Education Opinion

Reflections on Columbine: Standards for The Heart?

By Tony Wagner — May 12, 1999 4 min read
The No. 1 concern of most students is that their schools are uncaring places where lack of respect is the norm.

Killing classmates is made more imaginable for adolescents by glorified revenge fantasies in the media and video games, and it is easier to accomplish with ready access to guns, but the root cause is neither of these. It is the absence of community for a growing number of young people. And reweaving that safety net of caring and respect for all our youths is everyone’s responsibility.

A 17-year-old Columbine High School junior, Breanna Cook, framed the problem clearly in the April 23 edition of The New York Times: “I mean, it was just like it must be at every other high school in America. You know, kids can be really mean to each other, really cruel.”

Breanna sees a problem in schools that too many adults ignore. In dozens of focus groups I’ve conducted with high school students all over the country in every kind of school--public and private, urban and suburban--the No. 1 concern of most students is not physical safety, as most adults may believe. It is that their schools are uncaring places where lack of respect is the norm.

Typically, a small percentage of kids--the ones perceived as the “winners"--get most of the attention and respect from peers and adults alike. Many of the rest remain anonymous, at best, or are taunted as “losers"--the tag most frequently attached to Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, and their black-trench-coated friends.

In the past, parents, extended family, dedicated teachers, and other adult mentors have often ameliorated damage done by indifferent teachers and mean-spirited students. Much less so today. Most adults are too preoccupied with their own frenetic lives to notice. Or worse, they assume that it is normal for adolescents to be cruel to one another and may even join in the derision.

Two important studies document the problem of adolescent isolation and adult indifference and disrespect. One of the most startling findings of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Reed Larson’s landmark--but seldom-discussed--1984 study, Being Adolescent, was the tremendous amount of time American adolescents spent alone--27 percent of their waking hours, which is considerably more than in other societies. The study went on to report the small amount of time adolescents spent with adults. Time spent exclusively with parents was less than 5 percent, and rarely did teenagers report talking personally with a teacher.

To rebuild community in schools, educators must be held accountable for more than just test scores.

In fact, a recent Public Agenda report, “Getting By: What American Teenagers Really Think of Their Schools,” suggests that many teachers are part of the problem. Only 41 percent of the public school students surveyed said that most of their teachers treated them with respect, while 64 percent said they would learn “a lot more” from teachers who cared personally about them. In my own experience, high school teachers often use sarcasm and ridicule to show how clever they are and to punish students whom they view as disobedient.

To rebuild community in schools, educators must he held accountable for more than just test scores. All schools need to assess their climate--how people treat one another in the building--and develop meaningful citizenship standards for both adults and students. To enable teachers to know and care for their students, school units must be smaller, and teachers should spend several years with the same group of students. In schools that have taken these steps, student behavior and achievement have improved dramatically. It is increasingly clear that the creation of smaller, more respectful learning communities is what best motivates students to reach high academic standards.

But teachers cannot do it alone. Parents have to spend more quality time with their kids--and talk more about their children’s interests and less about grades and test scores. Other adults have important roles to play as well. Adolescents need more opportunities to form productive relationships with adults through big-brother and big-sister programs, extracurricular activities, internships, and community service.

It is time to stop the scapegoating around issues of teenage violence. If we want to end the killing in schools, each of us must take greater responsibility for helping to ensure that every young person feels valued and has an opportunity to develop his or her unique gifts. We must also get our education priorities straight. More important than improved test scores or winning school teams is the need for standards of citizenship. Finally, we need to understand that students learn such lessons by example, not by rote, and so adults must model the qualities of the heart that we hope to instill in the young. The challenge to end school violence is ultimately a call for each of us to treat one another with a little more kindness and compassion.

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 1999 edition of Education Week as Reflections on Columbine: Standards for The Heart?