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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Budgets and Bullets

Tragedies of the magnitude of mass shootings in our schools attract instant attention and nearly as quick reactions in the form of proposed policies and renewed debates on school safety and gun control. This Blog entry is not meant to engage in any discussion on gun control, but rather an examination of other issues involved in these heinous crimes and what schools must consider in an effort to ward off repeated instances of school shootings and loss of life.

While the setting of the recent killings at Newtown is atypical, in that it was an elementary school whereas most of the shootings have occurred at high schools, nonetheless, the profile of the shooter remains fairly typical of the profile for perpetrators of this crime. That is, based on news reports the shooter was a male who was a social loner and perhaps suffering from some emotional or mental health issues.

Set aside the heated words that quickly evolve in any conversation on the second amendment rights to bear arms. Let’s look at the common traits of the shooters. Absent guns in the strictest of gun control legislation, we still have males aged 15-20 who exist uncomfortably outside the social circles of their peers and battle emotional and mental health concerns. While the schools cannot impact gun control, they can exercise efforts to address the issues surrounding these disenfranchised males who eventually reach such a flash point that they are determined to end their own lives after exacting injury and death upon others. The DASA (Dignity for All Students Act) legislation enacted in the state of New York on July 1, 2012 is designed to reduce and eliminate bullying in schools. That's certainly a start in the right diretcion.

Klebold and Harris, the infamous duo that spread death throughout Columbine High School in April of 1999, were later found, through analysis of their journals and computers, to harbor resentment toward those classmates who operated within the more visible and popular social groups in public high schools (i.e. athletes,..). Revenge was a contributing factor in their actions. They felt invisible, detached and inconsequential. They were reportedly picked on by others at school. They were unaffiliated with any organized school sponsored program beyond being names on a class roster.

There are many different and interesting extra-curricular groups that exist in most high schools. The most public and the largest of these groups tend to be athletics, the expanse of which is related to the size of the school. According to Jason Koebler, writing for US News, (  “More than 7.6 million students played sports during the 2010-2011 school year, an increase of nearly 40,000 students compared to 2009-2010. The organization estimates that 55.5 percent of all high school students play a sport.”
In addition, there has been a wide array of other activities made available at most high schools, often depending on the size of the school and available funds. For instance, there is Student Council, National Honor Society, Debate Clubs, Foreign Language Clubs, Community Service, Yearbook Club, School Newspaper or Journalism Club, as well as a variety of Music offerings such as Band, Chorus, and Orchestra, and other possibilities too numerous to list. It should be noted that learners with a voracious appetite for engaging in extra-curricular activities result in a duplication in the percentage of participants (i.e. an athlete who is also a member of Student Council).

This brings me back to the profile of a school shooter. The perpetrators have generally not been affiliated with such extra-curricular experiences, but rather loners who have felt excluded from them, either because of an inability to qualify for them or a lack of interest in what was offered. We should examine opportunities to expand the reach of extra-curricular activities and create programs that attract learners who have interests outside of the usual menu of extra-curricular activities, but are presently unaffiliated with any school sponsored activity beyond attending classes.
However, the economic problems facing schools in the form of decreased funding, together with an increase in accountability, per state mandated assessments, have forced many schools to make difficult choices in allocating scarce resources that may result in funds being shaved from everything and anything not directly related to those subject areas tested. That posture leaves extra-curricular activities vulnerable to financial cuts.

Budget cuts not only deprive schools of the prospects of developing programs of interest to some of those seeking association but lacking any selections on the current menu of extra-curricular activities, but the safety net available for troubled teens is becoming smaller as well. Those staff members who attempt to address the needs of learners struggling with social and emotional problems (social workers, counselors,...) have likewise been subject to budget cuts. Unfortunately, it seems that the general factor in many cuts tends to relate to the degree of connection the personnel or program has with those areas contained within state mandated assessments. This is a potential dilemma or outcome of budget battles occurring in districts that have decreased programs and people to the point where they have been making decisions based on the lesser of evils. That is, mandated programs remain and non-mandated programs are vulnerable to reduction or elimination.

In sum, schools are simultaneously contending with two significant issues in the midst of a fiscal crisis that may not allow sufficient attention to effectively meet both areas of concern; 1) a clarion for higher performance on state mandated assessments; and 2) heightened anxiety about school security that is in part related to the potential negative impact of socially and emotionally troubled teens who feel disenfranchised and unsupported. How much longer can schools hope to "do more with less?"

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