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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence
being prepared for danger, and of having survived one or more violent encounters. Being tough was an important means of not being a victim, and this was frequently reported as one of the major life priorities for adults and for adolescents during the 1980s and 1990s.
East New York was by no means the only community to suffer rapid, destructive changes in its social structure as a result of deurbanization. We suggest that an elaborate and characteristic behavioral repertory will develop within any community that is marginalized, as this community was.112 Symbols of individual and group worth—which enable group members to carry out many social and individual objectives—will change and will inevitably begin to differ significantly from those of mainstream society. In such settings, actions become a form of communication, a language in which individuals communicate who they are, what they value, what they can do, and what they are prepared to do. They become aspects of one’s personal identity—one’s “rep”—that speaks as loudly (and often more effectively) than words.
The physical disintegration of the community, in other words, is likely to have an associated disintegration of the social “glue” that permits communities to remain cohesive and intact. We suggest that violent acts in particular may emerge as key behavioral symbols for the residents of communities that have suffered this degree of desolation and isolation. In the South Bronx, in Harlem, in the Central Ward of Newark, New Jersey, and in a host of other highly segregated, very poor communities, drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, high rates of tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases are all clustered closely together, along with high rates of homicide and interpersonal violence.
Communities function best, as Granovetter (1995) has shown, when weak ties (for example, those created by friendship and/or social networks) complement those defined by the strong ties created by membership in an ethnic group, an age cohort, one’s occupation, family structure, place of residence, and so on.113 In East New York, a principal effect of nearly three decades of contagious urban decay, from the early 1960s into 1990, was to disconnect the youth from the social structures that would ensure entry to the adult worlds of work and family-building. Put another way, not only was the East New York community marginalized from the larger city, but also the youth of the community were isolated from the adults.
Although we arrived at this idea from a theoretical perspective, the young people were well aware of it. Jason Bentley first pointed this out to us, noting that he thought the rift between the generations was a fundamental source of violence. The rift was accompanied by a shift in communication, such that adults and young people no longer communicated. He noted: “Kids trying to be adults and most of them not respecting the