Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Florida Shooting and the Public Schools

With 17 victims killed and a similar number wounded, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting was horrific, and all empathize with the victims.
Horrific events like these are salient; that is, they loom large in our minds. As with airline crashes, which have resulted in more death than mass shootings, we, along with the electronic and print media, dramatize the risks of and importance of salient events. Nevertheless, the empathy and sorrow we feel for the victims is neither a logical nor an empirically valid reason for policy changes.
In 1897, 121 years ago, Emile Durkheim wrote Suicide, a sociological study of the correlates of suicide. Durkheim's study suggested that sociological analysis might increasingly contribute to reasoned policy discussion. Unfortunately, that does not seem to have been the case. Much of the policy discussion about the recent uptick in mass shootings is impassioned and lacking in perspective.
Durkheim found that social norms and regulation contribute to suicide rates; similar factors are at play in mass shootings, which are often suicidal. Durkheim found that suicide can result from a sense of not belonging; he also found that it can result from being overwhelmed by social demands; he also found that anomie, an absence of moral coherence or a breakdown of social norms, can play a role. 
Durkheim found that education makes suicide more likely, but social cohesion and religion play a bigger role. Protestants were more likely to commit suicide than were Catholics or Jews, even though Jews were highly educated. As well, suicide rates were higher for unmarried people than for married people and for childless people than for people with children.

Where do school shootings occur? They occur almost universally in public schools. I went through a list provided by Ballotpedia,_199…, and I noticed that of the first 20 or 30, 100% occured in public school settings, mostly in mid-sized-to-large-sized cities, and in low-income school districts. They also have often been associated with sports events.
The number killed in all of the mass shooting incidents is much smaller than the number killed in airline crashes, which in turn is much smaller than the number killed in automobile crashes.  Salience does not determine importance. 
This CNN piece (…/20-deadliest-mass-shooting…/index.html )
identifies the worst mass shootings in modern history (related and unrelated to schools), and the total of all fatalities arising from them is under 500. In contrast, a single one of any number of airline crashes had roughly 50% of the total number of deaths from mass shootings since 1990. As well, about 40,000 Americans died in automobile crashes in 2016. More than one million have died in car accidents since 1990, compared to under 500 from mass shootings, a ratio of 2,000 to one.
That is not to say that it is not useful to think about ways to reduce or eliminate mass shootings. One point that jumps out is that all of the mass killings at schools have been at public schools. A large majority is not surprising since about 91% of students attend public schools. Nevertheless, given that there have been several hundred school shootings, we would expect about 10% to have been in Catholic and other private schools, but that has not been the case. 
That gets us back to the question of anomie, normlessness, and its opposite, excessive social control. Since 1990 there has been a increase in political correctness and a decline in religious belief (see…/qa-why-millennials-are-less-r…/ ). In other words, there has been increasing academic control, increasing peer pressure, and decreasing religious participation. As well, there has been declining participation in society, as Robert Putnam points out in Bowling Alone.
Perhaps the public education system needs to be taken to task; and perhaps the American media with its idolization of celebrity, narcissism, and new age morality should be as well.  As well, given that there are sociological reasons for mass shootings, we might conclude that different locales require different solutions.  

A generic, federal solution to a variegated problem is as useless as looking for a single solution to airline crashes. Different locales need to develop optimal policies based on their unique characteristics.