On Tuesday, April 20, 1999, the nation was shocked by the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. That tragic day marked the beginning of the string of school shootings and school violence, which continues to this day. The headlines of every major newspaper in the country highlighted the senseless loss of life. Dozens of major news programs and other media venues covered every aspect of our national shame.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the Internet, cyber bullies and social networking sites have fueled the pain and horror that a growing number of our young people are wading through today. Adolescent and young adult suicide is on the rise. This painful phenomenon has no particular profile. Young people from every race, social circumstance and economic situation are vulnerable to this merciless act.
The tragic pain that a growing number of young people feel is out of control. The deep sense of hopelessness and sorrow that some young people experience has reached a new low. The media s response to this painful human condition is not helping the situation at all. Self-esteem among adolescents and young adults is at an all-time low.
When we look at society s response to teen suicide and violence over the past 30 years, most experts propose shallow, knee-jerk solutions: ban iPods, install metal detectors; eliminate cell phones and texting; form another school committee to study the problem and establish new policies to punish kids who commit cyber bullying; attempt to legislate Facebook, Twitter, Form Spring and the rest of the social networking sites; have anti- bullying assemblies and recruit speakers that the kids can relate to.
Unfortunately, those recommendations are well intended, but clearly ineffective at addressing the real heart of the matter. These interventions will come and go, faces will change and the system will fall back to its old ways of social indifference until the next series of tragedies erupt and traumatize our community.
How does a Columbine happen? Why are we plagued with a growing number of teenage suicides? Why in affluent suburbia is heroin out of control? Why is cyber bullying pushing a growing number of vulnerable young people to the edge?
Recently, I facilitated a conversation with a number of high school coeds around these very questions. Clearly, their response was not to impose greater restrictions on social networking, texting, cell phones, the internet highway or instant messaging. They talked rather candidly about issues around respect, accountability, maturity and social responsibility.
It was amazing to listen to what they had to say. A number of the participants had really spent a lot of time and energy reflecting on these issues. They did agree that social networking and cyber bullying are out of control. They also agreed that as a community, we have to face these very painful issues on a deeper level. Clearly, the superficiality of the past will not work in the present.
They suggested that too many parents disconnect with their children on these issues. Parents are not up to par on the Internet highway as well as the various social networking venues. An informal survey indicated that more than 50% of parents don t know how to access the social networking sites their children use. More than sixty one percent of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 have a profile online.
Kiddingly, but acknowledging the truth, they admitted that many teenagers have become obsessed with Face Book and other networking sites. One student admitted to checking his Facebook account at least a hundred times a day. He quietly indicated that it s probably more than that.
A number of students mentioned that bullying and violence have existed long before they infected the Internet. These students indicated that if you don t create a climate in your school that supports respect for diversity and authority, troubles will erupt.
If a teacher is allowed to bully and be disrespectful without any consequences, students will imitate that behavior and expect to get away with it without any consequences. Unfortunately, these students are correct. Too many teachers do get away with being disrespectful and insensitive to students. A growing number of teachers have a laissez-faire attitude about bullying and student disrespect for other students. That perspective is infectious and dangerous.
Parents and teachers need to step up, create and demand an environment of respect and dignity for all. Parents should not tolerate disrespect of any kind from their children; nor should they treat their children, disrespectfully. Teachers must reinforce those positive values that hopefully their students are learning at home. If they re not getting the appropriate values regarding respect and responsibility at home, they must create an atmosphere in school that supports and demands those values to be lived.
If we are committed to creating an environment grounded in respect and responsibility, we must hold students, parents, teachers and administrators accountable. No one is exempt or excused from this positive behavior.
Too many students are being infected with disrespect, lack of responsibility and accountability. They basically think they can do what they please and say what they please, no matter what! If that is the attitude that persists, vulnerable students are going to be trampled on, on a regular basis.
Do our schools nurture or impair positive human development? We must be concerned with the total development of all of our students. We can no longer focus only on the neck up. Our approach to quality education must be holistic. We must rigorously work to integrate the academic, emotional and social dimensions of learning. If we approach learning from this perspective, we will empower our students to manage their emotions more effectively, build healthy peer relationships and work through life s peaks and valleys in more constructive and ethical ways.
No one should ever fall into the bowels of depression, and believe that the best way to cope with life s pain is to end it. If we can empower our students to care as passionately about their inner life as they do their social networking life, violence and students at risk would be nominal. To create this kind of landscape demands courage on all of our parts.