Strife is not new to the schoolhouse, but guns are.
By Jonathan Zimmerman
Four boys assault their teacher, who later dies of her injuries. Across the country, newspapers compete to unearth the most lurid details of the episode. It seems the boys were annoyed at being detained after school.
So they threw rocks and other debris at the screaming teacher, until she couldn’t scream anymore.
A modern-day example of inner-city youth violence? Hardly. It happened in the small town of Canton, Mass. – in 1870.
I thought of the Canton tragedy as I watched Attorney General Eric Holder at last week’s news conference about youth violence in Chicago. Standing beside Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the former schools chief in Chicago, Holder expressed outrage at the recent murder of 16-year-old Derrion Albert as he walked home from school. Holder called for a return to America’s “old-time” values.
But school violence is itself a time-honored American tradition, dating to the very dawn of the Republic. Despite our nostalgia for the good old days, America’s schools have always been disorderly and violent places. By pretending otherwise, we might miss what is truly new – and truly troubling – about present-day violence.
In the one-room schools of the 19th century, older boys faced off against their teachers in a brutal struggle for control. When the “big boys” got out of hand, teachers hit them with sticks, rulers, and paddles. Sometimes teachers drew blood; in rare cases, they caused permanent injuries.
In his first piece of published fiction, in 1841, Walt Whitman describes a vicious schoolteacher who kills a boy by flogging him. Whitman’s title told the whole story: “Death in the School Room (A FACT)”.
But the boys fought back, too. In New Hampshire, they ripped the ruler from a violent schoolmaster’s hand and threw him down an icy hillside; in Virginia, they bound a teacher hand and foot; and in Georgia, they chased a drunken teacher into the woods and covered him up with leaves.
“Such life-and-death struggles are as inseparably associated with the little red schoolhouse as they are with the ruins of the Roman amphitheater,” one educator wrote in 1894. “As the early Christians were stretched over slow fires, and stung to death by bees, and torn to pieces by wild beasts, so the young man beginning a term in a new school expected to be tormented by older boys.”
In the 20th century, as larger institutions came to replace the one-room schoolhouse, more and more “older boys” attended high schools. School violence changed, too. Clustered with peers of their own age, teenagers typically fought each other rather than their teachers.
By the 1950s, they had formed gangs. Bands of working-class “toughs” or “hoods” roamed school corridors and parking lots, bullying the weak and defacing property. Most of all, they attacked one another. Across urban America, gangs “rumbled” with knives, brass knuckles, and sawed-off baseball bats.
School violence would spike in the 1960s and early ’70s, echoing the overall rise of crime in American society. Increasingly, though, it involved guns. By 1991, 26 percent of high school students reported that they had brought a weapon to school in the previous 30 days; of those, about a third said they had carried a gun.
Contrary to public perceptions, most forms of school violence have decreased since the 1990s. So has the reported carrying of weapons, to about 18 percent of high school students. But roughly a third of those still carry guns, which remain the most common cause of youth homicide in America.
And when it comes to guns, the White House has dragged its feet. Although President Obama promised during the 2008 campaign to restore the ban on assault weapons, he hasn’t done so yet. Nor has the administration moved to close the loophole that allows people to purchase arms at gun shows without background checks.
Such reforms would do little by themselves to reduce school violence, which involves handguns more often than it does rifles. Symbolically, however, the gun measures would show that the White House takes the issue seriously.
So would a frank admission that most of the kids who die in or near schools are victims of gun violence, not just of “school violence” in general.
In this sense, Derrion Albert was an exception: Caught between rival gangs, he was beaten to death with wooden planks. The killing was captured on cell-phone video and posted on the Internet, where thousands have watched it.
Historically, however, this case could obscure a larger truth: We’ve always had school violence, and we’ve had youth gangs for a long time, too. The new factor is gun possession, plain and simple. Nothing will change until we’re honest about that.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory,” which was published in July by Yale University Press. He can be contacted at email@example.com.