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Gabriel Lerner Headshot

Violence In Schools, Nothing Out Of The Ordinary For Latinos And Blacks

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Last week we were shocked by the tragic massacre at Chardon High School near Cleveland, Ohio. Three students were killed and two wounded when a 17-year-old student opened fire.

Each time a tragic incident involving schools, guns, children and victims reaches the front page, a chorus of soul-searching follows with an almost predictable immediacy:
What is happening to our children? Who is to blame? And why do we lead the world in school shootings?

The litany of these horrible acts is long and distressing: 13 dead in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999; 32 at Virginia Tech in 2007; six at Northern Illinois University-DeKalb in 2008.

But there is a problem with the research, analysis and commentary on these school shootings: it only focuses on the terrible tragedies where one or more students suddenly begins killing others at random.

The cases of chronic violence, which occurs repeatedly and is ongoing, are never explored--and these comprise the vast majority, causing untold devastation and grief.

While massacres and tragic shootings by crazed individuals occur in schools of all economic levels, with varying racial makeups, chronic violence in school tends to be concentrated in lower income areas, where the majority of students are usually Latino or black.

The truth is there is more violence in our schools than we realize. Many more tragic incidents than what we read and what rivets us. And this has occurred for years.

Many schools look more like fortresses, with high fences, metal detectors and armed police on campus. For years the shootings and violence has gone underreported. This violence is common; a pervasive presence in many of our schools. And the solutions go far beyond what is discussed for more famous tragedies like Columbine, Virginia Tech or Chardon High. They involve investing more in public education at all levels, addressing chronic unemployment, eradicating domestic violence and facilitating community involvement.

I remember the day after the Virginia Tech massacre; dozens of schools in Southern California were closed, as authorities feared "copycat" actions. But violence and fear didn't attack those schools on that day. They have inhabited them long ago.

In these schools there are children who insult, humiliate, attack, steal, hit, maim and kill; children who surreptitiously bring knives onto campus, as well as marijuana and crystal.

This violence and fear is an extension of what occurs in their own barrios.

Back to 2012, a quick look at the latest news helps us to put this latest event in perspective: one week ago, a bomb threat at Colleton County High School in South Carolina "disrupted most of the school day Tuesday for students, teachers, staff, parents."

On February 21, in Austin, Texas, McCallum High School was placed on lockdown and nearby Ridge Top Elementary was heavily scrutinized amid reports that a shot may have been fired.

And just last week, one person was killed and another wounded in a shooting outside the Los Angeles High School.

All-school lockdowns are frequent in these institutions; in some, they occur almost monthly.

Violence may be related to gang identity. In South High School in Torrance, California, a school known for its academic excellence and very low crime, a student was warned not to wear a red shirt because it denoted allegiance to a gang known as the Bloods. That student was my son. The kid who warned him was wearing blue, the color of the rival Crips gang.

Violence could be related to inter-ethnic conflict. In Compton, Inglewood and South Central Los Angeles there have been confrontations between African-American and Latino students, now the majority in this area.

Yes, massacres like those that occurred at Virginia Tech, Columbine and now, Chardon, Ohio are more compelling. And it is easier to explain that the perpetrators are crazy, alienated individuals, social deviants, or, like a report points out, anti-depressant users, than that, in reality, they mirror our society.

This statement, made by the FBI, is simple and true: "School shootings and other forms of school violence are not just a school's problem or a law enforcement problem. They involve schools, families, and the communities."

So, although we must protect our children by making access to firearms by perpetrators almost impossible, the solution to the more generalized, random but daily violence in schools goes well beyond individuals. The answer must be universal, and must address serious societal problems.