Violence in American Schools

GUEST: Beatrix Hamburg, M.D.
VTR: 9/21/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And when child and adolescent psychiatrist Beatrix A. Hamburg, along with sociologists Delbert Elliott and Kirk Williams not long ago published their quite prescient Cambridge University Press volume on “Violence in American Schools,” even quite so recently they couldn’t know for certain — though clearly the studies they present here would have led them to believe that Americans would become even more and more traumatized by the epidemic of youth violence that has spilled over from the streets into our schools themselves.

“Historically,” they write, “our schools have been relatively safe havens from violence. However in recent years, the nation has been deeply shocked by several dramatic, incomprehensible multiple killings of students at school by their classmates.

“Fortunately, such episodes are rare [but] on a daily basis many students, parents and teachers are aware of threats or bullying, and they experience pervasive anxiety about violence. Across the nation there is grave concern that our children are no longer as safe from intimidation, serious injury or death as they once were while at school….”

Further, they write, “children and teens are often afraid to go to school. Once at school, many are afraid to go into the rest rooms or out on the playground. Others live in fear that they will be shot or hurt by classmates who carry weapons to school. This fear is not totally unfounded.” And they go on to list just some of the most horrendous recent acts of school violence.

Well, again, today child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Beatrix Hamburg joins me on The Open Mind, and I want to put to her the very questions that she and her colleagues raise in Violence In American Schools. Namely, why has the level of youth violence escalated so steeply over the past decade? What are the impacts of this change on the priorities and functioning of the school; on teaching; and on learning and developmental outcomes for our children?

To put it directly: What in the world is this violence in our schools doing to our youngsters? And that is a very direct question, Dr. Hamburg?

HAMBURG: I think it’s a question that only, that… not only you are asking, and that we’re asking in the book, but that all over the nation I think that… the parents and adults of all kinds and policymakers and educators are really concerned. And I don’t know, maybe to start with question one: it’s a good question. Why now? And why in the schools? Because over the decade, since about, actually, a little more than the decade, since about the middle of the eighties – there has been a steady rise in juvenile homicide and violence outside of school on the streets. And sometimes in the home. But it hadn’t spilled over into the schools until the – in any noticeable way – until the nineties. And I think that is an interesting question. But what it, it point out and one reason that we take the perspective that you have to have a much more comprehensive view, is that the violence in the nation – as a whole – we may, you know, talk, about what I mean by that. And in the communities is now spilling over into the school and these horrendous massacres are the tip of an iceberg. And… I…


HEFFNER:…when you, when you say, tip of an iceberg, what do you mean?

HAMBRUG: Well you read in the quote that for a long time, and this is one of the reasons we wrote the book – for a very long time, students have been afraid at school. They did not envision that a classmate of theirs might come in and spray them with assault weapons, or hurl bombs. But they were bullied, coerced, intimidated, embarrassed, put down, taunted – were worried about what might happen on the way home from school or in the recess time, or something like that. And we knew that that kind of – lower level violence, because the definition of violence is taking an action which is aimed at harming the other individiual. Intimidating. Domination. Coercing. That it had the very great potential to escalate.
<br.HEFFNER: Dr. Hamburg, you know, when you say this… and it’s extraordinary to read the statistics…


HEFFNER: …that, back up, that point in this book, I’m surprised. Now, I’m a grandfather and a father. And I’m surprised, particularly when you write about the, the minor level violence that was taking place before this outbreak of heavy violence.


HEFFNER:…in the schools. Why hasn’t that, why hasn’t that been something we’ve thought about – talked about?

HAMBURG: Because I think that we’ve taken a kind of narrow perspective. That violence equals crime and if it’s not “arrestable” and “incarcerabe-able…”


HAMBURG: Then in the public mind, and in the mind of, of the policymakers, and as long as it wasn’t erupting into lethality, the educators were soldiering on. Now they were already experiencing some of the problems of this – as you call it, you know, “lower level violence.” But one reason we were impelled to write this book was to begin to offer some new perspectives on the problem. That the idea that, you know, “three strikes, you’re out.” That we have to use adult… waivers into adult prisons to punish these kids… these kinds of tactics… haven’t worked. And, unfortunately, and I believe it may be in this book but I’m not positive it is… yes, I’m positive it isn’t — we are one of the most violent countries in the world. By far. I mean there’s, there’s nobody who comes close. And we have more incarceration. And even today you hear, “we’ve got to get tougher” with the kids. And there was an image that violence, which was defined in criminological terms almost exclusively was a product of the ghettos and the modeling of, of, of violence… the…the drug trade that was, you know, sparking it. And other illegal kinds of things. So that when you stayed with this kind of a — profile kind of a script of what youth violence is all about, then you missed what happened in Columbine.


HAMBURG: What happened in Columbine was that the low-level violence erupted into lethality. And that’s happening more and more. And in actuality the worst events… the massacres… Jonesboro, Pearl, Mississippi… what happened in the Springfield, Washington… in Atlanta… I mean you go down the list. None of them fit the script that I had just described of… these are kids whose, you know, backgrounds are highly disturbed and with criminality all around them, and…in… have been raised in an environment of violence. So I think that we wanted to alert people that it’s at our peril to ignore all of the manifestations of the violence that are occurring in the schools.

HEFFNER: If you say these major episodes did not fit the script…

HAMBURG: Yeah, of the, you know, ghetto kid…

HEFFNER: Right. What is this an epidemic of?

HAMBURG: Well, that is why this is a pretty thick book. It’s very complex. And it’s not only the case that… major violence is not limited to any particular geography, neighborhood, ethnicity or what not. But we have now learned that even within a given individual they may or may not erupt into violence, depending on circumstances. And we also are… beginning to understand that it isn’t only a climate of, of gangsterism that can be the antecedent, the underlying precipitate of violence in a kid. But a school climate which is not conducive to… settling differences in a non-violent way. Or that prevents or reduces the likelihood of individuals becoming so angry, so desperate, that they wish to just harm everybody.

HEFFNER: You talk about “a school,” that it isn’t a school setting but…

HAMBURG: Well, it could be, it could be and I think that… I happen to have read, and you may have heard a lot in detail about what happened in Columbine. It’s almost an icon now, in our language… the high school in Colorado. There was a very unhealthy climate, really, in that school. The athletes… the jocks were in fact bullying other students and what was unhealthy was that the school stood by and allowed that to happen. And… so what we’ve come to recognize is that we have to help to change the attitudes of the adolescents, of their teachers and to understand more how the mix of a number of different kinds of elements come in. What are some of these other elements? One of the other… elements is, you know, social norms. You know, people have asked me how come when in the early days of our nation, even twenty years ago, you know, kids had rifles and they had an access to guns, but they didn’t have this kind of school violence. And in part the norm was different…

HEFFNER: You don’t mean the school norm, you mean our cultural norm… the national norm.

HAMBURG: Our cultural norm was very different. It was unthinkable that a kid who was angry would go in and shoot up other kids. Even in the movies of that… of recent eras… up until the eighties and nineties… you didn’t ever see, or you didn’t hear on news broadcasts… but you never saw images of children shooting other children. You have had a lot of experience, looking at a lot of movies…


HEFFNER: You’re right.

HAMBURG: And it just didn’t happen. It was not… thinkable. And I think that without our nation realizing it, that our norms, our endorsement, the acceptability of expressing violence even by youngsters has kind of crept up on us and the youngsters, adolescents, respond more than any other age bracket of the whole life course to the social currents. They’re always right at the cutting edge. And… if… if you think about a comparison… when I was in college the leading cause of suicide, in girls, was the fact that they became pregnant and they couldn’t deal with it. And the idea that you would have an extramarital… co-habiting relationship with a young man prior to marriage was unthinkable. And if you just reflect on the new norm, it’s almost expected. In fact, I think it probably is that, “yes, young people are going to live together without being married,” and that a large percentage of them, you know, will marry, and some won’t… for better or for worse. But that just kind of highlights how our norms have changed in the sexual area. And it’s very unfortunate when an adolescent becomes pregnant. But they’re not, you know, committing suicide… because it is so outside accepted norms. And I think that there’s been a change in the norms with respect to violence that has…unwittingly, given an endorsement to “you can do it,” the movies have changed. The news media have highlighted adolescent violence and kids… adolescents are very… subject to peer pressure. And often it’s the same story repeated over and over again. But listening to the news, looking at certain of the movies, etc., the idea is that everybody’s doing it, now everybody’s not doing it. The rate of violence among youth is still reasonably, you know, low. However, the image that the adolescents have acts as a sort of peer pressure. When they see these repeated images ten times a day, on weekends, or just all the time, and don’t forget the Internet.

HEFFNER: But you know, you say, “don’t forget the Internet.” One could say, don’t forget any aspects of our mass communications…

HAMBURG: Oh, absolutely.

HEFFNER: …system. But do you know, Dr. Hamburg, that you’re the first person in your profession since, well, since the mad psychiatrist, Dr. Wertheim… and don’t misunderstand (laughter) what I’m saying.

HAMBURG: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Since Frederick Wertheim sat at this table…


HEFFNER: …decades ago…

HAMBURG: Really…

HEFFNER: …and spoke about the imagery that is being presented to our children…


HEFFNER: …and his campaign then was against comic books.


HEFFNER: Most psychiatrists aren’t quite that willing to say, “look, when you’re talking about adolescents they are the ones who are most susceptible.” And you say, “they’re on the cutting edge…”

HAMBURG: Right, they are. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: …of new patterns of behavior.

HAMBURG: Right. They… and they’re attracted to novelty… what’s different and… that’s why they’re on, on the wave of what’s new because they’re looking for what’s new…

HEFFNER: Now what do we do?

HAMBURG: Well, I think that we do have to understand that it is a complex issue and we have to widen our – repertoire of, of remedies. We cannot go around locking up every kid who has a problem. And a lot of them are not mentally ill… occasionally I think they are – but we aren’t picking up on a lot of the signals that are out there that could help us to give needed support to kids who are having problems. So we have to recognize that the – that everybody has a job to do. Youth violence outside the school occurs when school is out. I think you are aware from reading the book that the rates zoom up after 3:00 when school is out…



HAMBURG: …and that… homicide rates peak from midnight to, you know, 2:00 in the morning. So the communities have a responsibility. Are there activities that are pro-social and constructive in the community? The, the schools have a responsibility. They need to be aware of the climate of their school. Had we had the assessment… instruments that I think are being developed that school would have recognized that….

HEFFNER: …Columbine…

HAMBURG: Columbine.. that there are problems and that specific kids had problems. This Eric who was wiring English papers that were filled with hate and murderous kinds of things who, who made a video that was – speaking of prescient – was kind of a script for what they were going to do. You know teachers are teachers – they’re not psychiatrists – they’re not policemen. And the English teacher, I believe, spoke to one of the administrators and it was sort of, you know, brushed aside. But the teachers need to be re-educated – educated and/or re-educated about picking up on early warning signals. One of the chapters – the one by Ron Stevens has the assessment instrument in it, and it discusses what are early warning signals that here’s a school that has problems. But then they need a back up. They need to have people that… that English teacher, when she didn’t get anywhere with the administrators in her school – was because neither of them knew what to do. But there are people who do. And thy should have had some kind of communication. And I think that in the aftermath of Columbine, in particular, that new linkages between school and mental health and supportive structures…

HEFFNER: Is it your impression that in the interim since Columbine we have been, I won’t say on a sufficient scale, but have been to a considerable extent, putting these instruments into place?

HAMBURG: Right. I think that’s right. I think that even prior to Columbine, enough had happened that we could list them…

HEFFNER: Mmm-hmm.

HAMBURG: …on page one.


HAMBURG: Of the book. But I think everyone was still, if I can use a little bit of kind of jargoneering… that they were in denial. They still had this powerful image that really youth violence is a problem of “certain kinds of kids…” not our kids, not here.” Nobody thinks that anymore. And that’s what is a result of all of the episodes that have occurred in every part of our nation now. Interestingly enough they did not occur in those ghetto schools. But that’s beside the point. And as a result, many school districts in most states have mandated conflict resolution training which was aimed at the students. And very appropriately. One of the problems has been that there has now grown up a cottage industry, since it’s a market – (laughter) — a big market… we have quite a few school kids of… .of unevaluated programs and so that well-meaning principals and school superintendents and chancellors of school districts are buying and using a curricula which may not be helpful and may, in fact, at worst, be harmful. That’s not unheard of…


HEFFNER: …of course at the same time, while putting into place these instruments… good, bad or indifferent…

HAMBURG: Oh, we know how to evaluate them.

HEFFNER: But at the same time we’re not on a higher or a social level making changes in the role models or the messages that we’re delivering to our adolescents.

HAMBURG: Well, I think it’s taking a while to understand the complexity of it. And I have to say that this is a complex book and it has units on understanding adolescent needs. Adolescents haven’t changed for a millennium, I’m sure. They have needs to, to gain status, to act in ways that make them feel grown-up and to become a member of a valued group… a valued member of a valued group. And… and they have needs to sort of earn self-esteem. And we can supply those developmental needs in ways that are pro-social

HEFFNER: And I wish that I could supply more time to examine them, but I’m getting the signal that our time is up. But, Dr. Hamburg, thank you so much for joining me today.

HAMBURG: Well, it’s a real pleasure and this is a wonderful program.

HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N .B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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