How To Make A Monster: On Preventing School Violence

In two short years, my son will be a member of the United States school system. After this past week, I’m terrified. Shouldn’t I be?

Last Wednesday, 16 year old high school sophomore, Alex Hribal, gripped two straight kitchen knives in his hands as he walked the halls of Franklin Regional High School in Pennsylvania, stabbing students and staff and leaving over 20 people injured.

But Alex’s act of aggression is no isolated incident, as we know. Stories of violence in our schools are becoming the norm, and I’m not okay with this. Not as a mom, not as a neighbor, not as a US citizen. I want do something. If there is something to be done.

Every time bloodshed makes its way into our schools, we ask the same question: what was the motivation? We look through Facebook profiles while police search computer files. We ask about social connections and mental health history. Was this student notoriously strange? Did he have friends or was he a loner?

What we really want to know is, how can we spot a monster? 

After an event like Wednesday’s, where the lines between psychopath and human are blurred, all we want to do is understand. We think maybe if we can categorize this person, we can comprehend their behavior, the triggers, the build-up. Then we can put them on the outside, confident their chilling behavior was wrought by a being less than human. Somehow we comfort ourselves with the thought that maybe we’re not dealing with a real person here.

But of course we’re dealing with a real person. However, it is often we who make the monsters.

It’s rare, if not impossible, for a person who is healthy, well-adjusted and connected to his family and peers to wake up one morning, grab two knives off the kitchen counter, and decide today’s the day everyone he knows is going to die.

We assume there was bullying at school, or maybe abuse at home. Or both. But those are not the only indicators. What prevents the majority of children, even those who have been bullied or abused, from acting out aggressively?

The making of a “monster” is a complicated process with so many variables, but the Bible resoundingly calls us to acts of kindness toward “our neighbor”, and we’re not given much instruction on who that isn’t. We are told we must take responsibility for the people around us. And we must own up to the fact that monsters do not usually make themselves.

But how are we, nice people from the ‘Burbs, culpable for the creation of a child turned murderer, capable of heinous crimes? Here’s the behavior I’ve seen in myself. Maybe you can relate.

When kids have annoying or irritating behaviors, or when they are “tough to deal with”, I often label them as such and write them off. I find myself more affirming of the kids who know how to play by the rules, while I manage the behavior of the “problem kids”. If a child is quiet, I don’t necessarily look for ways to draw them out. I don’t look for the outcast, the scared and the bullied. Not naturally. And if I see them, sometimes they just scare me. I feel like interacting in their lives might be out of my pay grade.

Perhaps this sounds familiar to you. It’s easy to do, especially when we don’t understand the long-term results of our behavior.

So if this pattern of ignoring the ignored contributes to keeping a child on the outside, even “making a monster”, what might prevention look like?

I wrestled with the horror of Wednesday’s event over the past several days, and as I did, a simple phrase came to me. It’s a verse from one of the apostle Peter’s letters to Christian believers: “Love covers over a multitude of sins.”

As the words rolled through my mind, I heard them anew, this time as a simple prescription for redeeming our neighborhoods and schools.

Our love, whether small acts of kindness and grand acts of generosity and mercy, recovers and redeems hurt and pain in the lives of others. Our love covers over a multitude of abuses inflicted upon one of the least of these. Love brings the lost back home to family. As Christians, love is our prevention model.

When people act badly and we treat them badly as a result, the only impact can be shame, the experience of being not good enough, kicked out, no longer belonging. It’s from this place, the cold and bitter outside, that people do the terrible things. We have to be part of bringing them back in.

This is our job, getting the lost ones and bringing them back. [Click photo for credit]

Glennon Melton, author of Carry On, Warrior, recently wrote a powerful story about her son’s math teacher, who is making her own effort to bring children on the outside back in.

She describes how the teacher asks her students to write down the names of the children they want to sit with next week, and after school lets out Friday afternoons, she looks for patterns in the names, searching for who was popular last week but forgotten this week. With this tool, she identifies the bullied, the lonely and the lost.

Glennon asked the teacher how long she has been doing this. “Every week since the Columbine shootings,” she replied.

This teacher is an inspiring example of a simple yet persistent act of love that is saving lives by restoring human connection between students. Because at the core of our hurt and abuse toward each other is disconnection and shame.

We’ve wrongly come to believe that treating others with respect, smiling at strangers or offering to watch the children of a family who is “hard to deal with” are just random acts of kindness. We don’t really know why they matter so much.

These things matter because human connection is the root of morality. Our relationships with others empower us to live The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Science echoes this truth.

Three years ago, neuroeconomist Pal Zak gave a fascinating TED talk on his research on the human bonding hormone, oxytocin. After discovering the powerful effects of this hormone, he gave it the name “The Moral Molecule”. He discovered that people who feel bonded and connected to others are more likely to treat them better.

Here’s the formula: Kindness comes from empathy, and empathy comes from a bond. If I care about you, and you care about me, then I don’t want to hurt you. It’s that simple.

The experience of a bond even allows us to empathize with others who may be acting badly toward us. It promotes empathy in future relationships, allowing our minds to conceive how someone else might be feeling and understand their behavior.

When we love, when we show respect, when we give honor and dignity to someone who is often dismissed, when we recognize a gift in a child who is outcast, when we compliment someone who we know rarely receives kind words, we are building bonds. We are bringing lost sheep back in from the wilderness of shame into family, into love. Even if it doesn’t happen all at once.

With these acts of goodness, we cover over a multitude of sins by restoring human connection.

As I prepare to send my child to school in the next few years, I can anticipate he and I will run into children on the outside. They may bully others, they may get bullied or they may go unnoticed. But I want to notice them, and I want to teach him to do the same. I want to treat them with respect and see the good, however difficult it may be.

Let’s together look for ways to be our own version of the math teacher in our part of the world, using the powerful weapon of love to remove shame and restore relationships.

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4 thoughts on “How To Make A Monster: On Preventing School Violence

  1. This is good stuff. I’m a homeschooling parent, for many different reasons. Some of what I’ve been reading about the schools has been heartbreaking for several years. ❤

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    1. Jennifer, thank you for reading and taking time to reply. I have friends who homeschool and I certainly understand why. I work full time right now but hope in the future to work from home and have more flexibility where that would be an option if needed. I have a lot of respect for parents who home educate. That is a big job. Good for you.

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      1. And I have huge respect for the families that choose to go another way. Our children are precious, and the decisions we make are so close to our hearts. Still I pray for the schools, no matter where they are!

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