Max Eden joins Seth Barron to discuss recent mass shootings in American high schools and how misguided approaches to school safety can play a role in some of these massacres.

In the aftermath of horrific shootings at high schools in Florida and Texas, the political debate has focused largely on the role of guns in American society. Mostly ignored is how school districts fail to take action on students with documented histories of threats, violence, or mental illness.

The school district in Broward County, Florida, for example, which includes Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, created the “Promise” program to counsel students who commit minor crimes, as an alternative to involving law enforcement. After repeated denials by school administrators, it was revealed that Nikolas Cruz, who shot and killed 17 people at the school, was previously assigned to the program, rather than being referred to authorities. But that’s just one example.

Audio Transcript

Seth Barron: Welcome back to 10 Blocks.  This is Seth Barron, associate editor of City Journal.  Another school massacre shook the country recently, this time in Texas.  What is driving these horrible events and what can we do to stop them?  I am joined by Max Eden, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.  Max studies education policy in schools with a recent emphasis on school discipline.  He writes frequently for City Journal and is published in a wide variety of other publications as well.  Thanks for joining us, Max.

Max Eden: Yeah.  Thanks for having me, Seth.

Seth Barron: So why are there so many school shootings in the United States?  It seems like we have them several times a year where a lot of people are killed.  Other countries don’t have this problem.  What’s going on?

Max Eden: Yeah, I mean, I think there are a few things to tease out.  One is obviously a factor of size.  We have more people than many other countries combined.  So, to do a comparison of the U.S. to France is somewhat spurious.  However, still at a per capita rate we do have more than average despite the kind of expansions of this you see in the news the United States is unusual in this regard.  And I think that the first and the most obvious part of it, but part of it that we need to be responsible in how we kind of place, is guns.  There is easier access to firearms in the United States than there are in other countries.  You look at this most recent school shooting, this young man went into his dad’s closet essentially and took a shotgun.  It’s much harder to do that in other countries than it is in America.  But that is only one part of it.

Seth Barron: So, what else?  I mean…

Max Eden: I think that there are policy problems and there are cultural problems.  I think the policy problems are quite blatantly on display in the Parkland shooting, where you have a student who is said to have committed many crimes in the school, in a school district that made a specific policy initiative to not arrest students despite them committing crimes.  And so, when he goes to apply for a gun, he has no criminal record and he has also never been institutionalized despite having posed a clear danger to himself and others.  So, the leap to talk about guns immediately is on the one hand sensible, but on the other hand the gun laws on the books were not what was at fault in Parkland.  The gun laws already say that psychopathic criminals should not be able to legally acquire firearms and that killer was a psychopath who was never committed and a criminal who was never arrested.  So, I think that while guns do make America somewhat unusual, there are more constructive places that we need to start approaching these problems than changing laws which, even the laws in the books that we’ve had would have failed, even with changes the laws would have failed, because the people are failing before it can reach the law.

Seth Barron: Well let’s talk about the Parkland case a little bit.  You have written about Obama era dictates regarding school suspensions and loosening of disciplinary strictures.  How did those come into play specifically with that case?

Max Eden: Yeah, so Broward County was in a way kind of ground zero for these reforms.  Robert Runcie, the superintendent, was an old friend of Arne Duncan’s who got the job quite plausibly mostly on the merit of Arne Duncan’s recommendation.  He had never been a principal or a teacher, but he starts to lead the sixth largest school district in America on the recommendation of the Secretary of Education.  A couple of months before the Obama administration issues their dear colleague letter advising school districts to get their suspension rates down, their expulsion rates down, their arrest rates down, Broward County has a very aggressive initiative which is, the capstan of which is called the PROMISE Program, which stands for Preventing Recidivism through Mentorship Opportunities, something, something and something.

Seth Barron: Okay.

Max Eden: The idea being that we should not arrest kids for common misdemeanors.  We should instead send them to an out-of-site center for a few days and try to rehabilitate them, which is one of those things that is fine in theory, but if you go down there and you talk to the people who actually administer it they say that there is just so little backbone behind this program that teachers are reluctant to even refer kids to it in the first place, because they know it is going to be a hassle and a headache.  So, you have that kind of broad dynamic playing out.  One school resource officer told me, you know, ten years ago it would be a situation where I knew teachers who would provoke students to jostle them and then call them in for assault and now I have teachers who will let students assault them and not call me because they know I can’t do anything.  So, you have this kind of environment of leniency and laxity, and then you have a student who is said to have brought knives to school, sold knives in school, brought bullets to school, at least one clear instance of a death threat has been verified to have been brought to an administrator.  And none of these things are reflected on his record, right?  So, a lot of discussion has focused on was he or was he not in the PROMISE Program?  I was the first, I think, to raise this question in print.  Superintendent Runcie said this is fake news, it’s reprehensible to ask this question.  As it turns out, he was referred to the PROMISE Program, but he didn’t actually participate in it, for reasons unknown.  So, there appears to be a kind of a massive human failure that we can’t really call a policy failure because it is more the way that these policies tend to play out if what’s driving them is a desire of a superintendent to say look at how far down I’ve gotten the arrest rates.  If you have a marginal decision you will, and you are a human being, you are a principal, a vice principal, you will err on the side of not doing anything.  And that seems to – many facts are still yet to come to light, but that seems to have played a large role in letting this kid slip through the cracks.

Seth Barron: Now, the Texas case where this student shot and killed ten people, was there any warnings about him?  Was he on the radar?

Max Eden: So, I think it is somewhat too soon to tell for a certainty, because quite frankly quite frequently within the first few days of these things the people who speak don’t know anything and the people who know something don’t speak.  But from the initial press coverage, it appears as though there were not.  It appears as though there were not particular red flags, that the student didn’t have a distinctly troubled disciplinary or mental health history, at least not that was obvious to school administrators.  He was a strange kid, he would walk around in a trench coat, he would have disturbing buttons on that trench coat, and there was one post in a social media forum a couple of days before that was somewhat disturbing.  But this doesn’t seem like quite the one that you know, you can say so clearly was influenced by policy.  This might have been more of a tragic lone wolf that the immediate impetus has a lot more to do with the contagion effect of the post-Parkland media reaction than it does with any particular policy at play in that system.

Seth Barron: Has that contagion effect been quantified?  We hear a lot about copycats and this sort of thing.  Have they actually – have there been studies done to determine whether or not that’s a real thing?

Max Eden: There have been studies in other contexts.  Suicide is a particularly well-known contagion effect.  If there is a suicide in your school, in your neighborhood, of a family of a friend, that raises the likelihood of suicide in concentric circles around.  I don’t think that any similar study has been done on school shootings.  I am not sure that – the infrequency of them would probably make it very difficult to try to assess.  So, I think the intuition is that this kind of phenomenon is on par psychologically with suicide, quite frequently leads to immediate suicide.  And so, I think it is more of an expanded intuition than an established fact vis-à-vis school shootings.

Seth Barron: I see.  Because I believe just a week ago there was another school shooting – well an attempted school shooting – where the shooter was killed by a resource officer in the school. 

Max Eden: And a couple weeks after Parkland you also had a school shooting in Maryland where the shooter there was killed by a resource officer.

Seth Barron: So, I guess it does…

Max Eden: So, there’s…

Seth Barron: …at first face it does seem…

Max Eden: On first face it seems very plausible.  It accords with more robust evidence that seems like it should be transferrable.

Seth Barron: Now what about the idea that maybe – what if the problem isn’t guns, but the problem is school?  And that schools are in themselves an archaic institution.  Maybe we don’t need to be keeping teenage boys, age 14 and up, in the school system if it is not really where they should be.  Maybe we don’t need to be keeping everyone in school until they are 17 or 18.  I don’t know, what do you think?

Max Eden: I mean these school shootings are not being done by 8th-graders.  They are, at least to my immediate recollection, invariably done by 16 to 18-year-olds for which there is not necessarily a compelling policy reason arguably to maintain compulsory education for students who are so miserable there that they might be likely to do something.  So, I think that that’s a very reasonable policy argument to be had.  But that is a few bridges beyond where I think we are going to go anytime soon.  I would be, quite frankly, thrilled in a way if this could lead to a serious conversation about problems in the educational incentives that we set up.  Because it is students who will commit these acts are frequently at the intersection, certainly in Parkland, perhaps in Santa Fe but we don’t quite know yet, at the intersection of discipline policy and disability policy.  You know, it is not sane, well-adjusted students who commit these acts.  It is students with deep mental problems.  And the policies that we have set up encourage administrators, if there is the slightest notion that a parent might object to the way that you would handle a potentially troubled, potentially violent, child, that they can bring you to court and you can just cave.  So, the problem, the foremost policy problem should be like how do we stop would-be murderers from ever getting to the point where they want to act on that?  And I think that there are forces in our school system that are, you know, not only not fitted to that, but actually the incentives are to just give way whenever a student like this starts to emit warning signs.

Seth Barron: Back up a little bit.  What you said about the intersection of disciplinary policy and disability policy.  That is an intriguing question.  We haven’t really talked about disability policy.  What do you mean by that?

Max Eden: Yeah.  So, there’s the immediate intersection.  The two policies together kind of form a force multiplier when they are joined.  You will frequently hear students with disabilities lumped in with, you know, minority students when it comes to disproportionate discipline.  Now, when you take down those numbers and you do enough demographic controls, you realize that the only “disproportionate” aspect of discipline comes with students who are diagnosed as emotionally disturbed, which is the category that we have for a disability that we can’t quite name but there is clearly something wrong with this kid.

Seth Barron: Okay.

Max Eden: So, for those students there is an added policy pressure to not discipline them because those numbers are being tracked particularly closely and those numbers are the kind of thing that a place like the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Human Rights Campaign, the ACLU, will look over your shoulder and say why are you disciplining so many kids with disabilities?  Taking one step further to the disability side, the way these policies are set up is that the school can make a judgment for the student, but the student has a say too, and the parent has a say too.  So, if you have a parent who is particularly vocal and an advocate of the student, quite frequently you will see schools just roll over for them because they know that they could do the responsible thing, they could try to send the student to a specialized school, they could try to have the student expelled, but if they know that there is going to be a hassle from the parent and a paperwork hassle, they quite frequently won’t because it is a path of least resistance that we have set up.  There is one particularly horrific example of this.  One of the teachers that I brought to meet with Secretary DeVos and a parent I brought to meet with Secretary DeVos, there was a young man with cerebral palsy who is nonverbal who went into the bathroom one day and another student followed him, and he was raped in the bathroom.  And the student couldn’t say anything about it.  A teacher found out and told the administrators.  The administrators downgraded it to an obscene act, even though it was an admitted sexual assault at the very least.  And the vice principal’s theory is that it is really, really hard to expel a student who has a disability.  It is not a sure thing.  You have to go through all these processes.

Seth Barron: But, wait, the rapist also had a disability?

Max Eden: Yes.

Seth Barron: Like an emotional disability?

Max Eden: An emotional disability.  And yet they are classified, you know, they are quite frequently grouped in the same settings, which is inappropriate.  And then we fail to disentangle disabilities that are you know, I don’t want to say real versus not real, but disabilities that are clearly physical versus disabilities that might be more psychological in nature.  And we treat both of these the same way.  And in an effort to compensate for the kind of inequities that would disappear with sufficient statistical controls, we make it very, very hard to manage the most severe behavioral cases the way we should.  You know, I have talked to teachers in New York who will say that in the wake of de Blasio’s discipline reforms, principals are less likely to want to diagnose the marginal student with emotionally disturbed disability because they know if they do that, that’s going to tie their hands going forward.  So better, some people think, for these kids to not get the services they might need if giving them those services means that you as an administrator won’t have the freedom and flexibility to do what they might need to do.

Seth Barron: So, it sounds like kids who in the ‘50s or ‘60s or ‘70s might have been classified as juvenile delinquents or something like that and tracked into, I don’t know, special programs more easily are now seen as emotionally disturbed…

Max Eden: Yes. 

Seth Barron: ...autistic, or something like that and kept in the mainstream…

Max Eden: Yes.

Seth Barron: …of special education programs and so forth.

Max Eden: Yes, exactly.  I mean and there are pros and cons to this.  But The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act says that the student should be educated in the least restrictive possible environment, which is a very nice thought, but least restrictive for that student might not necessarily be best for all the other students around him.  Maybe the student can manage to be outside of an alternative setting and in a normal classroom, but only at a substantial cost to his peers, which, the way that these incentives are set up, is not something that schools get to weigh independently.  It’s something that schools get to weigh with one thumb on the scale from federal policy.  And the prospect that that thumb could be pushed rapidly down the second a parent decides to lawyer-up to make a complaint.

Seth Barron: I see.  Let’s talk about bullying.  Both the murderer in Parkland and the one in Texas, it sounds as though they were both bullied.  Now, I don’t want to sound as though I’m you know, putting them, placing them as victims and like feeling you know, exorbitant pity for them, but at the same time clearly bullying is an issue.  So, what is – and we hear about it a lot, often in terms of LGBT kids, things like that.  But it sounds like bullying may be a wider problem.  I mean, to what extent does – I mean are schools really that dysgenic environments that they can in a sense create these people or are these people just there, and then – I mean, what’s going on?  Maybe this is too intense a question.

Max Eden: No, no it’s not too intense of a question.  I think that there are aspects of our policies and our expectations that we put on T-shirts that enable these kind of things.  I talked to the teacher’s union president down in Broward County and she talked about how hundreds of teachers have come up to her and complained about the unspoken rule to not refer a student for discipline unless it is a serious and violent thing, because the teachers know that the principal does not want to have to have that on the record, the principal knows the superintendent does not want that on the record, so, unless there is a very clear and convincing reason to discipline a student that is almost physical in nature, there is a pressure to not.  And that kind of creates an enforced passivity amongst teachers when they are faced with these situations.  And fundamentally bullying is occasionally about, you know, students reflecting trauma that they feel and acting out based on home problems, but quite frequently and quite frankly it is often just mischief making and status seeking.  You know, I bullied a kid in fifth grade until he decided to knock me down.  And at that point I never bullied again because the status that I sought through it was just destroyed the second that I faced that resistance.  And I think that we have kind of disarmed teachers from being able to exert that resistance against students, the kind of broken windows policing of the small stuff that can prevent this big stuff is something that we are in a way pressuring teachers to not do, I think based on a very wishful understanding of the nature of childhood, the nature of children.  I think that children need rules and if they get out of hand they need to have a kind of hand slapped on them, but that has gone out of vogue in our policy circles and in our professional development circles.  And so, I think that what you are seeing is a product of adults taking a step back, irresponsibly so, but in accordance with our expectations of them.

Seth Barron: I mean clearly when you look at the kids who do these shootings, invariably it is not surprising on some level.  It is never kids who had really good grades, were very popular, on sports teams, well-adjusted.  I mean, it’s invariably kind of loner-type kids, or losers, or something like that.  But it seems like well we have to find a way to deal with those people besides, you know, I don’t know.

Max Eden: Yeah.  And we you know, we should encourage our students to try to be, you know – there was this campaign that was launched by Ryan Petty, one of the Parkland fathers, “Walk Up, Not Out,” which, in response to the student walkouts, his message to students was if there is that kind of loner kid around, just walk up to him and try to have a conversation with him and try to make him feel better.  There are those small things that students can do.  At this school safety forum in D.C. that Marco Rubio put on, there was a Columbia professor who has pioneered this suicide prevention quick test that anybody can administer and it has had striking success rate in the military, and she is trying to get into the schools to the point where the janitor who sees these kids every day, if he sees a kid who is having trouble he knows what questions to ask.  But, of course, there will also be the kids that it is more than that, that there might be no reaching.  There is this quite frankly painful op-ed in The New York Times by a student who said essentially, I tried to walk up to Nikolas Cruz, I tried to be nice to him.  And he was evil towards me.  You know, he assaulted me, he leered at me.  He jeered at me.  There was no reaching him through kindness.  And there are students out there like that.  And for those students we need to have schools that have the gumption to be able to treat students who pose a threat as threats.  You know, there ought to be an exemption, or some sort of special dispensation when it comes to disability policy for students who adults have a reason to fear poses a physical danger to others.  And that’s not something that I think we are quite prepared to do as a country as a matter of policy.  And I fear that if we don’t do that, if we don’t give adults latitude when it comes to these kinds of students who are the dangerous cases, you know, this kid comes in and a text message goes out that the crazy kid is here.  With those kids, like schools need to be able to take it out of your hand.  And this is a lot of what Manhattan Institute does around mental health and around institutionalization.  I think that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction and that on many levels we are not encouraging our students to be kind, we are encouraging them to get angry when these things happen, we are immediately focusing on guns, which are certainly part of the problem, but in a way the hardest part of the problem to address.

Seth Barron: Right.

Max Eden: And we are not giving space for educators to act responsibly, and we are actually pressuring them to not.

Seth Barron: Well, it seems like something has to happen, though I am not sure we have settled on a solution quite yet in this episode.  But thank you, Max.  Thanks for coming in and dealing with these hard questions.  We’d love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter, @CityJournal with the #10Blocks.  You can follow Max Eden on Twitter, @MaxEden99.  Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes.  Thanks for listening and thanks, Max, for joining us.

Max Eden: Yeah.  Thank you, Seth.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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