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.