Instead of teachers and parents looking for red flags from individual students, schools need a broader cultural shift.
In the aftermath of Monday's school shooting, students at Ohio's Chardon High School headed back to class yesterday. With three students dead, allegedly at the hands of a troubled classmate, the community is grasping for answers about how such a tragedy could have happened, while parents and teachers nationwide have renewed focus on the "red flags" they should look out for to prevent similar incidents in their communities.
Jessie Klein, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Adelphi University and author of the upcoming book The Bully Society, told CNN that looking for warning signs from individual students isn’t the solution. Instead, Klein says, stopping school violence requires replacing a broader culture of hostility in schools schools with a “culture of caring”
She's right—the problem of bullying and harassment goes far deeper in American schools than isolated incidents of horrific violence. The documentary Bully—which recently made headlines after the MPAA slapped it with an R-rating—details the epidemic in America’s high schools. And violence in schools isn’t limited to the high-school level. Last week, 10-year-old Joanna Ramos, a fifth grader in Long Beach, California, died from blunt force trauma after fighting with a classmate, reportedly because they liked the same boy.
Thanks to all that taunting and name-calling, many kids see their grades slip, they turn to substance abuse, or they become chronically truant. Indeed, almost 160,000 children stay home from school every day out of fear of what will happen to them once they’re on campus.
Psychologist and family counselor Dr. Kenneth Shore says it’s not enough for school districts to write "zero-tolerance" anti-bullying policies or hold a special assembly. Instead, he recommends that every school form a standing committee made up of students, parents, and school staff to be responsible for planning and implementing a prevention program. Shore also says it’s crucial for educators to take time out from their lessons to hold special classroom meetings at which kids can discuss times they’ve been bullied, and to make the consequences of bulling clear to all students.
Shore says research shows that schools that create comprehensive programs see a 50 percent drop in bullying. So if we know what steps help foster a culture of caring—and we know it works—why don't more school communities take action? Part of the answer is that parents and teachers still accept bullying as a normal part of life, a rite of passage that helps kids learn to deal with the real world.
And it's true, bullying is an ingrained part of our society—principals bully teachers, teachers control their classrooms by humiliating students, bullying bosses run rampant in our workplaces, and Rush Limbaugh can call a law student a slut without any real consequences. That's why nothing will change if educators continue to focus simply on identifying individual students as possible school shooters. We have a responsibility to all students.