The role of religion in high school crime and violence has taken many forms. In some cases, it has been used as inspiration for heinous acts of physical violence and contentious episodes of verbal intolerance. In other instances, religion has functioned as a means of lessening the threat of crime and violence on high school campuses around the country and around world.
Historically speaking, religiously motivated crime and violence at the high school level is by no means a 20th-century or 21st-century phenomenon. Within the American context, Protestants and Catholics, in times past, have clashed over issues of curriculum, often resulting in periods of religious bigotry or even brute violence that enveloped not only a particular school, but in some cases the entire surrounding community.
In today’s world, incidents of religiously motivated crime and violence seem few and far between. According to most experts, the vast majority of the current crime and violence at the high school level is attributed to gang activity, hazing, bullying, or simply peer pressure. While acts of high school crime and violence are rarely influenced by religion–at least directly–there have been some incidents in recent history that have had distinctly religious underpinnings.
On April 20, 1999, two high school seniors named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into the cafeteria of their school in Littleton, Colorado, and opened fire, killing 12 people and injuring 21. What became known as the Columbine massacre forever altered the United States’ understanding of school violence. In the aftermath of the killings, law enforcement attempted to reconstruct the ideology of the perpetrators. The official report revealed that on the list of people whom Klebold and Harris disliked–which included working women, homosexuals, racial minorities, and athletes–were Christians. This religious hatred manifested itself during the carnage when, it was reported, Klebold executed self-proclaimed Christians as they professed their faith.
The Columbine shootings are a rare and extreme example of religiously motivated violence at the high school level. Most forms of crime and violence that involve religion are often more verbal than physical. In the increasingly pluralistic societies of the United States and Europe, high schools, and their European equivalents, have become the locations for numerous acts of religious intolerance. While students of many faiths encounter intolerance on a daily basis, Muslim students– especially females–have experienced the brunt of these attacks. More often than not, these moments of confrontation center on the outward expression of many women’s Muslim identity, the wearing of the headscarf known as the hijab.In countries such as France, the United Kingdom, and post-September 11 America, there have been numerous incidents in which students have chastised a fellow female student for wearing the hijab to classes. There have also been other, more controversial episodes where teachers and school administers have required female Muslim students to remove the hijab before entering the classroom or school facility.
Whether physical or verbal, high school crime and violence has the attracted the attention of many members of America’s religious communities. Not only have Muslim American organizations worked hard to fight post-September 11 discrimination, but other groups, including a number of evangelical Christian organizations, have reacted to school crime and violence by petitioning for the reinstatement of school prayer. For many of these evangelicals, the increase in high school crime and violence is directly related to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to disallow sanctioned prayer in the public school system–one aspect of what they see as a general “removal of God” from the classroom.
Although often overlooked in favor of more quantifiable categories, religion, as either a motivating or reactionary force, has and will continue to inform our conversations on crime and violence at the high school level.
- Benn, T., & Jawad, H. (Eds.). (2003). Muslim women in the United Kingdom and beyond. Boston, MA: Brill.
- Fraser, J. (1999). Between church and state: Religion and public education in a multicultural America. New York: St. Martin.
- Juergensmeyer, M. (2000). Terror in the mind of God: The global rise of religious violence. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Larkin, R. (2007). Comprehending Columbine. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
- Odell-Scott, D. (2004). Democracy and religion: Free exercise and diverse visions. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press.