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Analysis of Travis Hirschi’s Theory of Social Control

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Approaching school security from a new perspective, that being Social Control Theory, is essential to promoting the safety of students.

In an analysis of school violence and threat assessments, the United States Secret Service details several key findings to prevent a targeted attack (2019). Among their discoveries are four that closely align with the four social bonds of Hirschi’s Theory of Social Control. They also provide recommendations for addressing these influences in schools before they reach catastrophic levels. The first finding best supports the implementation of Social Control theory as a means to prevent school shootings because it stresses gathering information from various environmental factors to get a more holistic assessment of an individual’s risk for violence. This author italicizes the lines that orient with Social Control Theory. The following are directly taken from the executive summary in their report:

  1. There is no profile of a student attacker, nor is there a profile for the type of school that has been targeted: Attackers varied in age, gender, race, grade level, academic performance, and social characteristics. Similarly, there was no identified profile of the type of school impacted by targeted violence, as schools varied in size, location, and student-teacher ratios. Rather than focusing on a set of traits or characteristics, a threat assessment process should focus on gathering relevant information about a student’s behaviors, situational factors, and circumstances to assess the risk of violence or other harmful outcomes (2019).
  2. Half of the attackers had interests in violent topics: Violent interests, without an appropriate explanation, are concerning, which means schools should not hesitate to initiate further information-gathering, assessment, and management of the student’s behavior. For example, a student who is preoccupied or fixated on topics like the Columbine shooting or Hitler, as was noted in the backgrounds of several of the attackers in this study, maybe the focus of a school threat assessment to determine how such an interest originated and if the interest negatively impacts the student’s thinking and behavior.
  3. All attackers experienced social stressors involving their relationships with peers and/or romantic partners: Attackers experienced stressors in various areas of their lives, with nearly all experiencing at least one in the six months prior to their attack, and half within two days of the attack. In addition to social stressors, other stressors experienced by many of the attackers were related to families and conflicts in the home, academic or disciplinary actions, or other personal issues. All school personnel should be trained to recognize signs of a student in crisis. Additional training should focus on crisis intervention, teaching students skills to manage emotions and resolve conflicts, and suicide prevention (2019).
  4. Most attackers had a history of school disciplinary actions, and many had prior contact with law enforcement: Most attackers had a history of receiving school disciplinary actions resulting from a broad range of inappropriate behavior. The most serious of those actions included the attacker being suspended, expelled, or having law enforcement interactions as a result of their behavior at school. An important point for school staff to consider is that punitive measures are not preventative. If a student elicits concern or poses a risk of harm to themself or others, removing the student from school may not always be the safest option. To help in making the determination regarding appropriate discipline, schools should employ disciplinary practices that ensure fairness, transparency with the student and family, and appropriate follow-up (2019).

Unstable home lives, little attachment to school or familial structures, and the adoption of an obsession with violent values, all point to signs an individual is at risk for carrying out a targeted attack. Examining the environmental and institutional factors that influence students, coupled with an understanding of how weak bonds to these social structures result in deviant behaviors, can help prevent future school shootings. It is imperative to note, no catch-all psychological profile exists for the school shooter. Any efforts, be they financial or investigative, into developing a one-size-fits-all profile is a waste of resources. The evidence laid out in my analysis show school shooters varies in economic status, family structure, ethnicity, age, and suicidality. However, through the lens of Social Control Theory, there are shared clear indicators that Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, and Nikolas Cruz were on a path to destruction. Implementing an informal security measure such as Social Control Theory in elementary, middle, and high schools will identify potential assailants and strengthen their social bonds to deter them from deviant behaviors.

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To be clear, this author is not saying school districts should replace existing security measures with Social Control Theory. Rather, district leaders should consider implementing this theory before spending resources on safety efforts with no evidence to support their effectiveness. This author also recognizes the theory he is in support of has not been field tested, however, hopes the analysis in this paper will appeal to school officials’ willingness to understand the whole picture. Building resilience to deviant behaviors by strengthening social bonds is an effaceable means of preventing school shootings. Training all school district staff to promote the 10 strategies to build resilience as outlined by The American Psychological Association is a step in the right direction (“Road to Resilience,” 2019). Below are the strategies they recommend:

  1. Make connections. Students should develop positive relationships with their friends, family, classmates, and community members. Fostering a support network with the people around you can strengthen the bond of attachment, and reduce the temptation to engage in deviant behaviors.
  2. Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable. Stress is a part of everyday life. Responding to these stressors in a healthy way is paramount to moving through them. Looking beyond the present struggle, and focus on future goals where circumstances are better. Commitment to long-term valued goals will reduce one’s susceptibility to deviance.
  3. Accept that change is a part of living. With age comes change. Accepting previous goals are no longer attainable will allow you to focus on other circumstances that are within your control.
  4. Move toward your goals. Developing realistic goals is another way to build resilience against deviant temptations. Regularly completing tasks, even menial ones, instills a sense of accomplishment and motivates you to move toward longer range goals.
  5. Take decisive actions. Rather than avoid stressful problems, take action to improve your situation. Detaching completely will not make it go away.
  6. Look for opportunities for self-discovery. A struggle, loss, or disappointment in life often illuminates something about the person who experienced it. See these challenges as opportunities for self-discovery. Gaining a new appreciation for relationships, one’s ability to endure, and faith in what’s to come are all reported by people who have experienced tragedies.
  7. Nurture a positive view of yourself. Trusting your instincts and having confidence in your abilities will help build a positive self-image when faced with a problem. Faith in yourself is one of the most crucial components in this list.
  8. Keep things in perspective. It is important to remember a broader context when facing painful experiences. Keeping a long-term positive perspective will help reduce the mental load caused by stress.
  9. Maintain a hopeful outlook. Remaining optimistic in light of difficult experiences will develop a belief good things will come. Visualizing what you hope to achieve, rather than focusing on the negatives, will reduce the temptation to engage in deviant affairs.
  10. Take care of yourself. Maintaining a sound mind and body are also critical components to building resilience. Routine exercise and participating in activities you enjoy will develop a strong will when faced with a painful experience.

While the federal government has no jurisdiction over mandating educational policies, state legislatures and school district officials should support the implementation of strategies to build resilience. Guidance counselors and psychological service professionals in school buildings should be at the forefront of this charge. The earlier they can identify a weak or severed social bond in students, the sooner they can intervene to provide positive coping mechanisms. Promoting the above-mentioned strategies through informal or formal interventions will not only address the bonds outside the school building but immediately demonstrate how much the school cares. Educators taking the first step to strengthen students’ attachment to school will help prevent targeted attacks on institutions that routinely face criticism for allowing students to fall through the cracks.

Conclusion

Travis Hirschi’s Theory of Social Control is a valid and reliable explanation for why school shooters adopt violent roles. Their weak bonds of attachment to familial and educative institutions, lack of commitment to valued future goals, limited involvement in productive activities, and belief in violent value systems all contributed to the attacks they carried out on their respective schools. The lack of evidence to support the effectiveness of invasive security measures, like metal detectors and armed police presence on campus, necessitate a new approach to student safety. Established organizations such as the United States Secret Service and The American Psychological Association have published reports that corroborate Hirschi’s Theory of Social Control. Looking at the whole student, not just their experience with bullies, proclivity for violent video games, or regional gun laws, will provide the clearest explanation for their deviant behaviors. Implementing strategies to build resilience against deviant behaviors when social bonds are strained will help prevent future school shootings.

Future research into and implementation of Hirschi’s Theory of Social Control should pay special attention to students who appear to have strong social bonds of attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. On the surface, Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold appeared to be active members of their school community. However, the legacy they left behind tells another story. Future research on this theory should also incorporate a component that highlights online activity. In the digital age, the footprint we leave behind is permanent, and the anonymity users expect on the internet provides an opportunity to explore deviant behaviors unacceptable to conventional society. Uncovering potential assailants’ online history will help further illuminate the strength of their social bonds. Fighting fire with fire is no longer the only way to win the fight. Schools must accept and adopt new ways to ensure the safety of their students.

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Analysis of Travis Hirschi’s Theory of Social Control. (2023, February 24). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 10, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/analysis-of-travis-hirschis-theory-of-social-control/
“Analysis of Travis Hirschi’s Theory of Social Control.” Edubirdie, 24 Feb. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/analysis-of-travis-hirschis-theory-of-social-control/
Analysis of Travis Hirschi’s Theory of Social Control. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/analysis-of-travis-hirschis-theory-of-social-control/> [Accessed 10 Jun. 2023].
Analysis of Travis Hirschi’s Theory of Social Control [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Feb 24 [cited 2023 Jun 10]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/analysis-of-travis-hirschis-theory-of-social-control/
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