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Marx Lecturer Addresses Bullying, Emotional Violence, and Alienation at School

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Marx Lecturer Addresses Bullying, Emotional Violence, and Alienation at School

James Garbarino

Advance copies of James Garbarino's book, Lost Boys: Why Sons Turn Violent, arrived on the desks of journalists on the same day as the school shootings at Columbine High School. Consequently, Garbarino and his book received a great deal of attention.

The 2003 Virginia and Leonard Marx Lecturer told of how, in the wake of the Columbine killings, the parents of Dylan Klebold-one of the boys who killed his fellow students, and then himself-contacted Garbarino to ask him to serve as an expert witness in lawsuits that had been filed against them. They also expressed a deep desire to understand how Dylan, for whom they tried to provide the best upbringing they could, had become a murderer in a nightmarish scene viewed by the whole world.

After conducting what he called a "psychological autopsy" on the Klebolds' son, Garbarino concluded that there was no simple causal line that could be drawn from Dylan's parents to his role as a mass murderer. "It was impossible to understand Dylan as a killer without understanding Dylan as a student at Columbine High School," Garbarino said. "Without what happened at school, you still might have had a troubled boy, but I don't think you would have had a killer." It is the toxic atmosphere at schools, he added, that contributes to the downfall of kids like Dylan.  "The school as a social system can breed violence, alienation and depression or hope, good feeling and character," he explained.

While schools often deny that bullying and harassment are problems, research on boys indicates that one-third of them are involved in bullying at any particular time-either as bullies or as victims. The same behaviors, if experienced in the business world, would be addressed quite differently. "[Businesses] say, ‘We are going to do something about this,' because they are liable to protect your human rights," Garbarino noted. "These things happen to kids in school every day. They arrive at school exhausted after being harassed or in fear of it."

Garbarino stressed the importance of intervention and suggested that creating a positive environment would make bullying antithetical. "Most people base their behavior on becoming congruent with what the setting encourages," he said. "The whole system can be set up to promote harmony so that bullying and harassment are the aberration."

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