When Bill Korach witnessed white high school students heckling an African-American basketball player with chants of “fifth-year senior” and “you can’t read” at a game last school year, the Lake Oswego school district superintendent knew he had a problem that required outside help.
The basketball game was one of several incidents in which Lake Oswego students humiliated their peers, driving Mr. Korach to create a “respectful-culture committee” in the 7,100-student district in suburban Portland, Ore.
The superintendent enlisted 15 community members, many of them parents with children in the district, to dig into the underlying reasons for the behavior. The panel—with members who have expertise in psychology, social work, and corrections—held its first meeting late last month.
“These incidents we were seeing were very different,” Mr. Korach said. “There were cases of students bringing video cameras to record some of these incidents. It seemed like a sport to them.”
Sue Hildick, the president of the Chalkboard Project, a coalition of Oregon foundations working with the public to improve schools, said many districts have adopted classroom curricula to teach civility, but Lake Oswego’s efforts could be among the first to tackle the issue at the district level.
Popular culture, particularly television reality shows whose currency is humiliating participants, is a likely influence on recent incidents, Mr. Korach said. And technology popular with teenagers—text messaging, Web logs, and e-mail—makes bullying more anonymous and humiliation more public.
Lake Oswego’s demographics—largely white and affluent—may also be influencing attitudes and behavior, he said. “When we talked to the kids who were riding the black basketball player, they weren’t aware at all of how those messages would be received. They didn’t see it as a racial dynamic at all.”
Now, it’s up to the committee to help district leaders figure out how pervasive such misunderstandings and attitudes are among students and propose ideas for addressing them.
“One of the things we will do is talk to students and find a way for them to be as candid as possible with us,” said Marci Nemhauser, the psychologist who is chairing the committee. “Then, we need to find ways to teach our students strategies and skills to handle these situations.”