The Four R’s

U.S. schools used to be the known as home of the three R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic.

Now there’s a fourth R: rifles.

On Friday, yet another school shooting took place, this one at the Arapahoe High School in suburban Denver. The shooter, a high school student, walked into the school, armed with a shotgun and Molotov cocktails, firing indiscriminately. He critically injured another student before turning the weapon on himself.

Unfortunately, such incidents are no longer rare; they are becoming much like the other violent shooting incidents to which we are becoming inured as a nation. Every major violent gun incident predictably brings forth the gun-control advocates, clamoring for more restrictions on firearm ownership; the gun-rights activists roll out their own statistics, maintaining that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Just as predictably, the two groups neutralize each other with claims and counter-claims, as the incident recedes from public memory.

While we have more or less gotten used to pervasive gun violence, we can’t let apathy dull our sense of outrage to the plague of school shootings. Schools are the place where parents entrust our nation’s most valuable and vulnerable assets — our children —to learn the skills needed for a successful adulthood, to develop a thirst for learning, to become the next generation of citizens and leaders. Children should worry about math drills, not lockdown drills. A society that allows school violence to proliferate is a frightening harbinger of the kind of dysfunctional environment today’s children will have to live in as adults.

All kinds of solutions are being posited about how to confront this latest national difficulty: more security cameras, metal detectors, armed teachers, armed guards — even bullet-proof whiteboards so that teachers can use them as a defensive shield against a shooter.

These so-called solutions are anything but. They don’t address why our nation’s children resort to violence and to shooting up schools. They don’t answer why, 60 years ago, the serious student infractions were more on the order of skipping class or not turning in homework on time. What has changed?

Of course, there’s no one answer to this complex social problem, but there are some obvious clues. What has changed is the permissiveness with which parents expose their children to violence, and the level of violence to which the children are exposed.

One of the obvious solutions in eliminating violence in schools is to eliminate violence out of school — that is, to stop the endless barrage violence that bombards our nation’s children daily.

Sixty years ago, when children played games, they entertained themselves with Monopoly, Scrabble, chess, stickball. Contrast that with today, where children play on a host of different electronic video platforms and manufacturers pride themselves on providing simulations of violent crime that look as real as any broadcast. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that the hours children spend in playing these “games” has to lead to aggressive and even deadly behavior, but those who do dismiss the correlation of violent games and violent crime should take a look at experimental studies conducted by Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University.

Almost every study, Bushman found, supported the conclusion that violent video games increased the aggressive and negative feelings among participants, not only mentally, but also physiologically: blood pressure and heart rates increased. Essentially, gamers are living and participating in the violence they see on the screen. Video-game players also displayed less empathy for victims of violence.

Games are only one of the venues that immerse children in violence. There is violence in music lyrics, entertainment and books. And America’s public schools are becoming mirrors of the culture of virtual violence in which our children live.

No matter what gun-rights proponents say about the futility of gun control, no one can sanely argue that children and teens should have unrestricted access to guns. And so, another component of eliminating the plague of violence in schools is for parents to be vigilant in preventing teens from acquiring these weapons. Parents are ever-so-careful to make sure that a teen knows how to drive well enough not to damage the family car; they have to be equally vigilant to ensure that teens can’t get their hands on guns. In order to create that awareness, a national campaign is necessary, one that will advertise the importance of gun safety in the home. We have public service campaigns about buckling up, about distracted driving, about smoking. These campaigns have had tremendous success. Congress, through the National Ad Council, should initiate a similar campaign to illustrate the danger and carnage that could ensue should a child or teen have access to firearms.

America can’t start soon enough to reverse this pervasive culture of violence in children’s lives. It’s the birthright of all Amerian children to have a school environment in which they can learn, a school environment with freedom from fear.