History Lesson

Students Have Always Been Violent

They’re just better armed today.

Judging by the histrionic Columbine massacre coverage you’d think that children are by nature innocent, free of violent or sexual thoughts until corrupted by our culture. That schools have traditionally been safe. That the recent spate of killings is unprecedented.

History says otherwise. In every era, American schoolchildren–especially teen-agers–have been unruly and destructive. As late as the 17th century, those “children” we now call teen-agers were considered adults. And preteens swore, drank, had sex, even dueled with guns. If school violence wasn’t a problem back then, it’s only because few children went to school.

In colonial America, most young children were taught at home. Those who attended school were just as prone to be disorderly as today’s youths. Teachers kept problem children in line with corporal punishments that seem positively barbaric today: They tied children to whipping posts and beat them or branded students for their crimes–a “T” for thievery, a “B” for blasphemy. Occasionally children were put to death.

Branding fell from favor in the18th century, but students were still flogged or tied to chairs (for more on corporal punishment, click). In the early 19th century, school reformer Horace Mann reported that he saw 328 floggings in one school during the course of a week. As the principles of humanitarianism spread and the era of mass schooling arrived, Mann and others replaced or supplemented the elite academies with taxpayer-supported “common schools,” which admitted young students from all walks of life. (Later, attendance become compulsory.) In the Gilded Age, as immigrants and migrants flooded the cities, public elementary schools proliferated. Finally, the Progressives championed the view of adolescence as a stage of childhood, and high schools (the first of which opened in the 1820s) multiplied as well.

It appears that more students meant more violence. In 1837, Mann noted that almost 400 schools across Massachusetts had to be shut down because of disciplinary problems. In most institutions, keeping order took precedence over teaching. One observer in 1851 likened the typical American school to “the despotic government of a military camp.” In the colleges, where the teen-age students were bigger and less docile, violence was even worse. Princeton University, to take just one example, witnessed six major riots between 1800 and 1830, including the burning of the library in 1802 and a rash of campus explosions in 1823 that caused half of one class to be expelled.

School violence persisted into the 20th century, taking different forms according to the climate of the day. In politically charged times, students became violent in the name of political causes. In 1917, for example, when New York City introduced a “platoon” system to deal with an influx of pupils, students rebelled–literally. Between 1,000 and 3,000 schoolchildren picketed and stoned P.S. 171 on Madison Avenue and attacked nonstriking classmates. Similar riots erupted across the city, resulting in furious battles between student mobs and the police. Likewise, the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests brought different forms of “political” violence to places ranging from Little Rock Central High in Arkansas to Kent State University in Ohio.

More politically sedate times didn’t translate into student acquiescence, however. In the post-World War II years, urban strife and suburban anomie gave rise to school violence of the sorts broadly rendered by Hollywood in the 1955 films Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle. The nation waxed hysterical over “juvenile delinquency,” as the vogue phrase had it–alienated adolescents unaccountably sullen in the bountiful Eisenhower years. Though history had recorded public concern over bands of violent teen-agers ever since the beginning of the republic, the fear of “gangs” (a term coined in the 1930s) caught the nation’s fancy. Time magazine headlined a story, “Teen-agers on the Rampage,” which detailed a weeklong outbreak of violence in high schools from Maine to California. Congress held hearings on the delinquency epidemic, calling comic-book artists to testify about whether their drawings inspired children to violence.

Youth rebelliousness surged in the 1960s. While crime grew overall, juvenile crime grew faster. Sociologists, social workers, and policy wonks turned their attention en masse to offenses ranging from vandalism to gang-related crime, from drug use to student-upon-student assaults. Schools implemented safety plans, bringing in adult hall monitors and setting up bodies for hearing student grievances. Urban schools hired professional security agents–and later adopted the surveillance cameras, metal detectors, locker searches, and other measures more commonly seen in prisons. But a major study conducted in 1978 confirmed what experience had been teaching. Teen-agers were more likely to be victims of crime at school than anywhere else.

I f student violence has now been a major concern for decades now, what seems to distinguish ‘90s violence is the suburban- or rural-school massacre. West Paducah, Ky.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Pearl, Miss.; Moses Lake, Wash.; Springfield, Ore.; and now Littleton, Colo.–in each case, young students, armed with guns, committed multiple murders in or near the school itself. To be sure, similar atrocities have occurred in the past. In 1927, a 55-year-old school-board official detonated three bombs in the Bath, Mich., schoolhouse, killing 45 people. And to be sure, the string of recent killings in fact reveals nothing, statistically speaking, about our society. Yet they remind us that the number of children killed by guns skyrocketed in the ‘80s and while tailing off in the ‘90s remains far higher than in decades past. According to, the growing trend of violent altercations ending in death is attributable “almost entirely” to the proliferation of guns among children.

History makes it clear that children and teen-agers are no strangers to violent impulses. There have always been, and always will be, maladjusted or deranged students who unleash those impulses. That they do so is inevitable. How they do so may be within our control.