There are reams of research on the causes of aggression and violence. We know that it’s a very complex behavior; that it can involve problems in child development; certain temperament or personality types; mental health issues; cognitive and learning dysfunctions; the society, and the social messages, that one is raised with; the people who are around you; traumas like bullying and cyberbullying; your social and emotional intelligence; the parents who raise you; and external factors, like substance or alcohol abuse. If you were to pile up every journal paper published on the causes of violence, you could probably fill a room.
Those of us who study aggressive and abusive behaviors are schooled in the identification of “risk factors,” though – not “causes” per se. Why? Because although we can demonstrate that risk factors are associated with violence, there doesn’t appear to be any solid “cause.”
If you get the chicken pox, there is a cause. The cause is the virus varicella-zoster. There are no cases of chicken pox where the varicella-zoster virus is absent.
But violence is different. While many of those who are violent have a history of aggression in their backgrounds, that factor – a history of violence – isn’t present in all people who are violent, and (even more importantly) it doesn’t lead reliably to future violence. Most people who grow up in violent families are not, actually, violent themselves. But a higher percentage of them are violent, compared to people who come from non-violent families. That’s why growing up in a violent family is a risk factor for violence – but not an absolute, direct cause.
I listed many of the other risk factors for violence above. But the truth is that even taken together – now, notice this part – we still cannot predict who will be violent and who won’t.
Enter Philip Chism, a reportedly mild-mannered, non-aggressive 14 year old who is accused of the senseless murder of a well-respected math teacher (Colleen Ritzer) in Danvers, Massachusetts. In the media frenzy, there’s no mention of a criminal record; a family record of serious violence or aggression; an aggressive personality type; or a history of alcohol or substance abuse. In a sense, it’s more emotionally satisfying when the warning signs of violence are obvious, even when we’ve missed them. But in cases where there may not be obvious danger signs, what can we do?
First, Philip Chism can begin to teach us more about violence. Perhaps he has a risk factor that hasn’t been identified before. Or, perhaps he did exhibit a warning sign, but we simply didn’t notice, in which case we can learn more about violence prevention. His existence is important. It may begin to help us identify, more reliably, the factors that really do cause violence.
In any case, for those of us in the education biz, last week was a hard week. I think of my students, many of whom want to become teachers. Two wonderful teachers have been lost to horrible violence, at the hands of the very children they had committed their lives to helping. What would they want us to do?