Jonathan Zimmerman: American schools were always violent

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," which was published in July by Yale University Press.]

Four boys assault their teacher, who later dies of her injuries. Across the country, newspapers compete to unearth the most lurid details of the episode. It seems the boys were annoyed at being detained after school.

So they threw rocks and other debris at the screaming teacher, until she couldn't scream anymore.

A modern-day example of inner-city youth violence? Hardly. It happened in the small town of Canton, Mass. - in 1870.

I thought of the Canton tragedy as I watched Attorney General Eric Holder at last week's news conference about youth violence in Chicago. Standing beside Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the former schools chief in Chicago, Holder expressed outrage at the recent murder of 16-year-old Derrion Albert as he walked home from school. Holder called for a return to America's "old-time" values.

But school violence is itself a time-honored American tradition, dating to the very dawn of the Republic. Despite our nostalgia for the good old days, America's schools have always been disorderly and violent places. By pretending otherwise, we might miss what is truly new - and truly troubling - about present-day violence.

In the one-room schools of the 19th century, older boys faced off against their teachers in a brutal struggle for control. When the "big boys" got out of hand, teachers hit them with sticks, rulers, and paddles. Sometimes teachers drew blood; in rare cases, they caused permanent injuries.

In his first piece of published fiction, in 1841, Walt Whitman describes a vicious schoolteacher who kills a boy by flogging him. Whitman's title told the whole story: "Death in the School Room (A FACT)".

But the boys fought back, too. In New Hampshire, they ripped the ruler from a violent schoolmaster's hand and threw him down an icy hillside; in Virginia, they bound a teacher hand and foot; and in Georgia, they chased a drunken teacher into the woods and covered him up with leaves.

"Such life-and-death struggles are as inseparably associated with the little red schoolhouse as they are with the ruins of the Roman amphitheater," one educator wrote in 1894. "As the early Christians were stretched over slow fires, and stung to death by bees, and torn to pieces by wild beasts, so the young man beginning a term in a new school expected to be tormented by older boys."

In the 20th century, as larger institutions came to replace the one-room schoolhouse, more and more "older boys" attended high schools. School violence changed, too. Clustered with peers of their own age, teenagers typically fought each other rather than their teachers.

By the 1950s, they had formed gangs. Bands of working-class "toughs" or "hoods" roamed school corridors and parking lots, bullying the weak and defacing property. Most of all, they attacked one another. Across urban America, gangs "rumbled" with knives, brass knuckles, and sawed-off baseball bats.

School violence would spike in the 1960s and early '70s, echoing the overall rise of crime in American society. Increasingly, though, it involved guns. By 1991, 26 percent of high school students reported that they had brought a weapon to school in the previous 30 days; of those, about a third said they had carried a gun.

Contrary to public perceptions, most forms of school violence have decreased since the 1990s. So has the reported carrying of weapons, to about 18 percent of high school students. But roughly a third of those still carry guns, which remain the most common cause of youth homicide in America.

And when it comes to guns, the White House has dragged its feet. Although President Obama promised during the 2008 campaign to restore the ban on assault weapons, he hasn't done so yet. Nor has the administration moved to close the loophole that allows people to purchase arms at gun shows without background checks.

Such reforms would do little by themselves to reduce school violence, which involves handguns more often than it does rifles. Symbolically, however, the gun measures would show that the White House takes the issue seriously.

So would a frank admission that most of the kids who die in or near schools are victims of gun violence, not just of "school violence" in general.

In this sense, Derrion Albert was an exception: Caught between rival gangs, he was beaten to death with wooden planks. The killing was captured on cell-phone video and posted on the Internet, where thousands have watched it.

Historically, however, this case could obscure a larger truth: We've always had school violence, and we've had youth gangs for a long time, too. The new factor is gun possession, plain and simple. Nothing will change until we're honest about that.

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Michael Calder - 10/24/2009

Nice try. I grew up and attended schools in a suburb of San Francisco. No one ever disrespected the teacher and fights were rare. Today, I teach in a school district where only ten percent of the students are caucasian. It's hell. Fifty percent of first year teachers resign within five years. And yes i have taught in schools that are primarily anglo, asian and jewish. It was like dying and going to heaven. The students were respectful, intelligent and well behaved. So don't try to pretend the caucasian students are just as bad as the non caucasians. Just get a teacher friend drunk and ask him to tell you the truth. If you can stand the truth.

vaughn davis bornet - 10/19/2009

Over tea, my wife observes that in early 1930s Susanville, CA, the idea of school violence was completely foreign Her mother was a 25 year first grade teacher, for what that's worth.

I forgot an episode in large Lower Merion Jr. High: When the principal yelled for quiet (so he could announce something in the auditorium), I tooted my cornet just once too often. He pegged a heavy keyring and metal whistle say fifty feet and hit me squarely on the head. I went down and, briefly, out.

Surely I would remember recriminations and reports, etc., but I really don't think there was any aftermath at all!

Vaughn Davis Bornet

vaughn davis bornet - 10/19/2009

A good article on a timely subject.

I know practically nothing about the history of our public schools.

That said, a few remarks:

In my eight room school in Bala Cynwyd I recall no violence nor any talk of violence. Ditto my large Lower Merion Junior High (includes Narberth). Or Ida M. Fisher H.S. in Miami Beach. 1923-35.

Lots of violence, I'll bet, in parts of Philadelphia and Camden.... And some parts of Dade County, Fla. Was it "common"?

I miss geographic discrimination in the essay (Northwest vs. NYC etc.) I miss urban/rural. Inside male groups, female groups.

If I were lecturing as a guest in, say, Munich or Paris, would I stress violence in American public school history? I'm afraid not. I don't see a prima facae case, really, based solely on the teaching activity. That is, I would expect an adult male teacher to get involved with adult male students reasonably often without really engaging the whole school population. Inevitable.

How about dropouts as causation for disputation in the public school world, as they hung around schoolgrounds and "made trouble"?

Can a nation with never-ending immigrant streams feeding the school ever have a placid school system--or expect to have one?

Anyway, thanks for stirring up my interest. I taught lots of elementary school teachers in graduate programs in my day, but hardly ever visited such schools, even for an hour or two. (That's the way we do things, in some matters.)

Vaughn Davis Bornet, Ph.D. (History) Ashland, Oregon

Maybe if I read the book (worthwhile, I'm sure), I'd change my tune