I remember the Columbine Shooting. My daughter was in high school then. I remember the panicked responses of school administrators. Ban dusters! Zero tolerance! Rowrbazzle! Things died down for a while, and then they started up again. And still, nobody knows what to do. That includes law enforcement. After the fact, we keep identifying these oddballs who do this kind of crime, and it turns out they typically give off signals way in advance. Many of them are brought to the attention of law enforcement beforehand, but nobody connects the dots. Meanwhile, I have had two observations about school shootings ever since Columbine.
First, schools are so large that they cannot be supervised properly. Oddballs and weirdos are found in all population groups, including the young. Let's say that 3 out of 100 students are either consistent discipline problems or worrisome because their behavior doesn't track, somehow. Well, if you only have a hundred students, then keeping track of your three problem students isn't difficult. But if you have a thousand students, then you now have thirty problem students. Not only that, but you have a screen of a hundred or so admirers, buddies, hangers-on, kids who don't want to get themselves or anyone else in trouble, etc. The real problem youth are now invisible behind this -- subculture. [BTW, Stoneman Douglas High School had 3,000 students in one campus.]
Likewise, if you have 100 students, then every teacher knows every student by name. Wherever you go, someone in a position of authority can observe you and ask what you're up to. Supervision is constant. But if you have 1,000 students, then your 30 problems and 100 hangers-on mean no teacher knows every student. And many teachers will be afraid to confront a knot of students they don't know. The upshot is that no matter how efficient and tough your administrators are, you are not in control of the school. The responsible adults have no idea what is going on. And so, when things get hatched that you will come to regret, you will be caught flat-footed. Again.
The solution is ridiculously simple. Reduce the size of the population on campus, and you make social control easier for everybody. It doesn't eliminate all problems, but it enhances adult control.
The other thing you have to consider is why disaffected students choose to shoot up schools, rather than, say, malls or fairgrounds. And the answer is, we have made school more real to them than those other places. In their messed-up personal psychodrama, the school is the only appropriate stage to act out their revenge on the world.
Now, I don't mean to imply that cramming more rats into the cage than it should properly hold is making them crazy, though I could. I've been in schools where the clanging of bells and other stressors made me want to scream and I couldn't wait to get out of them. Imagine being stuck in that environment for six or eight hours a day. Imagine being stuck in that environment with bullies and teasers and the various humiliations of not fitting in. There's a reason we say that "Junior High is the deepest pit in hell." And the BIG school just intensifies that effect.
But no, that's not the worst problem. The worst problem is that the mega-school has slain all its competitors. Our children are handed over to an omnicompetent state institution that not only regulates the bulk of their day, but out-competes most other youth-appropriate aspects of civil society. Sports, clubs, band, and many other activities demand unfailing allegiance. Parents must slave to help earn money, rehearsals are five days a week several hours a day, and so on. We segregate students by age and then suffocate them with kids just like them, and then we don't let them out. We take every good idea for social programs -- say, clinics -- and put them in the schools, rather than fund something for youth at their family doctors' offices. I have spent my professional life leading church and Scouting programs, and I can tell you, the mega-school is the 800-lb gorilla of society. All must bow down to it. It's not until youth start getting jobs that some of them actually start to have a life that isn't run by the school.
It's not a surprise to me that kids who are struggling, or who are obsessed with something unhealthy, see The School as the only stage worthy of the spectacular and violent act they want to perform on it. We have made school into the biggest thing in their lives, instead of training them for an adult citizenship featuring a pleasingly complex set of relationships throughout the community.
So, if schools did less -- like, maybe, if they just tried to educate kids -- we could address their needs for sports and play and community service and music in different ways. And then the kids with the crazy in their brains might not see The School as the stage for their psychodramas quite as regularly.
I am convinced that the Great American Public School is a deeply unhealthy institution. Most kids survive it, I suppose, but I don't think it serves us well. And I don't think we have to do it this way. Of course, changing how we do school would mean having to go up against the teachers' unions and the public school lobby. You think the NRA is tough? You ain't seen the pros fight for their little fiefdom.