Scenario 1: A middle school student was continually harassed and bullied at school. He was taunted and pushed in the hallways and was even punched in the face in the school bathroom on one occasion. His tormentors always seemed to know when the adults at school were not looking. He felt that if he fought back it would only make things worse. He had debated many times telling the teacher or an administrator about the bullying, but, again, he felt that it would only get worse. Besides, he did not feel a close connection to any school staff member.
Scenario 2: A high school student had a gun in his backpack. When the bell rang at the end of the day and he grabbed his backpack, the gun accidentally went off. A female student was hit in the leg by the gunshot. The next day, the school psychologist and counselor met with all the students in the classroom where the shooting occurred and let them know that the student who had brought the gun to school was in jail and might be expelled from school. They also told the injured girl’s classmates that she was in the hospital and that her doctor had indicated she would make a full recovery. As the class processed the shooting incident, several students made statements like “That was so serious, and she could have been killed” and “That could have been me that was shot.” It seemed that the students understood the severity of what had occurred and that everyone was lucky no one was killed. But then several of them said that they would likely not tell an adult if they saw a gun at school the next day. Unfortunately no one spoke up to argue with that viewpoint.
These two incidents have a common denominator. Many students, perhaps even the majority, do not look to the adults at school for assistance. The school violence literature has numerous examples of shootings that could have been prevented if students who knew about violent plans had shared that information with adults. In addition, recent surveys have found that as much as 75 percent of bullying incidents at school are not brought to the attention of adults.
Why Don’t Students Tell School Staff?
Here are the reasons most often given:
• I did not think it would get violent.
• I did not want to get involved.
• I have been conditioned not to tell.
• I feared retaliation.
• I feared the bullying would get worse.
• I did not think the school staff could do anything to stop it.
• I did not have a relationship with school staff members and did not trust them to do the right thing.
Such comments illustrate the importance of positive relationships between students and the adults in their schools. How can this best be accomplished? I worked in schools for 26 years, and when a teacher referred a student to me, she often gave a long discourse on everything that the student was doing wrong. When appropriate, I always asked, “Do you know what the student wants to be when he grows up? Does the student have a pet at home? What does the student do with his free time?” Very seldom could the teacher answer these questions. I would ask the teacher to talk with the student and find out what his hopes and dreams were. Often, the teacher would tell me a few days later that the student’s behavior was much improved as a result of the personal interest she had shown. Relationships are reciprocal, and the more we put into them the more we get back.
Feeling connected to school has been identified as very important to students’ overall health and well-being. Sometimes all that is needed is for a student to feel that at least one person cares whether or not she came to school today. One principal shared the following strategy to improve school connection. At a school staff meeting, the principal would project onto a screen a picture of every student and ask, “Who is this student and what is he or she involved in at our school?” If no one could answer, then a strategy was developed to strengthen that student’s participation in school activities and connection to staff.
The education literature has many examples of how the attention that one student received from a caring school staff member made all the difference in his or her motivation and accomplishments. It is essential that we provide relationships—the fourth R—for every student, as they are the key to reducing bullying and school violence and to improving learning and attendance.
Scott Poland is co-director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at Nova Southeastern University in Ft.Lauderdale-Davie, Fla.