Aaron Kupchik (pictured left) was horrified when he heard about the shootings at Virginia Tech on 16 April. But as a sociologist who’s studying discipline in high schools, he also worries about the consequences for students across the country. “I sincerely hope that we can find a way to grieve with the Virginia Tech community while not rushing into place ill-conceived security policies and practices that have the potential to interfere with learning and alienate students,” he says. “I think it’s very important to point out that mass violence in schools, though shocking and profoundly disturbing, is very rare. Statistically, schools are the safest place for kids to be. They’re as safe as they’ve been in decades.”
Yet, across the country, schools are focusing on discipline as if school violence were an escalating problem. The Virginia Tech shootings–the worst in U.S. history–are likely to accelerate this trend. “I hope we don’t overrespond by cracking down in ways that don’t help. Preventing a tragedy is understandable and good, but we have to do this in ways that are sensible rather than just reactionary,” says Kupchik, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware, Newark, who is leading a study of discipline in American public high schools.
That’s one of the challenges of sociology: It can be hard to get policymakers to listen. “We have to do a better job communicating our work,” Kupchik says. Another challenge is to combine the rigor of quantitative research with the depth of insight direct observation can provide. “We need to merge a detached, academic point of view and an applied point of view and explain how to solve those problems in a way that saves time, saves money, and helps the kid,” Kupchik says.
A sociologist at work
Kupchik and his two graduate research assistants conduct their research in four large public high schools, two in a Southwestern state and two in the East. They hang out in principal’s’ offices and watch how school officials interact with students. They observe classes and hover in hallways. They follow security guards and school resource officers. “It’s on-the-ground, in-depth research with a very qualitative component,” says research assistant Olivia Salcido, a graduate student at Arizona State University, Phoenix, where Kupchik taught for 3 years after earning his Ph.D. from New York University in 2003. “I conducted interviews in English and Spanish, talked to students, parents, teachers, security guards, police officers.”
The researchers keep their ears open and try to blend in while they make their observations. Then they hurry home and take thorough notes, says Salcido, to capture their experiences as accurately and in as much detail as possible. The notes and transcriptions of interviews have yielded thousands of pages of data, which the researchers are coding and entering into a software program.
“I have 60 to 75 different codes I use,” says Kupchik. “I’m looking for observations that address the theories I’m testing. Every time a staff member talks about a student’s race or ethnicity, for example, that gets coded. I have a code for inconsistency, a code for surveillance. Several codes for different kinds of unfairness. We code, then we look at patterns.”
Strict, no-tolerance policies, Kupchik is finding, create their own dangers for students. These dangers may be less dramatic than classmates with assault weapons, but they’re more systematic and far more common. Schools enforce rules inconsistently. They focus on rules for their own sake rather than trying to get to the bottom of a problem. They ratchet up punishment.
Another alarming trend, he says, is the growing presence of “school resource officers”: police officers assigned to schools. With police officers on hand, school officials no longer need to call 911 to have their students arrested. The Virginia Tech shootings, says Kupchik, underscore the importance of incorporating students into the school community and strengthening their bonds. “Increasingly severe punishments and intrusive or unfair security measures have the potential to alienate students instead,” he says. “Schools are where children learn their role in society. Now children are learning that they should always expect to have police around, and they can’t necessarily expect fairness.”
Learning the discipline
Kupchik became interested in youth and discipline during a semester abroad in London, U.K., where he had an internship in a residential facility for at-risk and delinquent boys aged 11 to 16. He played pool with them, helped cook meals, and tried to act as a mentor. A psychology major, he found himself drawn to the broad view that sociology offers. “Rather than the causes of their behavior, I became interested in the global issue of how society responds,” he says.
In graduate school, he knew he wanted to study what happens to young people who get in trouble with the law. One of his professors, David Garland, was starting a journal, Punishment and Society, and needed an assistant. He hired Kupchik. “In making up my mind which of the qualified applicants to choose, I looked for the one with the most energy, and that was clearly Aaron,” Garland says. “He turned out to be really well organized, too. Nothing ever dropped through the cracks.”
“Working on Punishment and Society was a fantastic experience for me,” Kupchik says. “It was an opportunity to learn the subject matter very deeply, to get to know the best people working on that in the world, to see how publishing worked, and to work with closely with David.”
“Aaron made the most of the job,” Garland says. “People liked him, liked dealing with him. He’s crisp and efficient and friendly. Everyone came away with a very good impression of him.”
Another important job for Kupchik was working with Jeffrey Fagan at the Center for Violence Research and Prevention at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. There, Kupchik coordinated several research projects on juvenile justice, all of which he describes as “bigger than a dissertation.” His dissertation, on youth in the justice system, grew out of one of these projects. “The job facilitated my research, gave me great exposure, and brought me into contact with a great mentor,” says Kupchik. “Essentially, I was in over my head, which was a great learning experience. And it was a research center, not an academic department, which gave me a different perspective.”
Sociologists need to do a better job making their work accessible to a lay audience, Kupchik says. As he writes his reports, he’ll be thinking of how to present his findings so that they’re most useful to school administrators and policymakers. “We have to recognize what the school needs.”
The good news is that the people in the high schools–the principals, the assistant principals, the teachers, the security guards, and the police officers–care deeply about their work. “I’ve been very impressed by their commitment to really help the kids,” he says. “And they’re often very aware of the problems and the need to improve.”