School administrators need to focus on their hallways, not Facebook

In the St. Louis suburb of Clayton, a high school principal is resigning amid allegations that she posed as a student and friended 300 students on Facebook.  School administrators seem to be obsessed with what goes on on Facebook.

I suggest they should be paying more attention to what goes on in their own hallways.

It’s true that things that happen on Facebook can affect what happens at school. But let me relate a story from my own experience.

When I was a freshman, there were three sophomores who would do anything to make my life miserable. I can still see their troll-like faces today, though I can only recall two of their names: Steve and Jon. Steve was the ringleader, and the other two guys could have easily been Mike Judge’s inspiration for the characters Beavis and Butt-Head. They may not have been overt metalheads like Beavis and Butt-Head were, but they grunted and laughed like them.

I think I was their target more because of class than anything else. They hailed from a working-class neighborhood in the city, and they perceived me as a rich kid from the suburbs. My family wasn’t as wealthy as they thought it was, but perception is everything to 15-year-olds. I was smarter than they were too, and they didn’t like that either. But the clinching factor was that I was small enough to not look like a physical threat. I’ve never been a big guy, but a gym class injury in 8th grade rendered me unable to eat during my 8th grade growth spurt. I grew a couple of inches in the 8th grade and should have gained at least 10-15 pounds, but instead I grew a couple of inches and lost about 15 pounds.

There were football players who fit my general description too, hailing from the suburbs and having money. Tellingly, they left the football players alone.

I had problems with a lot of sophomores. Picking on freshman was a tradition, and the school administration encouraged it as long as it didn’t get physical.What made Steve and his goons special–if that’s the right word for it–was that it didn’t end the day my freshman year ended. Instead, it extended into sophomore year and it got physical.

I don’t remember anymore what the disagreement was about. Steve said something, and he didn’t like what I said back to him. I specifically remember him saying he was going to break me in two. Those were his exact words, and I remember it like it was yesterday. And I said back, “I’d like to see you try.” Though I was scrawny for my age, Steve wasn’t all that much bigger or heavier than me. I’d had physical altercations in grade school with kids who had a greater physical advantage over me than Steve had, and neither of them left so much as a scar. And besides, for a year and a half Steve had been all talk anyway.

Steve told me to meet him in the locker room in five minutes.

I didn’t know what Steve intended to happen. But I told a few friends what was going on. Steve evidently did the same, because when Steve showed up, he brought about a half dozen people with him, in addition to his usual two sidekicks. I had a comparable entourage.

As I recall, Steve charged at me right upon my arrival and grabbed me by the neck. He picked me up an inch or two off the floor and slammed me into a locker. I wiggled my way loose rather easily, said, “This is stupid. I’m leaving,” and left. I never threw a punch or did anything to try to retaliate.

Mr. Disciplinarian, the assistant principal, was waiting for me outside the door. He ordered me to his office. He located Steve and did the same thing.

Mr. Disciplinarian gave me one of the worst dressing downs I’ve ever received in my life. He said I was throwing away my entire future that morning.

“What’s your grade point average?” he demanded.

“Three point six,” I said without hesitating.

“So you could get some scholarships if you went to college,” he said. “I can suspend you and take all that away from you right here and now.”

Then Mr. Disciplinarian turned to Steve. “And you aren’t much behind him. What’s your grade-point?”

“Three point two,” Steve answered. I was surprised. I had no idea he knew how to spell G.E.D. up to that point.

Mr. Disciplinarian intended to suspend both of us at that point, if not outright expel one or both of us. It didn’t matter to him who started it, or that I ended it without so much as touching the other kid. Had it not been for my mom pointing out the facts to him, he probably would have. But mom pointed out that I made no attempt at retaliation, that I left the locker room, and he had no idea where I was going after that. So Mr. Disciplinarian sentenced us to a couple of weeks of washing windows, and couldn’t count me towards his quota of suspensions for the month.

A couple of my friends pointed out that if I had retaliated, Steve wouldn’t have stood much of a chance. While he was picking me up by the neck, all I had to do was punch, kick or knee him in the gut or the family jewels. If I’d really been looking for a fight, Steve would have been in some serious pain at that moment, and I’d let him go.

It’s been more than 20 years, but I’m still mad about the incident. Mostly because it was entirely preventable. Entirely.

My wife had scarcely known me two weeks when she asked me if I was bullied in school. I was 27 at the time.

“Why do you ask?” I asked her.

She told me I didn’t walk right. When you walk past someone, they need to see you looking up. Eye contact isn’t necessary, but if they see you looking down, they’ll always view you as vulnerable.

My wife was a grade school teacher at the time. If she knew that, so should any other teacher or administrator.

She was right. I’d picked up a bad habit in my youth. I was clumsy when I was younger and I would watch where I was stepping while I walked, and at age 27, I still hadn’t really stopped doing that. I’d been painting a target on my own back for years.

At the point in time when Steve told me to meet him in the locker room, I’d had about 15 different teachers. Not a single one of those 15 teachers ever told me that. Neither did any of the three school administrators or the three guidance counselors.

Taking 30 seconds to tell me sometime during my freshman year what my wife told me much later in life could have been the difference between Steve seeing me as a target as a sophomore or not, and heading off the entire problem.

That’s why I’m not a member of my high school’s alumni association, never intend to join, and never intend to give that school a dime. There’s no reason to reward incompetence.

Bringing things back to the present, I really don’t see what school administrators stand to gain by nosing into what’s going on over on Facebook. The biggest warning signs they need to see are right there in the halls. What kids look down when they walk instead of looking up? What kids seem down all the time?

Or, make it even simpler. What kids are unpopular? And does there seem to be any particular reason why?

There’s no reason to go looking for problems to respond to when there are a host of problems you can prevent in the first place. Mr. Disciplinarian needs to defend his school the same way I defend a computer network: Prevent problems proactively instead of reacting to problems. By the time you’re aware of the problem, damage is already done, and there’s no way to really know how much.

I’m a security professional. I protect computers instead of students, but the fundamentals of security are the same regardless of what you’re protecting. My advice to school administrators is to talk to a lawyer. If you’re not legally liable for something that happens somewhere, then don’t worry about what happens there.

Instead, concentrate on what’s happening where you are legally liable–probably on the school grounds–and do the very best job you can of finding the symptoms of problems and dealing with them there. And make sure the rest of your teachers have enough training to recognize and deal with problems.

And my motivation in saying that isn’t in preventing lawsuits. If you’re doing your job inside the confines of your legal liability, you’ll reduce the number of problems that happen outside your jurisdiction too. But if you let yourself become distracted by things that happen outside your zone of control, you risk missing things that are happening right outside your doorway.

And I’ll argue a second thing, based on my own recollections and those of other classmates. If your students feel safe, they’re a lot more likely to respect the school and its administration and less likely to cause problems. The only times I ever caused trouble, or planned to cause trouble–I had a number of plans I never carried out–were because I felt like I was in danger and causing trouble was the only way to protect my social standing, physical safety, or both.

My classmate Ken was a lot better at causing trouble than I was, and an order of magnitude better at not getting caught. Ken knew there was a fine line between being tolerated by your peers and being picked on, and Ken did a better job than I did of staying on the tolerated side of the line. Ken has come right out and admitted in writing that was his motivation.

I don’t know how to make teenagers feel more secure. Learn how to make them feel as secure as you can, however, and many of the problems you can’t see will solve themselves.

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4 thoughts on “School administrators need to focus on their hallways, not Facebook

  • May 8, 2012 at 7:37 am

    Dude, I had an almost identical experience with late-in-life advice from my grandpa that could have completely changed the trajectory of my grade school and high school careers if I’d heard it when I needed it instead of twenty years too late! We’re simpatico, brother.

  • May 8, 2012 at 9:39 am

    You have some good points. I think that is one thing that has been forgotten by teachers. Who now are more focused on grades. Not on showing someone how to be a man or woman. My father was sick pretty much my hole life growing up. Which didn’t help me as I got around 5th grade which is when the other kids started picking on me and I had a teacher that didn’t care. I would get in trouble not do homework and instead of helping which caused me to be held back a year. That year didn’t help I acted out more so I wouldn’t get picked on. She got to a point where when I got the guts to try and stand up and take on a challenge at a school play when one of the other kids got sick. I told her I could do the part she looked at me and told me to my face that I would just mess it up. After sixth grade my parents pulled me out of that school and put me into a new school I did much better at the new school and had vary nice teachers that took the time to help me. Then came high school. I was forced back with the same people who had picked on me and used me to pull the pranks that I had did at the old school to keep from getting picked on. Once more a teacher had the chance to help me with my self esteem. Miss Collens was my English teacher and I was not a good speller or good a writing because I didn’t give a shit. When we did get to something that I did give a shit about which was a fantasy writing. Which was the only books I read. I put a lot of work behind it and put all my effort into it. So the day comes to get the paper back and it doesn’t have a grade on it so I go to the teacher and ask why I don’t have a grade. Her answer to that is “This is to good to be your work you copied it out of some book I’m not going to give you a grade.” So I failed that class I didn’t give a shit any more. It wasn’t till I went off to school in Utah that I got some of the self confidence that I needed I was a top student was a vice president for my dorm. When I got back to St. Louis I joined the Sheriffs department and won the to academic award for my academy class. I’ve now been on the force for 14 years now I’m a certified instructor. I look back and always wonder what would have changed in my life if those teachers would have done things differently. So yes I think teachers need to do more then just look at facebook and grades. Now coming from what I have learned as a person in law enforcement. Students who are thinking or planing attack on a school will post things on facebook. That if noticed can help prevent them from happening.

  • May 8, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    Dan, that’s an incredible article. Thanks for sharing it.

    I think a certain vice-principal desperately needs to read it. Unless he’s one of those people in the article who’s beyond change.

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