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Tragedy at AME Church in Charleston and Hard Questions about those who Commit Hate Crimes

By Katie Delis, CEI Intern

Last week 9 people attending a prayer meeting were shot by a young man who entered the church and who joined them in their meeting. The nine victims are Cynthia Hurd, 54; Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; Rev. Clementa Pickney, 41; Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; Ethel Lance, 70; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Myra Thompson, 59; Susie Jackson, 87; and Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49. CEI Honors those who were slain and we applaud the love and forgiveness demonstrated by the families and the Charleston community.

As we ponder these tragic events, CEI looks into the life of the shooter. The more we learn about the 21 year-old suspect, Dylann Roof, the more reason we have to give solemn pause to reflect on the trajectories of those adolescents who fail to complete high school.

Across reports, Mr. Roof’s experience in school can be described as transient and troubled. Elizabeth Whitman from the International Business Times explains in a recent article that although most of his movement between schools remained within South Carolina, he transferred between schools upward of six times between the third and ninth grade, and the racial demographics in each school varied highly in the years he attended. In 2010, 53.8 percent of the individuals at Dreher High School were African American and 40.7 percent were white. He transferred that same year to White Knoll High, where 17 percent of the students were black, and 77 percent were white. On the other hand, the schools were more comparable with respect to socioeconomic status. About one third of the students at each school qualified for free or reduced lunch. By the end of his ninth-grade year in 2010, he decided to permanently exit the public school system.

While we do not know the exact details of his decision to leave, we ponder on what caused Mr. Roof to dropout. The National Education Association (NEA) explains that students discontinue their school attendance for various reasons, but family circumstances, particularly low socioeconomic status, demonstrate the strongest relationships to attrition. The NEA continues to suggest that negative school experiences such as dislike of school, retention at grade level, and disconnectedness from teachers and students all contribute to a student’s tendency to dropout. Based on what we know of Mr. Roof, these factors likely apply to his early departure from high school as well.

With respect to Mr. Roof’s life post-public school, much of the details of his activity and whereabouts remain unknown; however, according to Krishnadev Calamur’s recent NPR piece, he continued to demonstrate transient behavior and found himself in entangled in the law prior to the events at the AME church. While we readily acknowledge that Mr. Roof’s behavior in recent days is atypical, it is not uncommon for students who leave high school to spend time in state or federal prisons. Long-time manager of career technical education programs and author of ‘Disposable Youth: Education or Incarceration?’ James Wilson explains that the United States houses about 2.5 million people in their prison system, and 70 percent of them did not complete high school. While the details of their circumstances differ, the reality is that their future is similarly confined to the walls of prison cells.

What continues to be most puzzling about the specific nature of Mr. Roof’s crimes is the hate that fueled it. According to friends and family, Mr. Roof demonstrated public affiliation with white supremacy paraphernalia and racist views the few months leading up to the crime; however, it seemed to surface most strongly only in the months prior to the shootings. We wonder: was it motivated by quiet hatred that built up over time? Was it a surge of misplaced commitment? As of now, the answer is unknown. However as we pause to consider the circumstance, let us reflect on the ways that educators can mitigate similar situations in the future and cater to a future beyond the classroom that fosters respect and healing.

Further reading on solutions to mitigating attrition rates:

Think Before You Act: A New Approach to Preventing Youth Violence and Dropout, Hamilton project, may 2014,

James C Wilson, The hidden impact of high school dropouts, nov 3, 2011,

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