Trauma, Education, and a Perpetrator’s Mindset

There is a case in Florida where one school district has re-segregated their schools.  Students who are trapped in what have become almost all-black schools (or is it black and hispanic and no whites?  this I should check) are not receiving the educational preparation they need, and studies indicate that integrated schools do lead to better student outcomes.

As a grad student and teacher, the major unresolved issue I see is that pedagogical studies are having only limited effect on actual educational policy, as enacted by federal, state, and local governments.  But this does not mean the studies have gone entirely unheeded, or that people are simply abandoning children to the new educational policies of “standardization” and “accountability.”  My personal favorite is the example of the school principle who has recommended that parents opt-out of the state-mandated achievement tests.  He is quoted as saying that ‘we should not get used to this – we should fight it.’ (CITATION NEEDED).

There has been debate that schools do not sufficiently address the traumatic environments of the families and neighborhoods in which their children live – I’ve even heard a rumor that one group of parents is suing a school district for failing to address the PTSD among students (CITATION NEEDED).  At the same time, issues of bullying, overcrowding, lunch food, and other “minor traumas” of daily education could themselves be causing trauma, or simply failing to create an environment where traumatized students can feel safe enough to let down their guard, interact with classmates and teachers, and thus learn the content and processes of academic endeavors.

So the factors of trauma that influence this would be memory, for starters – fMRI studies support prior findings from psychology and trauma studies that describe the kind of negative bias seen in the memories of those who have survived a traumatic experience.  This would likewise affect attitude.  Less understood, however, is what happens when students who have experienced trauma are educated by teachers who have also experienced trauma – the kind of distrust that occurs with PTSD can work both ways, leading to a downward spiral where students and teachers never come to accept each other as contributing anything of value to the classroom space.  I recently saw a video of this phenomenon, where as disabled veteran was accosted by police officer for parking in a handicapped space.  Judging by the back-and-forth in the video, the police officer felt that the veteran was getting out of hand, and the veteran thought that the police officer was impinging on his freedom (not to mention entirely dismissing his disability status).  In a real sense, both parties were right that the other party was out-of-line, but both parties were wrong about reasons.  Thus, this may be a situations where the kind of “hair trigger” distrust of others leads to emotional outbursts that, in this case, just barely stopped short of violence.

This gets at the issue of the “cycle of violence” that has long been observed among victims and perpetrators – many perpetrators have themselves been victims of trauma, who then inflict the same traumas upon succeeding generations.  I recent heard and NPR story about an epidemiologist who began approaching gun violence as a disease, and the community interventions he has promoted focus on preventing the transmission of violence (i.e. trauma) before it can spread rather than simply incarcerating or punishing of individuals as criminals after-the-fact (CITATION NEEDED).  And although this program has been adopted by many cities across the nation and even in Iraq, and even though it has had great success in reducing the numbers of violent deaths without resorting to changes in gun laws or enforcement policies, I don’t believe that we have sufficiently theorized this model to better understand the relationship between victimhood and the “making of” a perpetrator.

I do not, however, believe that there’s any simple “cycle of violence” theory that would describe the emergence of perpetrators – instead, I simply believe that the major gap in trauma theory (at least in terms of socially-inflicted traumas) is a lack of understanding of perpetrators.  There’s the neurologist who found out that his own brain activity matches the patterns seen in sociopathic criminals (CITATION NEEDED), and there’s the book Hitler’s Willing Executioners (see LaCapra’s discussion), and then there was the group of psychologists who successfully pathologized the victim of domestic abuse because the abusive alcoholic husband refused to talk with researchers (see Herman’s discussion) – we have theories and discussions of how individuals experience trauma, but we have far less to go on when it comes to understanding the social, psychological, and perhaps biological factors that foster what might be described as a perpetrator’s mindset.  And note here that I describe a mindset rather than the mindset – I see major differences between an emotionally abusive parent, a police officer who “flips his lid” during a single altercation, and a serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer who manipulates therapists to acquire sedatives (CITATION NEEDED).

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