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Breaking the Code of Silence

How students can help keep schools – and each other – safe

By Samuel J. Spitalli

Each day, 100,000 American students go to school carrying guns. Each day. This shocking figure from the National Center for Education Statistics is even more disturbing when you consider how often other students know that these students are bringing guns to school but do not report them.

This code of silence is so powerful that most students apparently would not report their gun-carrying peers. Even after the high-profile school shootings of recent years, many students still remain silent or, even worse, dare the shooter to carry out his threats. In a study after the Columbine tragedy, the Secret Service report that, in more than 75 percent of school violence incidents, the attackers had told someone first, yet nobody said anything to school authorities.

That was the case when 15-year-old Any Williams, of Santee , Calif. , opened fire in the boys’ bathroom of his school in March 2001, killing two and wounding 13. Andy had told friends he was going to bring a gun to school, but the friends apparently thought he was joking. It was also the case in February 1997, when Even Ramsey shot and killed his school principal and another student in Bethel , Alaska , after telling his friends he planned to shoot someone. His friends not only failed to tell an adult but gathered in the library to watch it happen. One student even brought a camera.

“I didn’t think he was serious” or “I thought he was joking” are typical responses of student who were told of an impending attack but did not report it. Either the classmates of attackers honestly do not believe the braggadocio and brazen behavior that often precedes violent acts, or they feel it isn’t their job to tell anybody. Perhaps out of fear of becoming targets themselves, classmates remain silent. It is up to schools to break that silence.

The code of silence evolves from habits formed during the first years of life. From an early age, children are taught how to get along with their siblings and friends, how to share, how to be fair and how to play together. They learn to negotiate with others, to compromise, to compete, to win and to lose. In time, unfortunately, they also learn to manipulate, to be vindictive, to hurt, to bully, to retaliate, to victimize, to defy and a multitude of other negative responses to life’s challenges. Children learn these “skills” from their peers, their brothers and sisters, their parents, television and a whole new generation of computer-based entertainment.

Somewhere along the line, they also learn to tattle. Because tattling is self-centered and typically is used only to get someone else in trouble, parents often discourage their children from telling on each other, encouraging them instead to get along, “play nice” and work out their own difficulties without adult intervention. Over time, this reluctance to tattle evolves into a code of silence – an unspoken yet clearly understood commitment to their peers that they will not disclose even the most disturbing and dangerous information about each other to adults.

Adults and students need to understand there is a clear difference between tattling or “snitching” to get someone in trouble and disclosing disturbing information to save lives, prevent harm or right a wrong. First and foremost students need to understand that difference and they need to know that we want and need their help preserve a safe, healthy educational community.

Students also need to hear that the collective benefit of reporting or informing adults about unsafe activity is that they get to attend the kind of school they want to attend, a school where the climate is friendly, warm, respectful and supportive. Finally students should understand that, individually and collectively, they can play an essential role in helping to maintain safety and can make a dramatic difference in preserving such a climate.

What are some elements that need to be present in the school culture that would encourage student to confide in adults?

•  Trust. Adults must earn students’ trust. Students will trust adults when they know the adults are listening to them and care for their well-being, when adults ask for their opinions on important matters that affect their day-to-day activities, and when adults include them on planning and advisory committees. Unless they trust adults and know that their anonymity and confidentiality will be protected, students will not feel comfortable and safe about going to adults to disclose troubling information.

•  Visibility. Students will feel safe when they frequently see adults in close proximity to other students. Students who are inclined to harass, bully, or harm others will be discouraged from doing so and will have fewer opportunities available to them if adults are nearby. By being available, staff member – including administrators, teachers, school resource officers, and support staff – not only serve as visual deterrents, but they make it easier for students to talk to them and develop informal, yet positive interpersonal relationships. There should be no place in the school or on school grounds that disruptive students can claim as they sanctuary, no place where other students are afraid to go because there are not adults around.

In addition, students’ comfort level with adults and respect for them will increase when they see adults at extracurricular activities. By taking a genuine interest in students’ activities outside the classroom, adults show that they care about students and support their involvement in those activities.

•  School Climate. A positive, nurturing school environment does not happen by accident. Establishing such an atmosphere must be an ongoing goal of the highest priority and all members of the school community must contribute to, participate in and reinforce that goal. The climate must be characterized by an institutional emphasis on the worth of the individual. That emphasis must permeate all aspects of •  school operations, including the curriculum. Schools must emphasis decency, respect, cooperation, fair play, tolerance and civility in everyday expectations for everyone.

•  Information Hotlines. With a hotline in place, potentially dangerous situations can be reported anonymously by students, parents, or community members without fear of reprisal. Schools that have hotlines must publicize them and encourage their use.

•  Reinforced codes of discipline. Students must be regularly alerted to the school’s discipline policies. Major policies that prohibit gang activity, drug and alcohol use, sexual or other forms of harassment, bullying hazing, use of weapons and violence in any form need to be covered thoroughly and often.

The consistent message students need to hear is that all students have a right to learn and work in an environment in which all are respected and valued and that the school will do everything in its power to ensure that students are safe and protected. They need to hear that students who engage in misconduct are accountable for their behavior and will be dealt with swiftly and effectively.

Maintaining safe schools is an awesome responsibility and one that must be shared. It is our job to help students feel comfortable and safe about speaking out on things that matter.

Samuel J. Spitalli is a Director of Administrative Services in Township High School District 211, Palatine , Illinois . Article reprinted with permission