15 Years After Columbine: How Safe Are our Schools from Bullying and Violence Today?

April 15 2014


April 20th, 1999, Columbine High School. That day and the horrific events that unfolded there are forever etched in my brain. I remember turning on my television and not believing what I was viewing. Students jumping out of windows, SWAT teams rushing the school, and parents with terrified looks on their faces awaiting the news of whether their children were alive or dead.

Fast-forward to today, 2014. We’ve had 15 years to respond; spent billions of dollars, passed countless laws and regulations, implemented hundreds of programs and activities in our schools, attended untold numbers of conferences, trainings and summits all to find answers and solutions for reducing, preventing and ultimately stopping emotional and physical violence. 

How have we as a nation done in effectively addressing school violence, bullying and all the other ways young people hurt one another? It’s a very complex issue, and in spite of all the efforts we’ve undertaken, the bottom line is we have not achieved the results we desperately want.

Let me start by saying I am grateful for all the efforts, resources and people who have worked so hard to understand the bullying “epidemic” and do so much to stem it and to stop it. To date there is greater awareness than ever about the topic, and there is increased understanding of how serious it is and how many youth, adults and families are significantly impacted by emotional and physical violence.

We’ve seen virtually every state in our nation pass legislation, regulations and laws to address bullying, cyberbullying and harassment. Funding has been provided from government, foundations, corporations and individuals to bring programs and activities to schools and communities across the nation. Public service campaigns and initiatives have proliferated on the Internet, and more citizens than ever disagree with the notion that bullying is a “boys will be boys” acceptable rite of passage.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t reflect on my own journey, observations and learnings over the past 15 years and working with more than 1500 schools. Over that time span, our organization, Community Matters, has had a very singular focus: to “wake up the courage” of youth and adults to create safer schools where everyone can feel safe, welcome and included.

So, here’s my “scorecard” and summary of our progress to date:
Bullying has not abated, it has “mutated”. It is younger, meaner, harder to see, and more relational than physical. It is frightfully more acceptable by too many young people who too often are passive bystanders who watch the suffering of others, or they are “voyeurs” using their smartphones to take pictures and videos for a You Tube moment. 

It’s not like we haven’t applied resources to solve this ongoing problem. We’ve tried to lock the bad guys out, we’ve passed law upon law and we’ve attempted to punish and suspend our way out, all with limited effectiveness and success.

It’s time for a new approach. And it’s time to speak up and call for a new direction, bold leadership, and the courage to put our efforts into what can work and already does. This includes:

  1. Understanding that the way to effectively address emotional and physical violence is to change the conditions in the school environment that allow the “virus” of meanness to occur.
  2. Recognize the importance and benefits of seeing school climate as the fundamental and primary driver for creating safer schools, improving achievement, reducing discipline and fostering high performing and thriving schools.
  3. Be courageous enough to look beyond the old tried and worn practices and embrace a new paradigm, one where we invest in “inside-out” solutions. The roadmap for success involves four key components. They are:
  • Focus on Relationships - creating opportunities for students, staff, parents, families and the broader community to know one another, to build trust and mutual respect, and to maintain open channels of communication.
  • Increase Student Voice- empowering all young people by involving them in real problem-solving, decision-making and opportunities that allow them to be contributors and peacemakers.
  • Restorative Practices – move away from "catch and punish" to "connect and correct", utilizing proven practices such as community circles, restorative circles, peer courts and community service as mechanisms to help young people learn from their mistakes, make amends to those they’ve wronged, and improve future behavior.
  • Social Norms Change - improving behavior not through punitive rules and policies, but rather through changing attitudes and beliefs which are influenced and largely established by students.

Columbine shattered our long held belief that our schools are safe havens for our children. Today we know a different reality and that school safety is not a guarantee. To re-establish our schools as places where all children can feel safe, welcome and included requires courage, leadership and the commitment of each one of us; parents, educators, legislators, funders, community members and each young person. We must recognize that we are in this together, and therefore, we must all raise our voices and speak up when we see injustice and intolerance in our midst. We can do it, and we know the way. Let’s start now.

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