to be real is real in its consequences. School shootings are especially difficult phenomena to understand, and in searching for solutions one is often forced to distinguish between conflicting perceptions about what aspects of these tragic events are important and what aspects can or should be ignored.
For example, are the shootings at Thomas Jefferson fundamentally and conceptually different from those at, say, Columbine because they occurred in a poor, minority, inner-city community? In this case study we have presented a great deal of evidence that East New York was an isolated, impoverished community whose social ecology was dramatically influenced by the crack epidemic and the ready availability of guns. We have argued that elevated levels of interpersonal violence created an atmosphere of ever-present threat, particularly for adolescents. Young men growing up in this environment were forced to adopt attitudes and behaviors that permitted them to live with this high level of threat and to respond to it appropriately. With guns so readily available and with shootings so commonplace, it was inevitable that carrying weapons and using them would be perceived as the most effective strategy to use in interpersonal conflicts.
Schools occupy an almost sacred position in American culture. That the social ecology of the community would somehow penetrate the walls of a school and result in shooting fatalities is almost unimaginable to the average American adult. One can easily imagine the school as akin to the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages: a sanctum sanctorum that offered peace, security, safety, and refuge for all who entered. That schools would be the scene of violent death, perpetrated by adolescents with guns killing other adolescents, violates our most fundamental beliefs about schools as sacred places.
The truth, of course, is that schools are—to the contrary—intricately and intimately a part of the social ecology of the community. Students are not magically transformed when they step through the doors of the classroom. The conflicts that arise between young people at home, in the streets, and in the classroom always carry the potential for violent, even fatal resolution. For such conflicts to be resolved peacefully, a number of conditions must be present.
First and foremost, adults cannot be absent from the lives of the children in the community. Students in East New York during the period of the shootings believed that adults played no significant role in the resolution of interpersonal disputes and conflicts—of the beefs—that are so much a part of growing up. Our respondents were insistent on this critically important fact: when threatened with violence, adults were simply irrelevant.