Bullets, bullies, big schools, and kids with problems


Email Sandra Nichols

"Large schools enable the anonymous student to suffer in silence and slip through the cracks in our prevention system."

he sun comes up, the rooster crows, and we send our kids off to school. We picture them as they go about their job of learning. Will they make friends? Will they get teased? Will they pass the test? Will they be accepted at the college of their choice? There is a concern that takes precedence over all other questions: Will they come home in one piece?

I grew up in a house overlooking Santee, a rural community at that time. Now it's part of the greater San Diego urban sprawl and home to Santana High School, scene of the latest, horrifying and tragic episode of students wreaking havoc on each other. Are we listening?

Santee was listening according to the news reports, but it was thought the boy was kidding. Peers heard his threats and took no action. Even an adult heard but did not act. In the wake of that disaster, there seems to have been increasing responsiveness to threats of student violence, which is good.

I think we can all agree on this one! In the ideal, schools would be safe havens where there is no fear and no preventable danger. This will not be easily achieved.

Schools take steps to prevent incidents of violence. You can count on that. There are programs in place and others proposed.

There are strong policies which require mandatory expulsion of students found to be in possession of fire arms.

The community has talked about using detection canines to sniff out fire power on school campuses. The canines have demonstrated to us their prowess at locating gun powder.

Programs are in place which attempt to address the issues of resolving conflicts between students, including anti-harrassment policies. The pain of students who are bullied or harassed by peers is a huge and important topic in its own right. While very few students who experience harassment resort to violence, it is also apparent that students who perpetrate violence are responding to intense psychological pain.

There has been talk about metal detectors framing the entrance to schools.

Police experts and psychologists have explored perpetrator backgrounds and looked for commonalities, attempting to profile the shooters, that they may be identified before itıs too late.

Schools also have provided training on how to deal with an outbreak of violence on campus, when prevention has failed. There are intruder-on-campus drills at some schools. Scary? Perhaps. But a staff that has practiced the drill gains confidence, similar to that which we experienced when practicing air-raid drills in the fifties. Perhaps most important is that they also gain alertness.

I advocate one more step in our attempts to make our schools safe. We need to address the issue of school climate. Attitude counts. Attitudes determine the depth of relationships between students, their teachers and school administrators. How are students who report incidents and suspicions treated by the adults in charge? There is room for improvement here.

I recall an incident in the recent past in which a student told administrators that alcohol had been provided to students by school staff members. The local media reported a school administrator's comments in which he tried to discredit the student and he stood up for the staff members who admitted their own guilt the very next day. This is a bad model. An administrator should never take the side of his staff over his student until the facts are known. Doing so shuts the door on student-to-administrator communication. It creates an atmosphere of "us and them" which further divides students from adults at the school. This divide can have serious repercussions.

For some, the teen years at school are excruciatingly painful. Others parade around flaunting their success and popularity, their good looks, their on-top-of-it attitudes. Some lie awake at night worrying about the taunts they will have to endure on the morrow. I am happy to report that our schools are taking significant actions to stop this kind of harassment.

There is one final issue regarding school climate that has surfaced recently and will not be easily remedied. School size is relevant to climate. Small schools are more conducive to the development of close relationships between students and teachers. In a small school, people know everyone. Large schools become problematic, especially when they are over-crowded. Large schools enable the anonymous student to suffer in silence and slip through the cracks in our prevention system. Small schools may be a solution whose time has come.

Please, community, be alert to the verbal expression of hatred and agony, and take corrective action. Not only is that internal pain preventing some of our kids from productively going about their business as students, but also it is in some cases the precursor to violence. It will be far better to take too much action here, than not enough. Treat the pain. Teach the bullies empathy. Insist on civil behavior among students. And do not assume that a studentıs threats are just a joke.

Sandra Nichols is a Speech and Language Specialist with Santa Cruz City Schools in Santa Cruz, California and sits on the Governing Board of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. This essay was first published in the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian, March 17, 2001. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily reflect those of any school district, print publication or web site.

© Sandra Nichols 2001