A Deadly Culture of Isolation
Op-ed submission to the Boston Globe (unpublished)
Pamela Seigel and James Vetter, Ed.M.
March 25, 2005
The recent shooting rampage at Red Lake High School was among the most violent episodes ever experienced in a school in the United States. Why are we not more shocked? Media reports seem more sparse and muted than with other school shootings in recent years. Could it be after the string of similar attacks by young people from Littleton, Colorado to Jonesboro, Arkansas, we have grown too accustomed to the violence and alienation this desperate act reflects? We may never know why Jeff Weise killed nine others and then himself that Monday afternoon, but we can see familiar patterns. According to press accounts, Weise was a troubled young person who reported being victimized at home and by other students. Neighbors claim that he had few friends and that few adults took the time to get to know him. In recent weeks, depression and teasing at school caused him to retreat to home tutoring. Reports of other school shootings often portray isolated loners with few social skills, excluded from the peer group. Many were targets of bullying and harassment.
Perhaps the fact that the current tragedy took place on a remote rural Indian reservation allows those of us who live in other areas to distance ourselves. But past shootings warn us that in tight-knit suburban communities, a deadly culture of isolation can also exist.
How should we respond?
It is not our children that we should fear but the culture of isolation that can put young people at risk—and thus threaten all of us. We must heed the call to focus on creating positive, inclusive environments in our schools and communities. And we must provide students with vital emotional and interpersonal skills to use in school and throughout their lives.
Decades of evidence show that social skills can be successfully taught and that by valuing and fostering positive relationships among students and between students and trusted adults, we can create a school climate in which students feel valued, respected, and included. All students benefit—and the most vulnerable students may benefit most. Proven curricula exist to teach students to recognize feelings and manage strong emotions such as fear and anger; to seek positive solutions to interpersonal problems; and to talk to adults if they need help or are concerned about dangerous or destructive behavior by others. We can structure classroom time in ways shown to foster students’ sense of connectedness to peers, their teachers, and to their schools. All of us—students and adults in the community—can work to create climates of inclusion and acceptance rather than exclusion and harassment. We can refuse to remain silent, passive bystanders when witnessing bullying of vulnerable young people.
After years of support for development and evaluation and as a result of the heartfelt work of countless educators, these approaches are starting to be used in an increasing number of communities. But just as more children begin to reap the benefits, our national focus has shifted away from proactive prevention that holds the most promise. Increasing pressure to put “time on task” with basic academics, to focus on preparing for standardized tests, and other narrow educational priorities are threatening to cause us to forget the vital task of creating a safe and caring environment in which children can grow to be ethical people and contributing citizens, as well as successful learners. We must reverse this trend. The alternative to creating caring communities may be to turn our schools into armed fortresses. But as the Red Lake tragedy shows, security guards, metal detectors, and surveillance cameras do little to stop a young person so isolated and despairing that he has no empathy left—for himself or others.
But there is some good news. Here in Massachusetts, as across the country, hundreds of schools work proactively to create safe, supportive environments in which young people feel known and cared about and develop the capacity to have health relationships throughout their lives. Much more remains to be done.
We must redouble our efforts to be sure that in the deepest, most essential ways, no student is lost or left behind, in our schools, in their peer groups, or in our communities.