Picking out the few bad apples
James Alan Fox and Jack Levin

 March 8, 2001

The latest episode of schoolyard bloodshed, this time at Santana High School, again raises concerns over missed opportunities for stopping a disgruntled student before he strikes. Already much of the attention has been on reports that friends of the gunman had apparently dismissed his talk of committing such an atrocity as nothing more than a joke.

If the response to the Santana High tragedy is anything like the hand-wringing following Columbine and other similar episodes, parents and politicians will likely call for efforts to identify the would-be perpetrators -- the "few bad apples" who are rotten to the core -- before they wreak havoc on their classmates. However, some important lessons on the ABCs of prediction may increase the chances for success.

Predicting violent behavior, especially in rare and extreme forms, is enormously difficult. In terms of the "few bad apples" theory, there are lots of apples that are not quite perfect in color, size or shape, but are fine just beneath the skin. There are lots of kids who look, act or dress like our image of the schoolyard shooter -- they might wear black trench coats, scary tattoos or gang headgear. Yet very few of them will translate their deviant adolescent attitudes into dangerous acts of violence. The few accurate predictions will be far outnumbered by the many "false positives."

Plus, an attempt to single out the potential troublemakers could do more harm than good, by stigmatizing, marginalizing and traumatizing already troubled youths. "Don't play with Johnnie -- he's a bad apple." Already ostracized and picked on by his peers, Johnnie will now sense that even the teachers and the administration are against him. The "bad apple" label could even become a self-fulfilling prophesy, encouraging doubly alienated children to act out violently.

Despite the limitations in predicting violence, a host of prediction tools has been widely disseminated in the wake of several episodes of school violence. The U.S. Department of Education sent to every public school in America a manual which highlights 16 warning signs of violence. This broad-ranging collection of red flags includes children who bully classmates as well as children who are bullied by their classmates. Another telltale sign warns of youngsters having low interest in academics. Just these three flags would capture significant shares of most middle and high school populations. In an attempt not to miss one potential troublemaker, the net widens to include nearly everyone.

The American Psychological Association, in conjunction with MTV, also produced a handy pamphlet of warning signs which is very much in demand. The National School Safety Center offers a similar checklist of 20 warning signs. School districts across America distributed these pocket guides, hoping that teachers would determine how their students measure up on these scales of violence proneness. Even the FBI got into the act by training educators in the craft of profiling potentially violent students.

Stressing how to identify characteristics of the individual troublemaker lets schools off the hook. By turning the problem into a lesson in abnormal psychology, the blame can be located outside of the school setting -- in a child's inadequate upbringing, in excessive exposure to violent media, in parental neglect and abuse (that is, bad apples not falling far from the tree). From this perspective, students have to change, not the schools.

To understand the course of events at Santana High, we should examine the student culture and school environment as closely as we scrutinize the perpetrator's personal background. A child who is bullied and teased may decide through violence to show his schoolmates that he is not as weak as they think. To children, the expectations and approval of peers can be all important, especially when adults are not around to supervise. The issue may not be one of a few bad apples, but of a poorly tended orchard.

The best approach to reducing the potential for violence through prediction involves making it possible for school personnel to get to know students as more than just nameless faces in a crowd. Like other sites of school shootings, Santana High enrolled close to 2,000 students. Reducing school size as well as the caseloads of teachers and guidance counselors would allow school personnel to observe even subtle issues, which cannot be easily determined from a simplistic checklist.

More important, our focus should not be on the potentially violent kid, but on the unhappy kid (although at times these may be one and the same). We should use warning signs, but to reach troubled youngsters, long before they become troublesome. If we wait until a student has murderous intentions and talks about murder -- jokingly or not -- we have waited much too long.

In whatever we do, we should borrow the physician's credo: do no harm. With the help of school personnel (who often spend more time with children than even parents), we can make a difference. Perhaps we ought to develop warning signs to identify dangerous school environments rather than dangerous students, and then get to work improving the climate for learning and for living.

 James Alan Fox and Jack Levin; Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice and Levin is the Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology, both at Northeastern University in Boston. They recently co-authored "The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder" (Allyn & Bacon, 2001).