Factual Errors April 28, 2012 New York Times Book Review: The Bully Society (Long version)
In his review of my book The Bully Society in the Sunday, April 28, 2012, New York Times Book Review, David Cullen agrees with me that a “hyper-masculine imperative haunts many boys and drives some to violence.” In fact, Cullen and I agree on more than he recognizes. However, his review of my book requires some corrections and clarifications.
Contrary to Cullen’s suggestion, bullying and mental illness are not mutually exclusive explanations of the2007 Virginia Tech attack. The evidence suggests that Seung-Hui Cho was both bullied and mentally ill. My concern is that mental illness is often used to discount the impact of bullying on shooters as well as other students.
Similarly, the fact that shooters struggled with bullying and oppressive social hierarchies does not conflict with the concept of loss--of status or of romantic relationships--noted in the FBI study Cullen cites. My book explicitly links these social hierarchies to such losses, though Cullen implies otherwise. Shooters attacked girls who rejected them, and they attacked boys who threatened their status. My findings are comparable to the data Cullen cites; the numbers differ because I tracked shootings from 1979 to 2011 (the FBI’s data was released in 2004). The Bully Society references my data which is accessible on my website (jessieklein.com).
Cullen, who is a journalist, uses his critique to accuse social science, somewhat ironically, of over-reliance on popular media. But the research in The Bully Society relies on multiple methodologies—including content analysis, statistical research, participant observation ethnography, and extensive interviews with students, parents, and school faculty. Together, the evidence is overwhelming that gay bashing and other forms of bullying contribute to school shootings as well as to depression, anxiety, and social isolation. More recently, and escalating since the 2004 FBI report, perpetrators have also attacked administrators and teachers who punished or failed them.
Finally, Cullen accuses me of referencing Eric Harris’ “suicide note” which he says was discredited after the Columbine massacre; and he further suggests that my evidence is “flimsy” when I quote one of the Columbine athletes who called Harris and Klebold “gay” because Cullen writes: “he didn’t even know the killers.”
I have yet to see conclusive evidence that the comments attributed to Harris constituted a “hoax;” but regardless of the credibility of that particular note, it is not essential to the overall findings in the book. In Harris’ other writing, which Cullen believes is more reliable, Harris despairs at being left out of so much at his school—a classic form of bullying; Cullen oddly minimizes this when he acknowledges Harris’ complaint, but insists that Harris was not bullied; Many other shooters wrote similar notes blaming adults for doing nothing or for encouraging bullying behaviors. The disputed note does not detract from the flood of evidence regarding Harris and Klebold’s social exclusion, the tendency for out-casted boys to be teased and called gay, or the detrimental role adults often play in school bullying.
Further, any student across the country can tell you that those who call others “gay” rarely know their targets. Cullen’s belief that not knowing a particular target casts doubt on the extent to which they were called gay is particularly curious. That boys, especially those who are less typically masculine, get called “gay” every day, often by those who have never spoken to them in any other way, is cited in a flood of research documented in The Bully Society.
My research shows that we can’t predict who will pick up guns, who will commit suicide, and who will abuse substances or cut themselves; but we can identify and address likely contributing factors. Seeking out and punishing each culprit is unlikely to change school environments that breed violence. We must transform school cultures so that students learn how to support one another. I know how powerful this transformation can be because I’ve helped create it over the decades that I’ve worked in schools.
Jessie Klein, PHD, MSW, M.Ed.