More than just school security needs to be dealt with
Last week’s murder in a Beitou District elementary school has some sadly familiar elements. Kung Chung-an ( ), 29, who is suspected of stabbing a schoolgirl to death, has commonalities with Cheng Chieh ( ), 22, on death row for an attack last May that killed four and injured 24 in the Taipei MRT.
Both are socially isolated men in their 20s, with alleged mental health problems that went unresolved for years and a penchant for video gaming that has become a focal point of public attention.
Reactions after the two high-profile crimes have also followed a familiar script: Opinion makers debate video games and the death penalty and leaders hesitate to act on either. Meanwhile, the local government temporarily strengthens security to allay public fears.
In the wake of the recent stabbing, Taipei City’s Department of Education ( ) has ordered school security personnel to run extra rounds of patrols on campus. The department has also instituted ID checks for students at the gate during school hours, called for parents to volunteer as security guards, enacted a new rule on students not visiting restrooms alone and ordered committee reviews on the height of school walls and the placement of surveillance cameras.
Schools are open communities and inherently vulnerable, and this focus on safety and security on campus seems important for the peace of mind of parents and the children they place there.
But assaults like this are a challenge to what we know as threat management, which so far has been the more complicated policing of boundaries. These reinforcements are temporary and, in the short term, curtail crime within the perimeters but have little impact elsewhere.
Random crime is hard to stop, as it can take just one perpetrator in an unprepared place. While we are inventing more regulations to keep youth safe in select spheres, we are making less headway in ensuring they don’t become adults who cause harm upon their exit.
Each tier of Taiwan’s education system has many teachers who care deeply about their students, but who are not legally obligated to intervene when they see early indications of mental health problems. The culture of these schools does not impose a moral obligation to do so, and in fact, enforces the opposite.
That’s most true at the undergraduate level, where budgets are tightest and fund-raising and student recruitment have become a matter of survival. It is at this level where teachers experience the least administrative support — sometimes even active discouragement — for intervening with a paying student who exhibits signs of anger or distress.
Teachers may not even be able to recognize these signs in a system where large lecture classes with optional student attendance are the norm. Or they may be able to see an abnormality, but cannot recognize when a critical host of conditions point the way to serious risk.
While the education system does offer licensed counselors at every level, misjudgments, institutional blind spots and the fear of being sued or fired can easily dissuade most teachers from referring troubled students to treatment. Most commonly, these students are left to their own devices for emotional management. Not all, but some, become adults who are vengeful in moments of distress. When the acts are brutal, we write off perpetrators as sociopaths and therefore incorrigible and, really, not our problem.
The public, in the aftermath, debates the death penalty and makes vague assessments about video games, all the while saying little about why close — and distant — observers of the lives of the perpetrators, who exhibit signs in vivid detail years before their attacks, were reluctant or unable to act. Taiwan has not yet conducted a coordinated investigation of why these teachers, friends and family are unequipped to deal with unstable behavior, an investigation that could allow schools to institute protocols and a set of social values to head off tragedy.