Schools need to break code of silence among students

The Associated Press
Wednesday March 07, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Imagine you’re a teen-ager and one of your friends casually says he hates school, then threatens to take a gun to campus and shoot classmates. 

Do you tell a parent or school administrator and risk being labeled a snitch? Or do you laugh it off, thinking your friend can’t be serious? 

Many teens choose to stay quiet, honoring an unspoken code of silence that runs strong among adolescents. Eager to fit in, many fear they will be ostracized if they turn on their peers. 

“Kids have this unspoken agreement among them, and they are extremely reluctant to violate that,” said Cindi Carlisle, a middle school counselor and critical incidents response committee chair for the American School Counselor Association, an Alexandria, Va.-based group. 

“Until that is changed, I don’t think we are going to have access to that dangerous information that we want,” she said. 

Days before the attack at Santana High School that left two people dead and 13 wounded, suspect Charles Andrew Williams allegedly discussed his plan with friends. But they failed to report the threats because they thought he was joking and didn’t want to get him in trouble. 

Barry Gibson, 18, who was wounded in Monday’s shooting in Santee, Calif., believes there is nothing schools can do to prevent similar violence until students start coming forward. 

“It depends on kids saying something when they see something,” said Gibson, who was shot in his left thigh. “Kids shouldn’t be afraid to say something, but they are.” 

Others said school administrators, community members and parents must all play a part in breaking the silence. 

Authorities have been taking threats of violence more seriously since the 1999 Columbine shooting. In at least four cases last month, students nationwide alerted authorities to threats, heading off potential campus violence. 

Michael Pine, a consultant with the Safe Schools Center, a program of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said students must weigh the code of silence against the high stakes that may be involved in a violent incident. 

Some parents and community members in Santee were sad and even angry to think the attack might have been prevented if students had reported the threats. 

Anna Hildt, who has a niece at a Santee middle school, was surprised when she learned that another student had heard threats from the alleged gunman days before the attack. 

”(The student) was a good friend because he was loyal. He would have been a better friend if he had gotten (the gunman) help,” Hildt said. 

To change the cycle, Stephen Wallace, national chair of Students Against Destructive Behavior, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group, said an environment must be created in which students recognize and report inappropriate behavior. 

“If we get rid of the underbrush of jokes about violence – because we all know kids talk about committing violent acts all the time – it will become much more apparent those threats of violence that need to be taken seriously,” he said. 

“Just like you can’t yell bomb in an airport, you should not be able to talk about violence in schools and chalk it up to humor.” 

Both Wallace and Carlisle say school safety committees and programs, especially peer-to-peer groups, have proven to be effective. 



Officials said parents also must communicate with their children at home. 

Pat Palma, a Santee resident, said that since Monday’s tragedy, she has had conversations with her 8-year-old son about turning in peers who threaten to hurt people. 

“I’ve had to talk to him about sex and drugs. Now I have to tell him to hit the floor if he hears gun fire,” she said.