Wednesday morning I found myself sitting in a coffee shop working on my upcoming book. CNN was playing on a TV in the background and I was ignoring it until something caught my attention: the word Pittsburgh. I looked up to a scene that took my breath away. Cameras were capturing the outside of a school, surrounded by cars and buses. The headline read “Stabbing spree in Pittsburgh area school.” The first thing I thought was “No, not again.” I flashed back to that day in April, 1999 when the city of Columbine, Colorado became famous for the worst possible reason. I was a senior in high school at the time and my school was put on lock down. The nation was in shock and no one knew what to say or do.
I felt that shock again Wednesday morning as I saw a similar tragedy striking a community so close to my home. I since learned that at least one of my college students lives in the area and has friends and family who were in the school that day. I have experienced every possible emotion in the past few days. Sadness. Anger. Gratitude that he didn’t have a gun.
There is still so much that we don’t know about this incident, about what motivated 16-year-old Alex Hribal to enter the school with two kitchen knives and stab 20 of his fellow students and one teacher. But as I saw the events unfold I couldn’t help but wonder if this experience was another in a long and terrible line of tragedies in which bullying and pressure to conform to strict norms of masculinity explode into unthinkable violence.
Ironically, the book I am working on is about identity-based bullying which includes any form of bullying related to a child’s social identity or perceived identity. One of the things that I discuss in the book is the fact that identity-based bullying has not received enough attention, despite some severe outcomes associated with it. In her book, The bully society: School shootings and the crisis of bullying in America’s schools, Klein examines the evidence surrounding numerous incidents of school shootings. She found that most of these were committed by young men who had been bullied because they were perceived to not be “masculine” enough. They decided to seek out revenge in a hyper-masculine way—by committing acts of serious aggression and violence.
We don’t yet know what Alex’s experience was in his school or why he brought those knives that day. But even the little information that we do have makes me wonder. One radio report on Thursday morning included a quote from a student at the school who said that Alex was “teased regularly”. Other reports have included descriptions of Alex as “shy, quiet, and without many friends.” Some have begun to question whether bullying may have been the motive. Maybe we will learn that Alex does not fit the trend that Klein and others have described. But we need to ask the question. Asking questions about the role of bullying and masculinity is not about diminishing the responsibility of the perpetrators or blaming the victims. And it is not about creating an artificially simplistic explanation for an act that is so hard to understand. Many kids experience bullying—in fact staggering numbers of kids, especially those who do not conform to stereotypes about gender—and do not respond with violence against others. Some struggle with depression or anxiety, some engage in self-destructive coping strategies, and some commit suicide. Others manage to be resilient in the face of teasing and exclusion. But if we are truly interested in preventing future tragedies that mirror this one, we must be willing to connect the dots. We must examine the ways in which our society constructs masculinity and the pressure that is placed on so many young men (often in the form of bullying) to conform to that construction. We must be willing to examine why and how we build expectations for men to engage in violence and be “tough” no matter the cost.
I have cried when listening to the reports. I have cried tears of sadness and tears of anger. Tears for those who have lost friends and family in such violent incidents. And tears for all the men in our society who are told that they are not allowed to cry. When are we going to say that enough is enough? How many times must this scene be repeated before we commit to making real change? When will we decide as a society to no longer tolerate the violence and aggression that occurs in schools EVERY SINGLE DAY?
We all have a stake in this game and we all have the power to make change. We can question limiting gender role norms and become more aware of the ways we reinforce them in our lives. We can get involved with groups that seek to end bullying and harassment in schools (like GLSEN) and learn more about campaigns challenging restrictive gender norms (The Representation Project). We can talk to the children in our lives about bullying. We can send our love, thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families at Franklin Regional High School. We can be brave enough to ask the hard questions, to have the challenging conversations, and to take responsibility to make change happen.
Jack Johnson wrote the song “Cookie Jar” following the school shooting in Columbine. The words continue to ring true.
It was you, it was me, it was every man.
Let's demand something better.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.