Can school mass shootings also happen in South Africa?

(Original article: Mark Potterton, Business Day Live, Nov. 18, 2015)

THE American public was momentarily shocked when a student opened fire, killing nine people and injuring nine others in a rural Oregon College. A New York Times investigation found that the shooter, Christopher Harper Mercer, was in the army for one month in 2008, but was discharged before completing basic training. In 2009, he graduated from a learning centre that teaches students with learning disabilities and emotional issues. Yet before the shooting on October 1 he owned 14 firearms, all bought legally through a licensed firearms dealer.

Two weeks ago one person was killed and three injured in a shooting at Northern Arizona University. Later that morning a shooting at a student complex near Texas Southern University left another person dead.

As recently as June this year Dylann Roof (21) shot and killed nine people inside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina. Eight people died at the scene; a ninth died in hospital. After his arrest he confessed and claimed that he wanted to start a race war.

Can mass shootings such as the ones experienced in the US happen in SA? The reality in SA is that violence already is a pervasive part of the fabric of our society. Recent newspaper articles caution that violent crime is threatening to turn public schools into war zones. News reports have also alerted us to the apparent rise in violence in schools. A 2012 national survey of 5,939 young people found that 22.2% of South African youth had experienced violence while at school in the 12 months between August 2011 and August 2012. That translates to one in five pupils in high schools!

In a 2006 South African Psychiatry Review article Prof Ronnie Casella and I observed that the then minister of safety and security had been able to declare certain areas, such as schools, firearm-free zones and the South African Police Service, in collaboration with schools, had begun implementing the law. The age of a person who is permitted to own a gun was raised from 16 to 18. However, while gun policies associated with the Firearms Control Act are important in managing the ownership of guns and can help in keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, it remains easy for many youths — even those under the legal age for gun ownership — to get guns. A survey exploring young people’s access to firearms showed that about a quarter of the respondents in Gauteng said that it would be very easy for them to obtain firearms from their homes. Knives and other weapons were even more accessible.

In 2008, Morné Harmse, a final-year Krugersdorp High School pupil, killed another pupil by slashing his throat using a samurai sword. He then went on to wound another pupil and two of the support staff at the school. According to media reports a number of factors were blamed for the killing: Satanism, bullying, poor self-esteem, heavy metal music, copycat action, and behaviour change. But exactly what triggers this kind of extreme violence?

Harvard researcher Katherine Newman and her colleagues carried out more than 100 interviews with victims, bystanders and perpetrators after a wave of mass shootings. They reviewed the various hypotheses that had been put forward to explain these shootings, including media violence, bullying, gun culture, family problems, mental illness, peer relations, demographic change, a culture of violence and copycatting. Their conclusion was that most of these hypotheses contained an element of truth, but that one factor was not enough, and that a combination of factors acted as a trigger.

Newman and associates developed a theory and proposed that five necessary, but not sufficient factors needed to be present in rampage shootings. These can also be applied in the Krugersdorp stabbing case.

The first factor is the perpetrator’s perception of himself as being on the periphery of the social group. Elements such as bullying, exclusion and isolation, being different and on the fringe, underpin this factor.

The second factor is that perpetrators suffer from psychosocial problems that magnify alienation. Severe depression, abuse, mental illness and other vulnerabilities reduce resilience.

The third factor is cultural scripts. These scripts provide models for solving problems, such as killing peers and teachers to resolve problems.

The fourth factor, and the one I choose to focus on later, is the failure of the school to notice that things are not going well and that a child requires closer attention. In some cases the US perpetrators gave some sort of signal of what was going to happen.

The fifth factor is the ease with which perpetrators can access guns or, in the Krugersdorp case, a sword.

Low-level violence has become endemic in South African society, and schools need to offer an alternative way to deal with conflict.

From a school perspective we need to immediately do away with many of the practices that foster violence. Corporal punishment, which teaches children the values of degradation, force and humiliation, has to be completely eliminated. Intimidation by leaders and teachers also needs to be avoided in school situations. Discipline is best done privately, and schools should avoid humiliating pupils publicly.

Teaching and learning need to be central in schools, particularly since performance is a measure of self-worth for most pupils. Schools need to make sure that teaching time is used effectively, and that pupils of all abilities are engaged in classrooms. Each pupil needs to be assisted to achieve the best he or she can. Each pupil needs to experience a sense of accomplishment and his or her efforts need to be recognised and rewarded. Teachers need to be vigilant and monitor pupil behaviour. If there is a change in the way in which a pupil behaves then they ought to do something about it.

School policies must ensure that the safety of pupils is ensured. Policies and codes of conduct that are developed collaboratively should be communicated and understood by everyone in the school community.

From a conflict resolution perspective, it is important to teach pupils how to deal with conflict when it arises. Schools should not just expect pupils to solve all their problems on their own, as if they have the means to do so. Rather, pupils should be involved in problem-solving and violence prevention wherever possible.

Schools need to ensure that there are adults to supervise pupils, and that these adults are visible in high-risk areas. These adults need to take an active interest and make sure safety is a real concern. If drugs and weapons are a serious problem, then the school needs to conduct regular, unannounced searches.

In the final analysis, it is difficult to predict where and when the next school massacre will happen. The South African context of violence, as well as the context of violence in schools, together with poor levels of pastoral surveillance, continues to provide a fertile ground for more school violence.

• Dr Potterton is the principal of Holy Family College, Parktown. His doctoral research was in the area of school violence

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