After Sandy Hook, what can we do?

There’s little we can do to prevent another school massacre, writes Megan McArdle. Confiscating 300 million semi-automatic weapons now in private hands is unconstitutional and politically impossible. So is locking up mentally ill people who haven’t hurt anyone and probably never will. So is banning the media from naming killers.

My guess is that we’re going to get a law anyway, and my hope is that it will consist of small measures that might have some tiny actual effect, like restrictions on magazine capacity.  I’d also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.

But I doubt we’re going to tell people to gang rush mass shooters, because that would involve admitting that there is no mental health service or “reasonable gun control” which is going to prevent all of these attacks.  Which is to say, admitting that we have no box big enough to completely contain evil.

The odds that any school will be attacked are very, very small. The money elementary schools spend on armed guards or police officers is money that can’t be spent on a reading specialist to get struggling students on track, a music teacher to motivate kids, a counselor to work with kids years before they became angry loners, etc.

At the elementary school where I tutor, one of the first grade teachers had locked her door on Wednesday. I knocked and a kid let me in to pick up my tutee. My other first grader ran up to me as I was leaving, smiled and “shot” me three times with his finger. He smiled again and ran off to join the recess crowd. I have no idea what that meant. Probably nothing. Earlier, he’d pretended he was an airplane as we walked along. He’s a little boy.

The lesson of Sandy Hook for education reformers is to honor the heroism of teachers and administrators and “tone down any rhetoric that implies that a typical teacher isn’t committed to doing right by her or his students,” writes Mike Petrilli, the father of two young boys.

That’s not to say we should relax our efforts to identify and remove ineffective teachers from the classroom; just as there’s the occasional bad cop, there’s the occasional bad teacher. Like the police force, the teaching force is much stronger without them. But neither should we ignore indications from the field that many teachers, including great teachers, have been feeling unappreciated, villainized, and blamed.

“Let us commit to bringing America’s heroic teachers and school leaders along with us on the path to reform, not to view them as the targets of reform—or of our scorn.”

About Joanne


  1. Astute teachers know, more or less, who the rising generation of psychopaths are. I can name at least one out of my crop of 190 seventh graders. If we really wanted to contain the damage these people do (and they do a lot of damage that falls short of massacres), we could label, treat, and –if that fails –isolate these individuals before adulthood. Yes, it would be a hard-fought battle, but it seems like the rational thing to do.

  2. This message is basically the core concept of the education “reform” philosophy, so that will require a major “come to Jesus” moment: “…tone down any rhetoric that implies that a typical teacher isn’t committed to doing right by her or his students…”

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    My muscle memory is forty-plus years gone, but I could swap out ten-round mags on an M16/AR15/M14/M1Carbine in about a second and a half, make it two seconds due to age. Of course, we didn’t have ten-round mags. We had twenty-round mags and of the millions and millions manufactured for the military, about a bazillion are out amongst the civilian world.
    The Columbine shooters had bags of ten-round mags and didn’t seem all that handicapped. Lucky for us their piece de resistance, a propane bomb, didn’t go off.
    Locking up weird loners, “crazy white boys” is going to run into civil liberties and the “who are we to judge” school of diagnosis which started in the Seventies.
    Cops are too expensive.
    CCW folks; teachers, vendors, custodians, parents, will be the fallback position after the cops in school idea validates the armed good guy concept but which we can’t afford.
    There is a possibility–based on his position and his wounds– that one of the dead at Va Tech tried to rush the shooter. Fortunately, he wasn’t armed or somebody might have been hurt.
    Piling unarmed bods on a shooter is kind of a tough call. After all, it requires all that macho stuff we’ve been working so hard to delegitimize.

  4. Cardinal Fang says:

    I’m skeptical that 1 of 190 people is a psychopath. I also wonder about the high school career of the Newtown shooter– have we seen anything that suggests he was violent then? I’m wary of spreading a net so wide it imprisons a lot off non-violent weird people.

    • Cardinal, see the 5/13/12 NYT piece by Jennifer Kahn about young psychopaths. It says 1 in 100. That seems about right to me.

      If the disease can’t be cured, then it’s rational to institutionalize these people. Call it “therapy” if need be, but do it. Because psychopaths will do evil –it’s in their DNA.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        How about locking up HIV-positive people who won’t use protection? METAPHOR ALERT!
        See, thing is, we can’t do it.

    • Since the 70s, we have gone in the opposite direction, such that the mentally ill are living on the streets (along with the cognitively handicapped and the drug/alcohol addicts). I’m not sure that represents real progress. Some people are unable to make rational decisions, due to their various conditions.

      It should be possible for a psychiatrist to commit patients for a month or so, in order that they may be fully evaluated and appropriate therapy (including but not limited to medications) be begun and its effectiveness evaluated thoroughly. I think that the current psych hold (without tons of paperwork, legal wrangling and time) is not more than 72 hours. Obviously, in the Newtown case, even that was apparently not possible. I think there is also a pretty well-established link between certain childhood behaviors, the onset and continuation of puberty and dangerous behaviors (including to self). Right now, heads are firmly in the sand on this issue.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        momof4. Been a while since I got my psych BA–needed a degree for OCS–but if things haven’t changed, we’ll be locking up a bunch of guys who wouldn’t swat a fly. Cause you can’t tell the diff. We have enough trouble locking up people who do damage others and are proven so in court. Locking up a crazy white boy because he does video games in his mother’s basement and has a sketchy DNA is going to drive the civil libertarians nuts. Or, no. Not if it’s white guys who like guns. No problema.
        Fortunately, they’re almost all guys, because disparate impact doesn’t count when they’re mostly guys. Imagine if they were mostly women and were getting locked up on the say so of a jumped-up witch doctor.
        See “Titticut Follies”.

        • I wasn’t suggesting that all of the homeless/formerly institutionalized should be re-institutionalized; I was just pointing out how far the pendulum has swung. I am in favor of involuntary committment, as I outlined, for long enough to determine whether or not people present a danger (particularly) to others. It takes time to evaluate, start treatment, evaluate treatment (wash, rinse, repeat as necessary) – and some will need permanent commitment.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        One of the big problems with locking people up pre-emptively is that the Rosenhan experiment:

        This causes the more skeptical to worry that we’ll lock up a bunch of okay folks.

        Then there is potential political abuse of this:

        I think pre-emptively locking people up is going to be a difficult sell … and difficult to pull off without locking up lots of people who *wouldn’t* have turned out violent.

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          Mark. I’d read the Rosenhan experiment years ago. I’d forgotten some of the details. I think the patients who spotted the imposters told them that acting sane was considered a “flight to normalcy” validating the shrinks’ diagnoses.

          • I think the Salem witch trials had a similar means of establishing guilt.

            It certainly is comforting to see how far we’ve come since then.

  5. Cardinal Fang says:

    From what I’ve read, most mass shooters aren’t psychopaths. Some are, like one of the Columbine shooters and the VA Tech shooter. But most are not: they are angry, suicidal depressives. Depression can be treated.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Cardinal. It’s been reported that the Secret Service discovered, some shootings back, that all of these guys were nuts. Not just depressed. Circutry messed up. Psychopaths aren’t going to shoot up schools, because it doesn’t do them any good. Unless they have something else wrong with them they think shooting would help, in which case the psychopathy has removed the usual motivations not to do that stuff. Loughner, Holmes, Lanza, all cuckooclock time. Loughner was so obviously nuts that people have wondered if his mom’s employment at the sheriff’s office was responsible for his not being involuntarily committed.

  6. Homeschool. Compulsory institutionalized schooling guarantees a poor fit between the curriculum and the individual student’s interests and abilities. Schools cause mental illness and crime.

    Hyman and Penroe,
    Journal of School Psychology.

    Several studies of maltreatment by teachers suggest that school children report traumatic symptoms that are similar whether the traumatic event was physical or verbal abuse (Hyman,,1988; Krugman & Krugman, 1984; Lambert, 1990). Extrapolation from these studies suggests that psychological maltreatment of school children, especially those who are poor, is fairly widespread in the United States….”
    “In the early 1980s, while the senior author was involved in a school violence project, an informal survey of a random group of inner city high school students was conducted. When asked why they misbehaved in school, the most common response was that they wanted to get back at teachers who put them down, did not care about them, or showed disrespect for them, their families, or their culture….”
    “…schools do not encourage research
    regarding possible emotional maltreatment of students by staff or investigatiion into how this behavior might affect student misbehavior….”
    “…Since these studies focused on teacher-induced PTSD and explored all types of teacher maltreatment, some of the aggressive feelings were also caused by physical or sexual abuse. There was no attempt to separate actual aggression from feelings of aggression. The results indicated that at least 1% to 2% of the respondents’ symptoms were sufficient for a diagnosis of PTSD. It is known that when this disorder develops as a result of interpersonal violence, externalizing symptoms are often the result (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).”
    “While 1% to 2% might not seem to be a large percentage of a school-aged population, in a system like New York City, this would be about 10,000 children so traumatized by educators that they may suffer serious, and sometimes lifelong
    emotional problems (Hyman, 1990; Hyman, Zelikoff & Clarke, 1988). A good percentage of these students develop angry and aggressive responses as a result. Yet, emotional abuse and its relation to misbehavior in schools receives little pedagogical, psychological, or legal attention and is rarely mentioned in textbooks on school discipline (Pokalo & Hyman, 1993, Sarno, 1992).”
    “As with corporal punishment, the frequency of emotional maltreatment in schools is too often a function of the socioeconomic status (SES) of the student population (Hyman, 1990).

    Clive Harber
    “Schooling as Violence”
    Educatioinal Review p. 10, V. 54, #1.

    .It is almost certainly more damaging for children to be in school than to out of it. Children whose days are spent herding animals rather than sitting in a classroom at least develop skills of problem solving and independence while the supposedly luckier ones in school are stunted in their mental, physical, and emotional development by being rendered pasive, and by having to spend hours each day in a crowded classroom under the control of an adult who punishes them for any normal level of activity such as moving or speaking.

    Furthermore, according to a report for UNESCO, cited in Esteve (2000), the increasing level of pupil-teacher and pupil-pupil violence in classrooms is directly connected with compulsory schooling. The report argues that institutional violence against pupils who are obliged to attend daily at an educational centre until 16 or 18 years of age increases the frustration of these students to a level where they externalise it.

  7. lightly seasoned says:

    Speaking from direct experience, it is VERY hard to get someone institutionalized for evaluation even when they have posed a direct threat to a school. Obviously all (or even most) patients with psychosis are not violent, but all of them would probably do much, much better if their treatment were better available and monitored.

  8. palisadesk says:

    “Homeschool. Compulsory institutionalized schooling guarantees a poor fit between the curriculum and the individual student’s interests and abilities”

    But Adam Lanza WAS homeschooled.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Adam Lanza was a poor fit for the world as we know it.
      What boggles my holiday mind is that mom took him shooting to bond with him and help him one way or another. Why not horseback riding? Hiking in CT’s beautiful hills? Tennis? Guns, for a guy like this????

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      He graduated from high school early and was “homeschooled” for two years. He attended elementary, middle, and two years of high school.

  9. GEORGE LARSON says:

    My worry is each violent incident inflames the desire to make the schools safe by making them more prison like with “guards” and barriers to entry and movement. If the trend continues it will encourage the wrong kind of people to become teachers and give parents another reason to remove their children from the public schools.

  10. Cardinal Fang says:

    “It’s been reported that the Secret Service discovered, some shootings back, that all of these guys were nuts. Not just depressed. Circuitry messed up. ” Interesting. I have heard exactly the opposite interpretation of those studies, namely that while a small minority of shooters are “crazy” in the sense of delusional (VA Tech, Tucson) and a small minority of shooters are sadistic psychopaths (Klebold), most are angry depressives.

    I think we’ll all agree that anyone who shoots up a school is de facto mentally ill.

    • Cardinal Fang says:

      Oops, I meant to say the other Columbine killer, Harris, was the psychopath and Klebold the angry depressive.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      The problem is not that you-gotta-be-crazy-to-do-that, but previously obvious serious mental illness.

  11. Cardinal Fang says:

    Have we heard anything about the Newtown shooter about previous serious mental illness that would have made people fear he would be violent? I’ve heard that he was shy and weird, and perhaps had Aspergers. None of those are reasons to expect that someone will become a mass murderer.

    As an aside, though it may be just terminology, I don’t think autism/Aspergers is usefully termed “mental illness,” any more than Downs is a mental illness. Both are disabilities, and serious conditions you’d rather not have, but that does not make them “illness,” a term that suggests they are somehow separable from the person, that you can think about the version of the person with Downs or Aspergers that doesn’t have the “illness.” That doesn’t work: if a person with Downs didn’t have Downs, s/he would be a completely different person. Same with Aspergers.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Cardinal Fang, According to press reports – and I’m not sure how accurate those are – Adam Lanza was taking Fanapt which is an anti-psychotic most commonly prescribed to schizophrenics. And, his mother was in the process of completing the paperwork to get custody/guardianship over him and was looking into committing him to some type of facility. Again, I’m not sure how accurate these reports are. The press was notoriously inaccurate in reporting on both Columbine and Jared Latner. Time will probably shed some light.

  12. The comparison that an armed security officer is one less salary that can be spent on a reading teacher is a false comparison. If the students at Sandy Hook had died in a school fire, we would not hesitate to review building codes, alarm systems, fire evacuation procedures. But it was a shooter who took those kids and brave teachers lives, so, ho hum, can afford to do anything about it, status quo continues. We have been able to spend money on effective fire safety at schools – no deaths from a school fire in over 50 years, and education budgets have still gone up and more resources are going into education now. Either teachers and administrators who are willing to get their training and license to carry are allowed to be armed, or we need to invest in an on site security team who is armed. Otherwise our children will just continue, no matter the slight odds this could happen at your kid’s school, to be in danger from increasing body counts.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      I recall my earliest school days, sometime in the Fifties, in a school built before WW II. With the exception of the posters on the wall, I don’t recall anything flammable in the building at all. You would have to work really hard to set a school building on fire, the kind of fire that sustains itself and spreads. Desks and tables can burn, but only if they are in a pile. Wood burns, in the sense that it sustains a fire, or it can be burned if it is put in a fire of something else. Separated desks and tables….
      Point is, the work on making schools fire resistant is at least two thirds of a century old. Anything done today is eyewash. Paint which doesn’t emit toxins in the rare case it is burned might be an issue, but when there isn’t going to be a fire, it doesn’t matter.
      Most schools, it’s right or left out the classroom door and only one more turn to get out of the school and there are always two choices.
      This is different. It’s $40k, probably, counting benefits and Social Security and work comp and what not. And in high schools you have folks showing up before dawn and clubs and other activities until nine at night.
      Probably going to need one and a half job slots, call it $60k a year. And the armed guard is the first target if the shooter has half a brain, and most of them seem to be particularly good planners.
      CCW. For staff, parents and vendors visiting. Don’t make an armed, CCW-trained asset leave his gun at home when he shows up to drop off his kid’s lunch.

      • I haven’t heard it mentioned anywhere, but there are also tasers.

        • Terrorists have acquired psychopathy. We don’t say, “Let them run loose and put armed guards everywhere”; we arrest them (or assassinate them) because they are a threat to civil society. Why should we balk at isolating those with INNATE, or natural, psychopathy?

          • Richard Aubrey says:

            Ponderosa. The Sovs did a good deal of that, and with people who were even more of a threat to the established order.
            I think we have a lot more guards. The local, small town Soc. Scty office has one, been required since 9-11. But we don’t actually have terrorists. Ft. Hood was workplace violence and the recent bombing of a Soc Scty office in AZ by a guy on the terr watch list went down the memory hole PDQ.
            Isolating every psychopath would be a problem, since it’s not psychopaths who do this, but crazy white boys who may be psychopaths, or something else.
            And it’s not nice to call terrorists psychopathic. They might be somebody else’s freedom fighter. Or just mixed up in religion.