Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Violence on Campus

It's another Quarterback Truth-Telling Moment. What do you assume this post is going to be about? What current event comes to mind when you hear "violence on campus?" I'm guessing that, for those of you who have an answer, you're thinking about the murder of Annie Le, the Yale pharmacology graduate student. It's all over the news, with new suspicions and breaking stories several times a day. I blogged about it myself twice in one day this weekend.

Actually, the story that caught my attention this morning was the murder of Juan Carlos Rivera at about 9 AM at Coral Gables High School in Florida. I thought this would be big news, but it disappeared off the major news sites basically as fast as it appeared, and it made me wonder why. Why is the murder of Annie Le, and adult in a relatively large city, more newsworthy than that of Juan Carlos Rivera, a teenager in an suburban high school? In fact, the Internet community itself is debating a very similar question as we speak -- is the murder of Annie Le a big enough event to merit its own Wikipedia page, or is it just a flash in the pan.

My first hypothesis on this was that murder on college campuses is significantly less frequent than murder on K-12 campuses. A little rummaging turns up the fact that in 2004 (the most recent statistics I could find for both years) there were 15 homicides on college campuses in the United States, while in the 2003-2004 school year there were 22 homicides at K-12 schools. So yes, murder in a K-12 school is more rare, but not by much, and not when you consider that the total student population of colleges is significantly smaller than the student population of K-12 schools. This doesn't seem like the answer.

Part of the answer, I think, is that American society is quite captivated with weddings, what happens before weddings and what happens after them. The fact that Annie Le disappeared a few days before her wedding caught our attention, and once we were paying attention to the mystery, we weren't going to let it go. Part of the answer is probably also the mystique of an Ivy League College and an obviously bright victim.

Still, we as a society are usually really interested in school violence. The murder of Juan Carlos Rivera hit the national news this morning, I think, because it played to our deepest fears about our children's safety in school. The problem is that as soon as the press got more information about this murder, the victim suddenly didn't seem the innocent schoolchild we envision when we think about school violence. It turns out that Rivera was in a fight, reportedly over a girl, and the other student pulled out a box cutter and stabbed him. That defies our idea of what "school violence" is -- when we get scared about it, we get scared about random mass shootings and people from the outside coming in, not about fights.

More than that, though, we tend to have this idea that if someone is killed in a fight at a school, it must be at a school that is "used to" this kind of violence. While certainly there is more violence at some schools than at others, I don't think any school is "used to" students killing each other. Keep in mind, only about 20 kids in the whole country die this way each year. Violent death at a school where you work or study violates the generally true premise that school is a safe place and that the adults in a school can keep children safe. Keep in mind that children are twice as likely to be victims of a violent crime when they are not at school as they are at school.

Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, Juan Carlos Rivera is not the quintessential "sympathetic victim" our society rallies around. He is male. He appears to have been somewhat violent himself, at least today. And, yes, he is Latino. And our gut intuitions about some schools being "used to" violence pales in comparison to what we assume to be true of violence in Latino communities. Few would have such a thought consciously, but that underlying racist assumption is reinforced daily in popular culture. Consciously or not, the press began with "this is big, a student was killed at school" and quickly reverted to "it was a Latino boy in a fight, that's not news."

At the end of the day, the Le family and the Rivera family have empty seats at their tables. Whether one victim is "sympathetic" or "deserved it" is really an offensive question. Their families don't deserve to be without their children, period.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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