Statistics show that mass shootings in the United States have already killed 344 people so far this year. South Africa’s context of violence provides a susceptible climate for similar incidents. Mark Potterton draws on research into school violence to propose ways in which schools can create a safer environment for pupils.
In 2019, two mass shootings in the United States within a 24-hour period made headlines in South Africa. The first attack on a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas left 20 people dead and 9 died in another when a shooter opened fire in downtown Dayton, Ohio less than 13 hours later.
Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research group that tracks shootings and their characteristics in the United States, defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people, excluding the perpetrator(s), are shot in one location at roughly the same time. Between 1 January and 3 September 2020, there have been 419 shootings in the United States that fit this criterion, resulting in 344 deaths and 1,764 injuries. The American public is momentarily shocked when these shootings happen and calls for gun control temporarily increase, but these incidents are soon forgotten.
South Africans also seem to be unmoved by violence. Ours is a violent society in which the news regularly report on gruesome and senseless murders. Excessive violence also extends to law enforcement. In late August, police shot and killed a disabled boy, Nathaniel Julies, in Eldorado Park while responding to local protests. The community is seeking justice for this latest killing.
Violence spills over into schools and in 2017 researchers Lamb and Warton showed that many pupils experienced violence during school hours, in after-school programmes, and on their way to and from school. School violence creates fear and prevents young people from accessing and fully benefiting from their schooling opportunities. School violence can have physical, emotional, psycho-social and academic repercussions, according to a UNESCO study.
We all need to be taking a stand against violence. Although we have not had mass shootings like the ones in the United States, we should not assume that they will not happen here. These incidents do not happen in isolation but are a symptom of pervasive violence that is a part of the social fabric of our society.
Violence in schools mirrors society
The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation reported in June that violent community crime is threatening to turn South Africa’s public schools into war zones. Violence in schools is on the rise. An Optimus study of school violence also showed that young people were still being exposed to excessive violence.
In 2006, the then Minister of Safety and Security had declared certain areas, such as schools, as firearm-free zones and the South African Police Department in collaboration with schools began implementing the law. The minimum age for gun ownership was also increased from 16 to 18.
Gun policies are a good starting point for managing the gun ownership and keeping them out of the hands of criminals, but it remains easy for under-18s to get a gun. Knives and other weapons are even more accessible.
In 2008, Morné Harmse, a Matric pupil in Krugersdorp, killed another pupil by slashing his throat using a samurai sword. He wounded another pupil and two of the support staff at the school. Newspapers reported that Satan told Harmse to commit these crimes. One newspaper reported that he had been bullied at school and that he had low self-esteem because he was physically smaller than his peers.. Another report said that he had discussed with his friends how he would go about perpetrating a Columbine-type of massacre at the school and yet another blamed the influence of a Satanic heavy metal rock band.
Multiple factors contribute to violent acts
Satanism, bullying, poor self-esteem, heavy metal music, copycat action, and behaviour change were all blamed for the killing. But exactly what triggers this kind of extreme violence?
Harvard Researcher Katherine Newman and her colleagues carried out over a hundred interviews with victims, bystanders and perpetrators after a wave of mass shootings in the United States. They reviewed various hypotheses that had been put forward to explain these shootings: 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 et al developed a theory that five necessary, but not sufficient, factors were present in the rampage shootings. These can also be applied in the Krugersdorp stabbing case.
The first factor is that the perpetrator perceives him or herself as being on the periphery of the social group. Bullying, exclusion and isolation and other differences fuel this self-narrative. The second factor is that perpetrators suffer from psychosocial problems that magnify alienation. Severe depression, abuse, mental illness and other vulnerabilities reduce resilience.
A third factor is cultural scripts, which provide models for solving problems, such as killing peers and teachers resolve problems. The fourth factor — one which I will come back to — is the school’s failure to notice that something is wrong and that a child requires closer attention. In some cases, the United States perpetrators gave some sort of signal of what was going to happen. The fifth factor is the ease with which perpetrators can access weapons.
Strategies to prevent violence in schools
In a society in which violence has become endemic, schools need to offer alternative strategies for dealing with conflict. This starts with abolishing practices that foster violence. Corporal punishment — which teaches children the values of degradation, force and humiliation — and intimidation by teachers and school leaders must be eliminated. Discipline is best enforced privately, and schools should avoid humiliating pupils publicly.
Teaching and learning need to be central in schools, particularly because performance is a measure of self-worth for most pupils. Schools need to ensure that teaching time is used effectively, and that pupils of all abilities are engaged in the classroom. Each pupil needs to be assisted to achieve the best he or she can. Students need to experience a sense of accomplishment and their efforts need to be recognised and rewarded.
Teachers need to be vigilant and monitor pupil behaviour and act when they observe behavioural changes. Adult supervision of pupils is paramount to increasing safety at school. Teaching staff need to take an active interest and ensure that safety is a priority by being visible in high-risk areas. If drugs and weapons are a serious problem, then the school needs to conduct regular unannounced searches.
From a policy perspective, school policies must ensure that the safety of pupils is paramount and that all stakeholders are engaged in creating a safe school community. The classroom is an important place to teach pupils how to deal with conflict by involving them in problem-solving and violence prevention wherever possible. We cannot expect pupils to solve their problems on their own when they often lack the skills to do so.
It is difficult to predict where and when the next school massacre will happen. The South African context of violence, coupled with the violence that already occurs in our schools, continues to provide a fertile ground for school violence. But we can take proactive measures to prevent a Columbine-style massacre in South Africa.