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Mass Murders in Schools and Bullying: What We Can Do to Help Stop the Carnage

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The mass shooting at the University of California Santa Barbara less than two weeks ago has reignited the national debate over access to guns and mental illness. It has been well reported that, like so many other mass killers, Elliot Rodger, the perpetrator who killed six innocent young men and women on that campus, had demonstrated extremely disturbing behavior for quite a while and had been under the treatment of therapists for a number of years. Yet, despite his obvious psychological problems, he was still able to easily obtain a number of handguns and a large supply of ammunition.

What has been somewhat restrained as this debate rages on is that, as is the case with so many other mass killers, Rodger may have been a victim of bullying during his adolescence. This is not meant as an excuse for his heinous crimes, or those of the other school shooters. What Rodger, and they did, is unconscionable and unpardonable, and in Rodger's case if he had not taken the cowardly way out and turned the gun on himself, I would argue that he deserved, at the very minimum, life in prison without any chance for parole.

Yet, whether or not Rodger was bullied, the fact is that only a fraction of kids who are bullied bring guns to school. Adelphi University assistant professor of sociology Jessie Klein has said that: "I think it's not important necessarily whether he particularly was bullied. My concern is that we've created a society that is fairly callous in the larger culture, and that people like this perpetrator who have clearly violent proclivities are more likely to act on them in a society where bullying takes place, where people have very little time to stop for one another and support one another."

There is, however, a significant and growing body of research that there is a strong relationship between bullying and mass violence. Professors Michael Kimmel and Matthew Mahler of Stony Brook University (of the State University of New York) have found, for example, that most of the boys who have committed shootings in American high schools and middle schools were "mercilessly and routinely teased and bullied and that their violence was retaliatory against threats to their manhood." And in his book "Ceremonial Violence," Professor Jonathan Fast of Yeshiva University examined more than a dozen mass school shootings and found that while there is no single reason for their violent acts, the kids who committed these atrocities suffered from alienation from their peers, neglect and often abuse.

Being bullied and being rejected lead to feelings of isolation and powerlessness. In turn, victims often feel an intense desire and need to regain power and turn to violence as their remedy. This violence, coupled with a total lack of any empathy, makes for a deadly recipe. Both Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who perpetrated the Columbine school massacre, were frequently harassed by athletes and other students. Virginia Tech murderer Seung Hi Cho was similarly picked on and bullied. And Rodger claimed in his 137-page manifesto that he was bullied throughout high school.

As it is, bullying is one of the most frequently occurring forms of abuse in schools. One out of four kids is bullied face-to-face and 70 percent of these incidences occur in school. More than 40 percent of children are cyberbullied, harassed through the use of digital technologies such as the Internet or smartphone. Studies have definitively shown that kids who are repeatedly bullied are especially vulnerable to such negative health issues as depression, social isolation, eating and sleep disorders, substance and alcohol abuse, and self-injury such as cutting. While many overcome these issues and grow up to be healthy and happy adults, far too often bullying victims can suffer serious and long-term psychological damage and even post-traumatic stress disorder. As we have all too many times come to know in the past few years, some children and adolescents are so tormented they commit suicide.

So what are we to do? Certainly, we cannot rely on government intervention. By the end of last year, 49 states (all except Montana) had enacted anti-bullying legislation, with the majority of these bills requiring schools to set up specific policies to stop bullying. But only 18 states include anti-cyberbullying measures and very few include provision for criminal sanctions against the bully. Without real enforcement and penalties, anti-bullying legislation is a waste of time. Consider that in just the year and a half since the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, there have been about 50 school shootings that have left dozens of children, teens and others dead, and a good number of these were perpetrated by people who may have been bullied in school.

What we need to do -- what we must do -- is educate kids and teens about bullying, and teach them empathy and coping skills. This begins at home and must be continued in school. We also need to encourage them to tell their parents when bullying occurs, despite the fact that most children don't talk about it. They sit in fear in fear and silence.

Parents can play a significant role in helping their children who might be bullying victims. First and foremost, I urge parents to communicate with your kids and teens. Don't interrogate. Rather than asking your children if they are being bullied, let them know that you are aware that bullying does occur and that if they or other kids in their school are being victimized, they should come to you at any time. If your child does tell you he or she is being bullied, calmly tell them how much you love them. Assure them it is not their fault, and discuss together how best to handle the situation. Empower your kids and teens to stand up to bullying, with a comeback and then to walk away. By doing so, you are teaching them to do what they can to take away the bully's power, rather than the bully taking away theirs. Of course, try to get to know who your child's friends are, what online sites your kids visit and watch for sudden changes in your child's behavior. And if you think your child may be a bully, don't take the stance of "Not my kid." Get your child behavior management therapy; if they have mental health issues, get help for them before it's too late.

Educators, too, can be invaluable to bullying prevention. Teachers need to value all students' opinions and ideas, and recognize their strengths. Let them know they can count on you. Keep your eyes and ears open; very often bullying occurs at times and in places when minimal supervision is in place. And don't be reluctant to intervene. All incidences of mistreatment need to be addressed; sending a strong message lets kids know that bullying and other harassing behavior will not be tolerated. What will be tolerated, and what must be taught, are kindness, respect, tolerance, empathy, and compassion.

In order to be successful in school and in life, kids need to feel safe both physically and emotionally. Schools should be a safe space for all kids and teens. To be so, schools need to regularly schedule anti-bullying programs and incorporate bullying prevention themes into the curriculum. They should have bullying incident reports and a teacher/faculty committee that works closely with students and with safe school and community parent led committees. They should also encourage peer mentoring groups and allow students to create a safe, no bullying community in their buildings, on and off their campuses and online.

These are but a few measures that can be implemented at home and in school to help prevent and eradicate bullying and cyberbullying. We will never know if such actions could have stopped the Santa Barbara carnage or the far too many other school-based massacres. But we must try, we must do something. Nothing short than the lives of our children -- our future -- are at stake.