Jessie Klein: The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools
In The bully society, Jessie Klein presents one of the most comprehensive analyses of the reports of 166 school shootings over three decades. Despite the broad time period the book encompasses, the reports present many similarities. The perpetrators in these school violence incidents targeted other students who have called them names or rejected them; or they have retaliated for the perceived injustices related to discipline or academic assessments done to them. Commonly known as “bullying”, Klein attempts to share the stories of those who have been bullied or have witnessed bullying incidents to highlight the bullying issue that is facing today’s youth. Klein frames “bullying” as one of the most significant concerns among children today, and ultimately a predictor in school shootings.
Chapter 1 describes how children learn that status is everything and although race and class are typical indicators of power, conforming to gender expectations is vital. The chapter describes how students become the “gender police” and how the actions cause issues with status and power in schools (Klein 2012). A key point the author makes from this chapter is the perception of status is passed down from parents to the children. For example, in an adult society, higher socioeconomic groups associate with similar groups to maintain their high status and is mirrored in high schools where cliques prevent lower socioeconomic groups from associating with more affluent groups (Klein 2012, p. 20). Both of these examples perpetuate a closed society, but it affects students more in the high schools. It is to be expected that youth within these closed groups would find it easier to bully outsiders. Chapter 2 focuses on masculinity, white supremacy, and the relevance of the different types of masculinity to school shootings and violence. Boys are expected to be powerful and dominant and anything less or a weakness, sadness, or forms of dependence would provoke teasing and/or being attacked. The main point from the chapter is that, regardless of the type of masculinity, boys experience social pressure to achieve “hegemonic masculinity in the US culture” (Klein 2012, p. 53) and to prove themselves as dominant.
Klein incorporates the discussion of violence against girls in chapter 3. A key point in the chapter is that boys learn at a young age to be popular with the girls and how their masculinity can be exercised by exerting physical, emotional, or sexual control over them. In a number of the school shooting examples, Klein emphasizes that perpetrators specifically target girls who have rejected them and damaged their manhood (Klein 2012). This also applies to the discussion of sexual harassment and dating violence that is embedded in this chapter, for “girls and women who stay in abusive relationships are likely to continue being beaten, but those who leave are more likely to be killed” (Klein 2012, p. 59). Chapter 4 continues the discussion of masculinity from chapter 2 as it examines the fate of those who failed to meet the standards of masculinity and resultantly are labeled as gay in which gay bashing ensues. The basic premise of this chapter is that boys are expected to flaunt/brag about their sexual exploits with girls (flamboyant heterosexuality) and the failure to do so makes them vulnerable to harassment and assault by the gender police (Klein 2012). In contrast, chapter 5 focuses on girl bashing and how girls are judged by conventional standards (body type and attractiveness), pressuring them to be tough in today’s masculine society (Klein 2012). Consequently, they often use violence as a means to prove themselves, attributing to a higher incidence of violence among the female youth that occurs within every socioeconomic group.
As our society has become more technologically advanced, the focus of chapter 6 is on cyberbullying. Cyberbullying occurs through various domains including text messaging, Facebook, and email that can go viral and prolong and make more harmful the bullying that occurs (Klein 2012). The most significant point about this chapter is that these new technological avenues have created a challenge to those who have an interest in interventions because the bullying that occurred in their days was much different both in type and the method to which it was administered through. Chapters 7 and 8 explore adult bullies and the bully economy. Klein suggests in chapter 7 that parents are so used to bullying behavior that they do not see it when it occurs and attributes it to “boys being boys” and look the other way. Parents, teachers and administrators have an influence on the school culture and what transpires within and in some instances, actually may be the perpetrators of the bullying that victims experience (Klein 2012). The focus in chapter 8 discusses how we continue to feed into bullying by reinforcing the status through the purchase of superficial things that makes the status exclusive. This type of behavior is learned and internalized by our youth and repeated in a generational transmission to their children, further reinforcing the socioeconomic disparity and providing a venue for future bullying to occur.
In chapter 9, the author incorporates an international perspective into the bullying context. Klein explores the differences between schools in the United States and European or Nordic countries. American schools in the masculine society use punitive policies aimed at security and punishment to respond to violence that reinforces the frustration of peers and the larger society. In contrast, European schools use more feminine approaches and focus on community-oriented policies including relationship building and focus on building peaceful school communities (Klein 2012). It is apparent throughout the discussion of the chapter that more feminine interventions aimed at creating compassionate communities within schools can be an effective measure in reducing the violence. This theme carries into chapter 10 where Klein explores ways to improve the school environment and how schools can be an integral part of this environment by instilling successful programs that create kinder schools and cyberspaces. The key point of this chapter is that “transformation of the bully society will require universal social and economic change in perceptions, attitudes and behaviors” (Klein 2012, p. 205). Klein suggests that school systems can be a safe haven where the learning takes place and inspires students to become leaders and create peaceful environments but it will be the responsibility of the parents to reinforce this learning by engaging in a transformational shift (Klein 2012).
The book has many strengths. Klein draws on her experience as a social worker and interweaves examples of other violent incidents within the topical sections of each chapter. The subheadings within each chapter provide a smooth transition into the next section and sometimes were incorporated with the theories of notable sociologists and other theorists. These approaches add to the richness of the individual accounts because an explanation using theory usually follows. Another asset of the book was the diverse and comprehensive methodology. Klein uses the interviews of working class, wealthy, and middle-class families from rural, inner-city and suburban communities. Most of the interviewees were white, but youth from other ethnic backgrounds were incorporated in the study. Additional interviews of teachers and related professionals allowed for an examination of the types of bully cultures that were evident in their schools when they were younger (Klein 2012). As such, her book makes an important contribution to emerging research that looks at the multiple contexts that contribute to bullying (families, communities and schools themselves, see Farmer et al. 2011), and takes that type of research even further by looking at broader societal forces.
The purpose of Klein’s book became very clear in the beginning: it was to address the school conditions that have caused significant pain to families and have created debates about reforms. Although there are attempts to create safer and more compassionate learning environments, it is suggested that a new approach will take a collective effort of the different players (teachers, parents, administrators) in a student’s life. It is evident that the gender pressures and social demands of the external culture have been influential on youth and have played a large role in school shootings. Additionally, schools have become institutions, almost like prisons, that allow bullying and reinforce the actions of the gender police. Since bullying creates a sense of lacking power and status, perpetrators demonstrate their masculinity, power and dominance by resorting to violence and sending the message while targeting those who were instrumental in their life in “creating the daily hell” that they had to endure. Klein provides a comprehensive overview through this detailed collection of what contributes to school violence and the changes, if instituted, can counter such violence.
- Klein, J. (2012). The bully society: School shootings and the crisis of bullying in America’s schools. New York: The New York University Press.Google Scholar