much controversy as to what causes such events but there are some common threads that are generally accepted as part of the problem. Beyond sociological problems, such as access to guns, there are clearly behavioral issues that if noticed and addressed can help school and police officials stop bad situations before they happen. Simply taking action when a child brings a weapon to school has made a difference but singling out aberrant behavior and “zero tolerance” programs have been controversial and have been criticized by students themselves for punishing what in some cases used to be considered common adolescent problems. (Katz, Jon, 1999) The major problem these students state is the fear and intimidation they experience that is constantly inflicted on them by other students. Many adults remembering their middle and high school years will agree.

Bullying, frustration and despair
“High school has always been dominated by cliques and these cliques are organized into a rough kind of hierarchy: athletes, cheerleaders, and social leaders near the top; the shy, inept or strange-acting kids near the bottom; and at the very bottom, the loners-those who don’t seem to have any friends at all.” (Aronson, 2000, Nobody Left to Hate, pg 77) Bullying, and other similar in-group/out-group behavior, is a potent problem that can not only make school years for kids difficult but can cause, along with other adolescent traumas and events, a profound frustration or despair. This frustration or despair can sometimes be a powerful trigger leading towards suicide, and in exceptional cases, can become instrumental in causing them to combine their aggression with firearms at school, with disastrous results. But there are some proven methods developed by Dr. Elliot Aronson and others that harness situational forces and change the social atmosphere of the classroom so that bullying and ostracization are minimized and even the emotional welfare and physical safety of students can be markedly improved.

The term “frustration” has a useful and simple definition from Leonard Berkowitz as “unfulfilled (positive) expectations” (Berkowitz, Leonard, 1978). Also to paraphrase him, “when our hopes are dashed”, frustration is experienced. Certainly among adolescents the desire to be popular or at least liked is a primary goal. Denying them this, especially through ostracism and humiliation is bound to cause deep frustration and produce a very negative affect. Looking at some extreme situations in the form of school mass shootings by students, beyond the myriad of problems that sometimes accompany troubled adolescents, is a frustration that is so profound that a clearer term for it is despair, a seemingly complete or overwhelming frustration.

It is fair to say that bullying attacks the victim’s self-esteem and other important needs such as social inclusion, especially bullying in the form of ostracism, which often follows when the bully is popular. Violent bullying beyond doing direct harm also teaches and primes the victim for violence as well. Ostracism alone is associated with more aggression (Twenge, J.M., Baumeister, R.F., Stucke, T.S., 2001). A study of school shootings in 2003 found that nearly all cases involved “an ongoing pattern of teasing, bullying, or ostracism.” (Leary,M.R.,Kowalsi,R.M.,Smith,L.,Phillips,S,2003) “Precisely where a student falls on the clique hierarchy determines his or her level of stress and degree of happiness.” (Aronson, 2000, Nobody Left to Hate, pg 80)

Suicidal ideation, usually accompanied by a profoundly negative affect, is often included in the colloquial use of the term “despair” and is directly linked to both bullies and their victims; “…both bullies and their victims express more suicidality than their non-involved peers”, especially in those with low social support (Rigby, K., Slee, P., 1999). Also, suicidal ideation is more common than previous violent behavior in individuals who engage in extreme forms of interpersonal violence (Lubell, Keri M., Vetter, James B., 2006) and as of 2002, 78% of school shooters studied by the Secret Service engaged in suicidal ideation or behavior prior to the event. (Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Reddy, M., Borum, R., Modzeleski, W., 2002)

As Elliot Aronson so eloquently states, “There is no doubt in my mind that these violent acts were pathological. The perpetrators of these horrifying deeds were disturbed. Their behavior was beyond all reason. But if we chalk up these events simply to individual pathology and nothing else, then we are bound to miss something of vital importance.”(Aronson, 2000, Nobody Left to Hate, pg 13) Keeping this in mind while viewing several of the cases of school shootings it becomes clear that bullying and despair, or deep frustration, are among a handful of reasons that may cause particular unstable adolescents to turn to suicide or in rare cases, turn outward and engage in mass murder at school.

Kip Kinkel
The case of 15 year old Kip Kinkel is somewhat different from others but illuminates the importance of loss of hope as a driving factor in extreme school interpersonal violence. Kip grew up in a fairly nurturing home but felt intense distress trying to cope with pressure from his older sister’s reputation at home and at school. He was smart but frequently had trouble coping academically and to the consternation of his parents developed an affinity for guns. They gave in and bought him one as well as giving him access to others. On May 20, 1998, after being expelled for bringing a gun to school he murdered both his parents and the next morning drove back to Thurston High School and killed two students and wounded 25 others. The idea that an irrational yet profound frustration drove him is clear from his audio taped confession(Real audio) (PBS Frontline 2000). When asked why he killed his parents, he repeatedly asserted, “My head! It doesn’t work!” “I had to kill them because I loved them!” He said that he killed his parents to “spare them the shame” of suffering his failures. He told his mother he loved her just before shooting her and tried to arrange it so she wouldn’t know who had killed her. He stayed awake all night listening to the soundtrack from William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, tried to commit suicide several times but couldn’t and then headed to school where he shot 27 more people, several of whom he viewed as being responsible for his expulsion and exposing his failures to his family (PBS Frontline 2000).

There are clearly multiple problems that lead to Kips actions and bullying did play a part according to later interviews with Kip and other of his surviving school mates, but the theme of desperation and suicidal ideation that runs through most cases is simpler to see here. At the very least it is easier after listening to Kips confession to understand despair, the extreme form of frustration, even if only for actions that cannot be undone. In fact, after it was over and he was sitting handcuffed in the police station he pulled out a knife taped to his leg that was missed when he was searched and charged the arresting officer. Later when asked why he said it was because he had been unable to commit suicide and “I wanted you to kill me…My parents were good people. They didn’t deserve to die…More than anything else right now I need to die.” (PBS Frontline 2000). This was more than just instrumental aggression and when viewed in context of his interviews illustrates quite clearly a strong frustration leading directly to a violent aggressive act.

Michael Carneal
The case of Michael Carneal is particularly vivid in highlighting the contribution of not only bullying and despair, but of social exclusion leading to aggression (Twenge, J.M., Baumeister, R.F., Stucke, T.S., 2001). On December 1, 1997 in Paducah, Kentucky, 14 year old Michael Carneal shot and killed 3 students at Heath High School and wounded 5 others.

Sibling rivalry pressures seem to have played an early part in frustrating him. Dr Kathleen O’Connor who counseled him for 4 years after the shooting at Northern Kentucky Correctional Facility said that Michael, despite being quite bright, decided at about age 7 that he was not going to be as successful as his older sister Kelly and so “…started going on a diversion path.” (Newman, Rampage, pg 24)

Bullying played a major part in priming him for violence, isolating him, and destroying his self-esteem. According to the defense psychiatrist, “Michael had repeated experiences of being harassed and humiliated by peers at school. He had the impression that everyone felt they could take advantage of him. He usually did not challenge kids who harassed him and passively accepted the abuse.”(Newman, Rampage, pg 26) One incident did particular damage to his self-esteem and haunted him; the school newspaper in a gossip column implied that he had a homosexual relationship with another boy. This went unchecked and unnoticed by school staff and “…precipitated an avalanche of bullying, teasing, and humiliation that followed Michael for the rest of middle school.”(Newman, Rampage, pg 27) A good day was when the violence was only threatened but not carried out.

All of this combined with Michael’s deteriorating mental state in which he saw demons targeting him as well as anyone else who came to his aid (Newman, Rampage, pg 25). Michael was ostracized, unstable and traumatized. He craved acceptance and tried to get it from other outcasts, a group of Goths, by ingratiating himself by giving them CD’s and other gifts and trying to conform to what he thought they would like. But even the Goths rejected him. Testifying in his own defense Michael said, “I regret what I did. I know I killed people. It wasn’t right. I took people’s lives. Their family cares for them. I have no explanation for what I did…I don’t know why I did it. I don’t know why I wasn’t bluffing this time. I guess it was because they ignored me. I had guns, I brought them to school. I showed them to [the Goths] and they were still ignoring me. I didn’t expect to kill anyone. I was just going to shoot. I thought maybe they would be scared and then no one would mess with Michael.”(Newman, Rampage, pg 33) Both social exclusion and deep frustration seem to have played major parts in triggering this tragedy.

Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold
Of course one cannot fail to include the most infamous school shooting of all that happened in Littleton, Colorado, April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School. This is a difficult case to analyze because of conflicting media coverage and hype surrounding the incident. What is clearer is the effects on and attitudes of the many of the rest of the students there, both before and after.

Dylan Klebold was depressed and about a year before the Columbine shooting bought his first gun to kill himself then shortly afterward wrote in his journal about going on a killing spree. The attack a year later was meticulously planned by both Eric and Dylan as a grandiose suicide mission from the start although they did play with the idea of escaping to Mexico before rejecting it (JSCO, 2000). According to FBI psychologists, Eric Harris likely had a severe cognitive disorder as well as depression but the two of them had a wide circle of friends and there were little if any signs of being ostracized from groups they cared about (Cullen, Dave, 2004). Of school shooters as of 2002, “41 percent appeared to socialize with mainstream students or were considered mainstream students themselves” (Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Reddy, M., Borum, R., Modzeleski, W., 2002, pg 29), and although they wouldn’t be called mainstream, they were popular enough. The media at first reported that bullying was one of the primary reasons for the attack and then later reversed course and followed the Jefferson County Sheriffs Office in declaring that there was no appreciable bullying at all.

On deeper inspection however the two did experience direct abuse yet were still part of other social groups; what seems to have affected them the most according to their writings was witnessing the rampant physical and verbal abuse by school athletes that was ignored by school officials (Adams, Lorraine, Russakof, Dale, 1999). It’s a blatant theme of their home movie mentioned in the introduction, “Hitmen For Hire”. The media wrongfully implicated the “Trenchcoat mafia” and Goths for the murders and made note of their “uniform” or “look” to profile and vilify them.

Interestingly, there was a group at Columbine that did have a “uniform” and “look”, roving through the school unimpeded, physically assaulting and taunting other students, sometimes in full view of teachers who turned away or took no action. The school athletes, centered around state wrestling champion Rocky Wayne Hoffschneider, were known as “the steroid poster boys”. They wore white baseball caps and terrorized all they pleased as reported in the Washington Post(Adams, Lorraine, Russakof, Dale, 1999), even getting the police to drop criminal charges at times. This atmosphere permeated the school and was reportedly encouraged by the school administrator, Rich Long.

Evan Todd, the 255 pound defensive lineman who was wounded in the library during the shooting, describes his take on the climate this way: “Columbine is a clean, good place except for those rejects,” Todd says of Klebold and Harris and their friends. “Most kids didn’t want them there. They were into witchcraft. They were into voodoo dolls. Sure, we teased them. But what do you expect with kids who come to school with weird hairdos and horns on their hats? It’s not just jocks; the whole school’s disgusted with them. They’re a bunch of homos, grabbing each other’s private parts. If you want to get rid of someone, usually you tease ’em. So the whole school would call them homos, and when they did something sick, we’d tell them, ‘You’re sick and that’s wrong.'” (Gibbs, Nancy, Roche, Timothy, 1999).

The Rocky Mountain Newsreported that at the Governors Columbine Review Commission, “Speakers who recounted the bullying also said that students and others are unwilling to come forward with their stories for fear of retaliation.” Also,”The commission at one point went behind closed doors to discuss holding a closed meeting to take testimony from such people. But chairman William Erickson said the commission decided to keep the meetings public and said the panel would search for other ways to take testimony from reluctant witnesses.” (Klass, Jeff, 2000)

Columbine had a culture of fear and abuse even after the shootings that reached deep in to the community. Predation and terrorization by in-group members of out-groups and individuals was a particular problem at this school and goes some way towards explaining the defense by other students of Eric and Dylan. In an article by Jon Katz, the phenomena of widespread scapegoating of nerds, Goths, and anyone who didn’t seem to fit in that occurred in the aftermath of Columbine is documented in a outpouring of emails from despondent students around the country. (Katz, Jon, 1999)

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)

Practical Solutions
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

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