Bullying and school violence

—Jessie Klein

What do we know about the 14-year old boy who shot his father, two children and a teacher on the South Carolina elementary school playground?

We don’t yet know why a 14-year old boy killed his father and then shot two elementary school students and a teacher in a school playground in South Carolina.

We don’t know if the shooter was bullied. We don’t even know his name; it hasn’t been released since he is a juvenile. The likelihood is though, that this boy was terribly unhappy, lonely and/or bullied. This is the profile of so many of the school shooters over the last few decades who commit this horrific violence.

We know that others have bullied virtually every mass killer in the U.S. Omar Mateen’s father and peers bullied him, long before he gunned down 49 people in a gay-nightclub in Orlando, Florida. In junior high school, Omar’s father reportedly slapped him in front of his peers, and he put Omar down because he thought Omar was gay. Cho Seung-Hui, age 23 was bullied and teased for his speech difficulties, his shyness, and for being Korean before he killed 27 people at Virginia Technical University. The Columbine Killers Eric Harris, age 17, and Dylan Klebold, age 18, were bullied, first because they were smart, and then they were called “gay.” They killed 13 people in Littleton, Colorado. Adam Lanza, age 20, was bullied and beaten at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT where in December 2012, he killed 20 first grade students and six staff members.

We also know that a new study suggests that South Carolina has one of the biggest bullying problems in the nation, according to the National Education Association. More than 160,000 children who fear being bullied miss school every day. Every seven minutes in the U.S., a child is bullied; and only four out of 100 adults and only 11 percent of peers intervene. The rest do nothing.

We also know that in addition to school shooting perpetrators, this is the profile of many other children in the U.S.; in fact, one out of three children are bullied and depression and anxiety afflict youth at much younger ages than in prior decades. Many youth respond to their misery by becoming more depressed and anxious, by self-cutting, abusing drugs, or otherwise hurting themselves. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth age 10 to 24; and suicide has quadrupled since the fifties.

Unfortunately, bullying is common in America, where social exclusion, name-calling, prejudice, judgmental attitudes and other hurtful behaviors have become the norm. Many children are bullied at school, adults are bullied at work, and parents bully each other in their children’s schools. Teachers bully kids, and kids bully teachers. A culture of hurtful behavior suffuses our daily life.

This behavior is found at all levels of society. At an elite elementary school in New York City for example, a parent told me that mothers feel pressured to sport $20,000 diamond rings and Louis Vuitton bags, or risk becoming pariahs in the social circles surrounding their children. At another nearby school, parents began home-schooling their transgender daughter after she was mercilessly taunted. At yet another school, parents socially excluded one parent after another, on a variety of petty and changing pretexts.

To be sure, bullying and intense social pressures have existed in the past. The conditions today though, have sharply deteriorated. Nationally we have created what I call a culture of misery in which record numbers of us suffer from depression, anxiety and social isolation.

We are exhausted from working many more hours than we did in past generations. Depression and anxiety among Americans, wrote Jean M. Twenge in 2006, is ten times higher than it was in the beginning of the twentieth century; the 2006 McPherson et al. study revealed that, since the eighties, social isolation has tripled; suicide, since the fifties, has quadrupled.

Expectations have also skyrocketed since the turn to the twenty-first century. We feel pressured to be social, financial and professional high achievers. We fight each other to be the best. The stress of contemporary living is wearing down individuals, undermining schools, destroying families and contributing to hostile work environments. Vicious school bullying, school shootings, American-born terrorism, and a devastatingly high suicide rate should alert us that something is very much amiss.

Without the support of communities, including friends and neighbors, the hurtful behavior and external expectations is much of what remains. Meanwhile, when children now look to adults for support, many are finding that their grown-ups are also struggling, and unable to be of much help. Would this 14-year old boy have murdered his father and shot those children and the teacher on the elementary school playground if his school and family had helped him build friendships and compassion? What if more adults had the wherewithal to support young people being hurt by others? What if peers felt compelled to support anyone who felt isolated and what if students worked hard to create a caring community with one another?

Schools need to make empathy a priority and they need to implement extensive empathy-building programs in their communities. Until this becomes a national goal, reaching out to one another in friendship and with care and kindness, we will continue to breed miserable people—and more senseless violence.


Jessie Klein is the author of The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools (NYU Press, 2012); Associate Sociology/Criminal Justice Professor at Adelphi University; and the Founder and Director of Creating Compassionate Communities for Schools, Families and Beyond.

Feature image: “Bullying” by Jedidja. Creative Commons CC0 via Pixabay.
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