Take back your power. No more “please.”

I used to say please. I don’t anymore.

I have red hair.

I wear glasses.

I have freckles.

Please don’t call me names.

I am short.

I stutter.

I have learning problems.

Please don’t make fun of me.

I don’t speak English well.

I have dark skin.

I am quiet around others.

Please don’t laugh when others taunt me.

I wear wrinkled clothes.

I get free lunch.

I like reading more than sports.

Please don’t try to embarrass me.

I am gay.

I live with my father.

I have few friends.

Please don’t gang up on me.

I used to be your friend.

I like the same boy that you do.

I don’t want to drink or smoke with you.

Please don’t write mean things about me.

I shouldn’t have to say please.

I am a person, like you are. I have feelings, like you do. I have rights, like we all have. You are not better than me.

I shouldn’t have to say anything.

But until it stops, I won’t say please.

HBO explores the Brandon McInerney-Larry King murder

The Renewed Interest

Lately, there has been a spike in the number of hits on my posts about the 2008 murder of Larry King by classmate Brandon McInerney. At first puzzled why there was this renewed interest, I learned about HBO’s recently aired documentary, “Valentine Road.” I then sat down to watch it – with some trepidation. I hoped HBO had done a professional job of presenting the facts and raising the many core issues of the case. They did. It was an accurate and non-sensationalized exploration of the circumstances of Larry’s murder and the legal and social aftermath. Through videos, interviews with those involved – family members, friends, teachers, lawyers – and using court and police records, we see the polarization in the community over who was to blame and the agony of how to impose punishment.

The Story

The two boys: Fifteen year-old Larry was openly gay and cross dressed, Brandon was straight. Larry was multi-racial, Brandon was white. Larry was small with a slight build, Brandon was tall and athletic. Larry lived in a group facility for abused children. Brandon lived with his father and grandfather while his mother was in rehab for her drug addiction.

The basic facts of the incident were straightforward and undisputed: On February 12, 2008, fourteen year old Brandon McInerney brought a loaded gun to E. O. Green Middle School in Oxnard, CA, got up from his seat in the computer lab, stood behind his classmate, Larry King, who was sitting at a computer, and shot him twice- point-blank-in the back of his head.  As Larry fell to the floor, Brandon dropped the gun and fled the school. Larry died two days later and Brandon was charged with first- and -second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and a hate crime. The district attorney was trying him as an adult and a conviction of first-degree murder carried up to a life sentence with no parole.

The Court Case

The case finally came to trial three years later and after nine weeks it ended with a hung jury. The members of the jury had no doubt Brandon had premeditated and carried out Larry’s murder. Their issues were over the fairness of trying a just-turned 14-year-old as an adult and the perceived circumstances that “drove” Brandon to take such a violent and permanent solution to a problem.

The Mitigating Factors

The mitigating factors proposed by the attorneys revolved around Larry’s increased use of make-up and dressing in girls clothes, the unappreciated open crush he had on Brandon and their unpleasant interactions, the growing tensions between the two, the lack of teacher and administrative interventions in the obviously escalating conflict, accusations of bullying and harassment by both parties, and Brandon’s state of mind when he shot Larry. Other factors on the jury’s mind were: the family backgrounds of both boys, which included foster and institutional care, physical and emotional abuse, family violence and parental drug use; the easy availability of guns; and the role of a local hate group.

After the mistrial trial, Brandon was again charged as an adult for first degree murder. To avoid another exhausting, contentious trial, Brandon pleaded guilty to second degree murder and manslaughter and was sentenced to 21 years in prison. At the sentencing, conflicting Save Brandon and Justice for Larry buttons were pinned to the sea of onlookers.

The Legacy

What do you think? Would there have been a hung jury and so much public support for the killer if the circumstances were reversed and Brandon was the boy who was bi-racial and the boy who was gay/transgendered and dressed like a girl? Was Larry’s murder a hate crime? Should a 14-year-old who commits an adult level crime such as lying in wait to kill someone, be tried as a juvenile? How much weight should mitigating factors such as family life and bullying have in assessing blame and assigning consequences?

Watch “Valentine Road” on HBO GO, (Valentine Road Trailer), read my schoolclimate.com blog posts as I followed the case, read what others have written, look at the thought-provoking Valentine Road Discussion Guide, and most importantly, think about what we can do to avoid such a the tragedy in the future.

What’s your no bullying plan?

It’s a new school year, a clean slate.

You want to create a safe, encouraging, positive climate for learning. You want to develop a relationship of mutual respect among your students and between you and your students. You want your room to be a place that students enjoy coming to, where they cooperate, collaborate, and work hard.

Don’t miss the opportunity to establish, from day one of the new school year, that your classroom is a safe haven – a bully-free zone. Students need the adults in the school to enthusiastically and seriously lead this effort by word and deed. The message you want to send to your students is clear and firm…

  • We all have a right to be treated with respect and care.
  • We do not allow members of our school community to use power over others to hurt them in any way, emotionally or physically.
  • We do not condone bullying by standing by doing nothing or laughing and encouraging the bully.
  • We tell an adult if someone is bothering us or if we see bullying happening to someone else.

The best way to convey your commitment to a healthy classroom climate is to get your students talking about what respect, disrespect, and bullying look like. They already have the answers in their heads and hearts; they know what is okay and what isn’t, even if they might not always seem like they do.

It’s a simple process that needn’t take long. Ask your students to work with you to set the guidelines for acceptable classroom behavior. Through a meaningful group dialog about how to treat each other, they can decide what they want their classroom to feel like and then commit to making it happen.

So instead of starting the new school year with a pre-made list of class rules, actively engage your students in this critical discussion. Their ideas about what respect looks like can easily be made into brief statements of positive classroom behaviors and attitudes that show the goodness they have inside them.

Now your students are an integral part of your no bullying plan! You have a common purpose!

They have described the positive classroom climate you want for them and that they deserve.

New School Year Tip: Create a no sarcasm zone

Worth reposting as you get ready to start a new school year…

Witty humor or caustic mockery? Good-natured ribbing or anger with a smile?

Sarcasm. Widely used and widely misunderstood. Some people defend it while others condemn it. Is the line between sarcasm and innocent humor really that fine?  Not if you look at what makes sarcasm unique.

We know it when we hear it.

Read these statements first with sarcasm and then as if you honestly mean them.

  • (Student says she’ll bring the book in tomorrow.) Right, that’s going to happen!
  • (Teacher was talking to a student.) It’s going to be a great year with you in my class.
  • (There are papers scattered under a desk.) I love the way you always put your papers away so neatly.
  • (Student couldn’t answer a question.) Keep this up and you’ll be a big success when you grow up.
  • (Class has been doing poorly on tests.) I’m sure everyone is going to study hard tonight.
  • (Student has a disciplinary note to give his parents.) I know you’ll have your parents sign that letter like you always do.
  • (Teacher is looking at a messy paper.) Thank you. Your essay is  so neat and legible.
  • (Teacher is frustrated with the noise level.) I’m so glad I get to start each day with all of you. I must have a guardian angel.

Hear the difference? That core of insincerity and meanness? The little dig?

Sarcasm is saying the opposite of what we mean; there is an intentional contradiction between the literal meaning of the words and the social and emotional intent. It is a putdown couched in humor meant to embarrass or hurt, motivated by negative emotions – frustration, disgust, disdain, futility, anger, even hate – communicated through the context, the words chosen, and the inflection used.

Why is sarcasm one of the deadly sins of relationships?

Because it comes out of left field like a stomach punch, with enough of a grain of truth to breed insecurity. It puts us off-balance, even adults, and is particularly hurtful when aimed at children who expect adults to speak the truth. Sarcasm is verbal aggression with a smile, a sideways way to express criticism, which is actually more hurtful than the honest criticism it replaces. It is intentionally dishonest and kids need honesty to feel secure. It damages relationships instead of  strengthening them.

Power differential + sarcasm = bullying + not funny

Teacher-to-student bullying, the same as student-on-student bullying, but with more emphasis on the power differential, is defined as  “a pattern of conduct, rooted in a power differential, that threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear, or causes students substantial emotional distress.”

The lack of understanding of the difference between humor and sarcasm and the venting it provides, and the false belief that it produces results, perpetuate the use of sarcasm for classroom management, student reprimands, and motivation. Yet, fear of embarrassment or ridicule is not a healthy motivator. Younger children and those with learning disabilities or Asperger’s syndrome will just be confused. With older students, sarcasm might get a laugh from the other children and short-term compliance from the target. But at what cost? A child’s feelings of self-worth, sense of security, trust in adults, and ability to concentrate and learn? A backlash of resentment and retaliation towards the teacher? Modeling the very disrespectful, unkind behavior that we complain about?

Good-natured humor, unlike sarcasm, is not mean or targeted at a specific person or group. It is a shared enjoyment of a comical or ironic situation, cleverness, or wordplay, motivated by our basic need to have fun. Laughing together helps us connect with each other and strengthens our bond. It is healthy, even necessary, especially in classrooms where students are our captive audience.

How do we create a no sarcasm zone?

We know it when we hear it, so we can do something about sarcasm if we:

  • Evaluate and change our own behavior.
  • Make sure we are honest and kind, with pure motives.
  • Teach and model better ways of being.
  • Treat students and their families with genuine compassion and respect.

Albuquerque City Schools offers this advice.

Replace the old way…Teacher communicating with sarcasm: “My, my, my. Aren’t you a smart class. It looks like by age 12 you’ve all finally learned to find your seat and sit down after the bell. And to think it only took you half of the morning to do it. I don’t know if there is another class in the entire school as smart or quick as you guys.”

With a new way…Teacher communicating honestly without sarcasm: “One of the expectations of this class is to be seated and ready to go to work when the bell rings. I appreciate those of you who were quietly seated when the bell rang today.”

Exactly. Straightforward, helpful communication, with no victims. 

Bullying happens during the summer, too.

School’s out! Let the fun begin!

Not so fast.

Sure, summer vacation brings with it the promise of nice weather, more freedom to choose what to do, and participation in fun activities. And if your child was a target of bullying at school, she might be relieved to be out of that hostile environment for a few months.

Yet the sad reality is she isn’t safe from bullying when school is out. During the summer, young children and teens are often supervised less closely and for longer periods of time in new surroundings with unfamiliar children and adults. The expectations for behavior may not be clear and there are no established relationships to make the group a positive community. This mix of factors provides ample opportunity for bullies to choose targets and make their summer miserable.

Where does summer bullying happen?

  • At day camps
  • Sleep away camps
  • Community recreational and enrichment programs
  • Playgrounds
  • Neighborhoods
  • Shopping centers
  • Swimming pools
  • Sports programs
  • Childcare centers
  • Buses
  • And on the Internet

What can parents do?

There are some things parents can do to reduce the chance their children might be the target of mean, hurtful, abusive behavior.

  1. Only consider summer activities where the children are well-supervised by trained, caring adults and they value and create a respectful environment.
  2. Would an anime workshop be a better choice than soccer camp? Be considerate of your children’s likes and dislikes. Offer options and ask them what they would like to do. Avoid putting them into a situation where they have little interest and may perform poorly. This can set them up as a target for bullying from the more skilled children.  It is empowering to be with others who share their interests.
  3. If possible arrange for your children to attend summer programs with some of  their friends.
  4. Find out what the program or camp’s bullying prevention policy is and how they actively ensure a bullying-free experience for their campers. (See Bullying Prevention: Camps Take a Stand (Sample Parent Letter)
  5. Talk to the program director. Ask questions such as: What do you do to intentionally model and build a culture of acceptance and empathy; who can a child go to if there is a problem; may a child call home when he wants to;  and how are incidents handled and how are parents involved.
  6. If your child was victimized at school, talk to whomever will be working with him and explain the situation. Ask what they can do to help your child have a successful summer experience.
  7. Cyber-bullying is a problem during the school year and even more so when children have with hours of free time, often unsupervised. Add to this how social networking sites are unregulated and any damage done by a text or picture is immediate. Set ground rules for Internet use, discuss proper and safe use of social networking, and check in to see what they are doing.
  8. Talk to your children regularly about their day-to-day experiences in their summer program and be on the lookout for symptoms they are being bullied, such as the child has stomach aches or complains of not feeling well, or tells you he just doesn’t want to go to the program or camp anymore.
  9. Listen to your child and find out what is going on. Report any concerns you have to the camp counselors and program directors. Remember there is a difference between tattling and reporting a problem where someone is being hurt.

But, there is another place where children are bullied, one you might not have considered.

You might not have considered the possibility that your child is being bullied at home by a brother or sister. We are increasingly aware of the damage done by sibling bullying, especially since the recent publication of a report in the  Journal of Pediatrics on The Association of Sibling Aggression With Child and Adolescent Mental Health

If there is no parent available, who is watching your children during the summer?  Have you appointed an older child to be in charge of his siblings? How does he treat his charges?

Home should be a safe haven, where we are unconditionally loved and cared for. But it isn’t a safe haven if parents condone or passively allow their children to boss, wield power over, verbally abuse, and physically hurt each other. This kind of sibling violence in our homes is as harmful to a child’s well-being and feeling of security as the bullying that occurs on the school bus or in the cafeteria. In fact, some think it is more harmful.

Sibling bullying is not the same as everyday squabbles or disagreements that arise. A level of conflict is expected within families. It is natural and provides a chance to learn how to consider the needs of others and compromise to reach a solution. But sibling bullying is very different. It is when one – or more than one – sibling is always the aggressor and another is always the victim, and the abuse is repeated and deliberate. Such violence in what is supposed to be a loving relationship leaves the child confused, feeling powerless and unworthy, even unlovable, and models an unhealthy view of what a loving relationship of mutual respect and concern looks like. And most striking is the puzzling reality that what would never be accepted between peers in a school is accepted as a normal part of life when it happens at home between siblings.

Why is this the case? In the  Journal of Pediatrics report, Corinna Jenkins Tucker, the lead author of the paper and an associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire, sums up the problem: “Historically, sibling aggression has been unrecognized, or often minimized or dismissed, and in some cases people believe it’s benign or even good for learning about conflict in other relationships.”

Preventing and Intervening

Bullying is never healthy. There are many things parents can do to prevent bullying behavior between their children and to intervene if it already exists.  The first hurdle, is for parents to admit sibling bullying is not okay, and to then take an honest look at the relationships and behavioral patterns among their children. To set the expectations and a cooperative tone, bring everyone together for a thoughtful, respectful conversation about what is and is not acceptable in their house. Ask the children to name okay and not okay behavior. Write down their ideas and make an agreement to follow these guidelines. Follow through and be consistent in your expectations.

A child who is bullying a sibling needs to be held accountable, just as she would be if she bullied someone in school. A parent must tell her to stop the violent behavior, immediately, and tell the victim that being bullied is not her fault. At this time it is also wise to talk to the child you have placed in charge of her siblings about how she feels about the responsibility she was given, and re-examine and, if possible, adjust the arrangement you have made for child care.

With an open dialogue, and clear expectations and sensitivity to all the parties, you have a good chance of removing home from the list of places where children get bullied during the summer.

Check out:

Summer Bullying Prevention Tips For Your Family

Parents: Don’t ignore sibling bullying, study warns

Bullying Prevention: Camps Take a Stand (Sample Parent Letter)

Association of Sibling Aggression With Child and Adolescent Mental Health

Part Two: From Bystander to Ally – learning how to speak out

Speaking out takes practice.

The only way to develop more allies is to educate students and adults about the roles they play in bullying. Participating in bullying role plays and discussing it with each other sensitizes everyone to the perspectives of all the players. This fosters empathy and compassion for the victim, builds a feeling of efficacy – I can do something to make this better – and creates a support group of peers who want to do the right thing. It teaches decision-making, the effect of our choices, builds character, and might even be the catalyst for a child’s self-realization that he is bullying others. Students come away with the powerful understanding that their choices affect how they and their classmates are treated.

For this understanding to translate into a change of attitudes and behavior, students must hear and believe these five messages from adults:

  • You are not responsible for the actions of the bully.
  • You do not have to live with it.
  • We want you to report bullying.
  • We promise, if you are being bullied, we will never leave you to handle it on your own.
  • Reporting a serious problem is not tattling.

To show you mean it, make posters of these five messages to post around the school.

Strategies that empower

With these messages clearly delivered and received, we can teach students to take a stand to not join in bullying using strategies that convey confidence, show resistance, and assess situations. Role plays offer practice for:

  • How to avoid being a victim.
  • How to assess danger and act wisely.
  • Ways to stand up to a bully.
  • The exact things to say to the bully.

Doing the right thing takes personal courage and the ability to assess the situation. Acting as an ally or defender does not mean trying to break up a fight or getting into an altercation with a bully, and if you are the victim, standing up to a bully at that moment is not always the best choice. There is no set approach to stopping bullies in their tracks; specific circumstances and those involved determine the nature of each interaction. Bullies are often physically and mentally strong, act in groups, and have a sense of entitlement that is resistant to correction. Standing up to them does not always work and the target or ally can get hurt in the process. Sometimes the best thing is to get away and seek help immediately. To encourage reporting, some schools have successfully set up bullying hotlines to give students a secure way to report problems.

Victims should only stand up to a bully and an ally or group of allies should only intervene face-to-face when it feels safe to do so. Then they can firmly tell the perpetrator:

  • Stop it!
  • Don’t call her that.
  • That isn’t funny.
  • What you are saying (doing) is mean.
  • I’m getting an adult.

Allies in cyberspace

The roles students play in cyberbullying are similar to face-to-face bullying, but cyberbullying requires additional cautions when you consider how public it is. Social media makes it easy to do, bullies can share photographs and cheerleaders can make anonymous comments, and the size of the potential audience is immense. The cyberbully feels protected and powerful because she does not have to face her victim, while the impact on the victim is immediate, widespread, and devastating.

First, young people need strategies to avoid being a victim of or encouraging cyber-bullying:

  • Choose social media sites and friends wisely.
  • Think about and be careful choosing what to post.
  • Do not post, text, or email anything you don’t want the whole world, including your parents, to see.
  • Do not take part in or cheer on cyberbullying.
  • Use privacy settings and do not share passwords.
  • Do not respond to cyberbullying.

Second, they need to know what to do if either they or someone they know is a victim of cyberbullying. A cyber ally:

  • Tells a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult right away.
  • Keeps evidence of cyberbullying.
  • Blocks the offender.
  • Reports it to school.

Positive action

There is safety in numbers, especially for young people who are greatly influenced by peers. The goal is to create an active majority of allies, adults and students, that knows what bullying looks like and the role they can choose to play. When people refuse to take part or to look the other way, and instead report incidents of bullying to adults who can help, the ally peer group grows and the school climate changes to one of positive action where bullying behavior is no longer tolerated.

Part One: From Bystander to Ally – the roles we play in bullying

Bullying involves more than just the bully and the victim.

My last post was on the Pepsi Max test drive commercial and how thinking that mistreating another person is funny and not speaking up to denounce what offends us encourage bullying behavior. PepsiCo, the YouTube audience, bloggers, commentators, and the business groups and ad agency reviewers who praised the commercial all played a role in perpetuating the myth that bullying, if done “in fun,” is okay.

This happens in school, too, when bystanders, both students and adults, choose to ignore or encourage this type of violence, and often think it is funny. But bullying isn’t funny. It is abuse committed repeatedly against a victim that escalates over time, where the perpetrator appears to enjoy the power to intimidate and hurt. It shows a lack of empathy, compassion, and respect for others. It is predator behavior and we are charged morally and legally to prevent it from happening, and to take swift action when it does.

What role do we choose?

Once we accept that bullying is a type of violence and is a problem in our schools, where do we start? Bullying prevention efforts begin by developing an understanding of what violence is, the forms it takes, and why it is hurtful. Then, to change attitudes and behavior, students and teachers need a breakdown of the specific ways we participate in bullying:

  • Victim (target of the bullying)
  • Perpetrator and co-perpetrator (the bullies)
  • Ally (defender of the target)
  • Bystander (is aware it is happening)
  • Audience (congregates and watches)
  • Cheerleader (actively encourages the violence)

Each of these roles is a choice we make as an individual and each has an impact on the continuation of bullying. The perpetrator, cheerleader, and ally choose to take a lead role and openly encourage or discourage the bullying. They make a decision to do something. The bystander and audience take what appears to be, but isn’t, a passive role. They make a conscious choice to not do anything. Taking no action one way or the other is not a neutral position. Inaction is a decision to allow the bullying to continue.

What do these roles look like in face-to-face bullying?

The perpetrator and co-perpetrators decide on a target, someone they perceive as weaker and more vulnerable than they are. They make a decision to tease, demean, threaten, dominate, and hurt the victim, and then they corner and attack.

Cheerleaders actively encourage the attack by verbally egging on the bully, suggesting things to do to the victim, laughing and cheering, and verbally abusing the victim. The perpetrator and cheerleaders feed off of each other and escalate the violence. Cheerleaders can easily cross the line and become co-perpetrators.

A bystander is aware of or actually witnesses the bullying, and the audience stands by and watches the bullying happen. In both cases they do nothing to intervene and help the victim. Their choice allows the violence to continue and, by their silence, they become accomplices.

An ally or defender is a bystander or member of the audience who makes a decision to do something to stop the bullying. It could even be a cheerleader or co-conspirator who has a change of heart and realizes it is wrong. The ally steps in and advocates for the victim by telling the bully to stop, helping the victim get away from the situation, and telling an adult what happened.

Adult and student allies who take positive action to support or defend the victim, and victims who speak up for themselves are the answer to reducing bullying in our schools. Once we know the important role we can play, we can become an ally.

Next: Part Two of From Bystander to Ally is about learning how to speak out.

Pepsi commercial models bullying

You might have seen this. Millions have.

A man shows up to a car dealership and eyes a hot sports car. The salesman engages him in conversation and offers to put him behind the wheel to try it out. The buyer, a middle-aged, timid mini-van driver, says the Camaro would be too much car for him. He didn’t know if he could handle it. The salesman reassures him it is safe so, after he signs all the necessary papers, they go for a test drive.

Then all hell breaks loose. He drives like a maniac, speeding recklessly and doing stunts that would give anyone a heart attack. The panicked salesman looks afraid for his life. He tells the driver to slow down, to stop the car before he wrecks it, that he’s going to kill him, and when they finally screech into the car lot, the traumatized salesman bolts from the car to call the police.

But, wait the driver tells him. It’s not what you think it is. It’s a prank. We were just having some fun.

The joke is on him.

The “test driver” is actually Jeff Gordon, a professional NASCAR/Stock car driver, in disguise. Pepsi sent Jeff to a Chevy dealership to get him behind the wheel of a Camaro, to “scare the bejesus out of the salesman riding shotgun.” http://www.sportsgrid.com/nascar/jeff-gordon-pepsi/)

The Pepsi Max commercial immediately went viral on YouTube with 31 million views in one week and, as of March 22, it became the 14th most viewed ad of all time. The Internet is abuzz. (http://www.unrulymedia.com/article/22-03-2013/new-test-drive-ad-puts-fizz-back-pepsi)

The accolades pour in:

  • It’s genius.
  • The funniest video in years!
  • The car salesman’s reaction is hilarious.
  • That guy definitely got poned. (according to Internetslang.come poned is an acronym for “Powerfully owned, dominated”)

A controversy surfaces:

  • The ad world and many YouTube viewers say it’s all a fake.
  • That it was staged with actors and done with multiple takes.
  • A stunt driver stood in for Gordon.
  • Maybe Pepsi shouldn’t fake out consumers like that.

Some mixed feelings are voiced:

  • While it is definitely mean, it is funny.
  • This is cruel but also enjoyable and funny.
  • A sort of mean but incredibly funny prank by Pepsi and Jeff Gordon
  • It was funny as can be, but my heart still went out to the poor guy.

The real message is missed.

The upsetting issue is the negative message the prank sends: If something is funny, it excuses cruel, dominating, demeaning bullying behavior.

My first reactions to the video, like the woman whose heart went out to the poor guy, were shock and empathy for the salesman. I felt so bad for him, not only because he was scared, but also because his suffering was a joke played on him and shared with the world. Staged or not, what it showed, under the guise of humor, was outright mean and callous. This is the opposite of what we are trying to teach our children about how to treat each other; that they should go beyond the traditional Golden Rule to the Golden Rule of Empathy that teaches us to treat others as they want to be treated, with the understanding that everyone has basic unalienable rights that must be respected.

It all hinges on empathy.

The foundation of non-violence and respect for others is our ability to put ourselves in their shoes, to see things from their perspective, to feel this empathy for them, and then to act with compassion. Empathy allows us to evaluate what we see happening, make informed decisions, and choose our actions wisely. It leads to respectful and compassionate conduct toward others, something this Pepsi commercial, entertaining or not, does not model.

Bullying take s a village of bystanders.

I wish more people had spoken up about how cruel a practical joke the commercial was and were less concerned about whether  it was real or a fake, or if it was a good marketing tool to sell more Pepsi Max. The popularity of this ad illustrates the role of bystander in bullying, the audience that lets the bullying continue.

Say No to Armed Guards in Schools

A confusion of issues and solutions

We are back to school after the terrible tragedy of December 14th and the long holiday vacation. It was a juxtaposition of realities for families and school staff. And then the tragedy was high jacked by the gun industry, propelling us into a national discussion about arming school personnel to protect students and staff from a future violent rampage.

It is natural for caring people to want to do something, to take concrete action to prevent any more deaths of innocent school children and adults. We feel helpless otherwise. Every school district and building is likely reviewing its crisis prevention and emergency response plans, wondering how it would have handled the situation, making improvements, and holding practice drills. We are skittish.

But the discussion has gone askew. Putting guns in schools for protection is a dangerous diversion from the issues, a misguided over reaction that makes schools less safe. It is heartening to see the growing push back against this proposed solution.

Violence in Perspective

What we really need to do is to put what happened at Sandy Hook in perspective. Mass murder, or any murder, is still extremely rare at a school. It is horrible, but rare. And what happened at Sandy Hook is even more rare, as it does not fit the typical profile for the kind of deadly violence of a Columbine, Jonesboro, or West Paducah . This time the killer was not a disenfranchised, troubled, bullied male student from that school, hell-bent on notoriety or revenge. The Sandy Hook killer was an outsider, a troubled adult with a not yet revealed motive for choosing this elementary school to act out his mental breakdown.

But, yes! There is violence in schools and it spans the violence continuum from subtle to overt, from emotional to physical. The profile of school violence looks like this:

Common, every day – taunting, teasing, excluding, bullying, shoving, threatening, harassing, hazing…among students.

Rare: Incidents of killing of students and staff by a student in that school.

Extremely rare: Incidents of killing of students and staff by an outside intruder.

The real issues

It is clear that deadly gun violence by a student or an outsider are a distant second and third behind the typical more subtle violence our students have to deal with in schools daily, and that they are very different issues. What happened at Sandy Hook is not a school issue; it is a cultural, societal, and legal issue.

Suggesting that the routine use of armed guards or armed staff at all schools is the answer to school violence is irrational. It intentionally clouds the broader issues of a culture that uses violence to settle problems and to dominate others, the control of access to assault and other weapons, and the insufficient availability of mental health services for those in need and their families. These are the issues Sandy Hooks begs us to face head on if we truly want to keep our children and ourselves safe from random mass-shootings, because they can and do happen anywhere – at the mall, on our streets, in a movie theater, in a fast food restaurant, at an office building, and in our homes. The answer is not to station armed guards where ever people gather.

We can do some concrete things to make our schools safe

  • Have a written school safety plan that includes prevention and crisis response that meets our specific needs. From what we know, the principal and staff had done this due diligence to protect the members of their school. They developed a thorough crisis prevention/intervention plan that included controlled, limited access to the school, a plan for lock down and sheltering in place in an emergency, and a plan for sheltering off site in the event of an evacuation; and they practiced the drill with their students and staff. Add to this the valor of the adults and cooperation of the children, and they can rest assured they had taken school safety seriously. An armed guard or a principal with a gun would likely not have stopped someone with a semi-automatic weapon that planned to break into a school to shoot people.
  • Review and address the safety needs of our particular school. Many schools, usually secondary schools, in high-risk areas or with a high incidence of verbal and physical threats, poor administrative leadership, assaults, gang activity, non-compliance with the staff and school code of conduct, etc. have responded to their specific needs with security measures such as campus guards, controlled entry, and metal detectors, no backpacks, and swift and consistent response to violent threats or acts. These precautions are proper in these situations, but not for all schools.
  • Continue to intentionally make our school a violence-free zone for every student and adult. Assess and address the kinds of subtle, hurtful violence students face every day. Be observant, listen to students, and report and deal with problems as they arise. We aren’t helpless. This is what we can do to make schools safer and more secure for our children.

For information on the violence continuum and how to use it to identify the needs in your school, please see my book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate.

Helping our children cope with this tragedy

Rocked to the core

Today’s mass killing of innocent young children and adults in the Sandy Hook Elementary School has rocked us to our core. On the “violence continuum” this is off the chart, an extraordinary, unthinkable act by a disturbed individual. It shatters our belief of school as a safe haven– a place where we can just be that we count on as being safe. I was an elementary principal and can only imagine the horror of the scene.

As we adults grieve and process what happened and seek information and motive, we need to keep in mind that our own children still count on us to protect and care for them emotionally and psychologically. This means acting as responsible adults who make their needs the priority.

Not all children will hear about the shooting, nor do they need to, especially young children, and we should avoid burdening them unnecessarily. If they are older, directly affected, or do ask questions, we can respond in a way that reduces anxiety and builds their sense of security. While devastating, we need to remember that school shootings and other fatal acts are still very rare, and that less than 2% of youth murders occur in school. This statistic does not make what happened easier to accept, but it does put it in perspective as we and our children cope.

What do we say?

If your children do ask questions about the tragedy or are exposed to media coverage, we can mitigate the negative effect…

  • First, sit down together.
  • Turn off the TV, computers, and cell phones.
  • Then reassure them, and yourselves, that they are safe, that school shootings are extremely rare.
  • Listen to their concerns.
  • Answer questions rationally and calmly, according to the child’s developmental level.
  • Give only the information asked for; grizzly details are harmful and produce more anxiety.
  • Keep the TV off while your children are around.
  • Create normalcy by doing your usual routines.
  • Love and be there for them.

And then we can search our souls for what we can and need to do to help our country heal and become a less violent place.