Since the Columbine school shooting of 1999, there is an angst that I've had with the coming of each new school year and each new programming year for Project Love, the non-profit organization I co-founded eighteen years ago in Cleveland to empower teens to build positive school cultures through kindness, caring and respect. The angst doesn't get any better with time -- we started before the popularity of the Internet, cell phones and Facebook.
In many ways those were simpler times -- before texting, sexting and cyber-bullying -- for us, parents and educators. But in many ways the times haven't changed, kind of like Harry Truman's comment that "History doesn't change, it's just the people that do."
At a fundamental level, human nature remains pretty consistent. Each new school year, I know that students will fall into four groups of human behavior: perpetrators, victims, bystanders and rescuers. These groups exist in every high school and middle school in America, in fact they exist in every group of people. So when the bells ring every fall on that first day of school -- any school -- I worry and wonder, especially about who will be the perpetrator and who will be the victim.
Nonetheless, you never quite expect that a school shooting will hit so close to home. Like most of Cleveland, I'm shocked and saddened. I mourn the loss of such beautiful young lives and will reach out in time to the victims, families and school. Chardon is an amazing and model community. But, in the meantime, in the interest of making all our communities and schools safer, I feel a responsibility to share experiences and best practices.
For eighteen years, Project Love has been training NE Ohio students about the four groups of people and challenging them to become the rescuer, not to give into the very human tendency to be the bystander, the group that comprises 90% of America. We've trained 60,000 teens, with great success, to build cultures of kindness, caring and respect, but still the angst continues. Why?
We have a legalistic and bricks and mortar society. Instead of trying to impact human behavior and school culture, many administrators look for magic answers that will satisfy the lawyers, pacify the parents and placate some teachers who feel they don't have permission to take students out of class for the "soft stuff" -- leadership, values and the like.
I know that educators are under great pressure to show and measure achievement, teach to the test and stick to a very hectic calendar. Because of this pressure, many administrators feel that it's easier to buy a product than to motivate human beings. That takes time and attention the school day or school dynamic may not provide. Yet isn't educating the total child what our society expects and what companies ultimately want?
The fact remains that every year, in every school, in every community, there's danger of school violence. It may be bullying, it may be self-inflicted violence, it may be dating violence or it may be a shooting, knifing or bombing. The metal detectors may screen for weapons, but they don't screen for emotion, outrage, depression or rage. That takes humans developing relationships with other humans. That takes leaders and rescuers.
Lacking simple solutions, schools, parents and communities must take seriously their joint responsibility to develop character and values, the software for the mind. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that, "Intelligence plus character -- that is the true goal of education." More than reading, writing and arithmetic, character enables teenagers (who also might be struggling with their own emotions and life issues) to make the leap to become rescuers. The popular girl who befriends the loner at the cafeteria table or the boy who stands up for his buddy in the face of the bully come to mind.
If a teen doesn't have the courage to become a rescuer, at least they can choose not to be a bystander. In an aborted shooting at Cleveland's South High School several years ago, students tipped off police to their friends' plans to shoot up the school. At first, they thought the friends were just joking, but they and their parents didn't want to take a chance. In 89% of our nation's school shootings since 1999, someone knew about the potential danger but didn't take it seriously.
The one value that has resonated across the 60,000 teens we've trained and that continues to work at the individual level -- whether one is a bystander, rescuer or victim -- is KINDNESS. At Columbine, one student was spared by one of the shooters because he was always nice to him. In every Project Love training, we've asked the questions: "How do you feel when someone is mean to you? How do you feel when someone is kind to you?" Universally, teens respond that they want to get back at the person who is mean and they want to return the kindness -- or pay it forward -- to the person who is kind. How they "get back" is anyone's guess (and it may not be for years) and ultimately damages the world. But a kind word sparks a chain reaction that changes the world.
At Berkshire High School, a few miles down the street from Chardon, we started in 1994 with students the principal described as "the meanest group he had ever seen." Within six months, that group of 110 juniors transformed the culture of the school just by being kind. In 2000, at Brush High School in Lyndhurst, Ohio, where a sophomore girl had committed suicide after sustained and relentless bullying, a group of 30 teen leaders -- jocks, cheerleaders and even some mean kids -- decided that they would be the rescuers to transform school culture. Brush was a bully-free zone for many years thereafter.
We'll never know who is going to reach a breaking point and become a school shooter (and as we have seen from Chardon, profiling is difficult.) All kinds of school safety measures should be utilized. But one more thing we all can do is encourage teens to have the courage to be rescuers, be kind to their peers, and not stand by to watch negative things happen. That applies to all of us. And even then, I'll keep my fingers crossed -- the angst continues.
Project Love® Remember the Children Foundation, is based in Beachwood, Ohio. www.projectlove.org
To see America's shared values, go to www.Purpleamerica.us