March 5th, 2012
06:00 AM ET

My View: It’s time to change schools’ culture of misery

Courtesy NEABy Jessie Klein, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jessie Klein is a sociology and criminal justice professor at Adelphi University. She is the author of “The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools.” During the last two decades, she led and administered high school guidance programs. She served as a supervisor, school social worker, college adviser, social studies teacher, substance abuse prevention counselor and conflict resolution coordinator and worked as a social work professor. You can see more of Klein’s work at

(CNN) - Misery has become the norm for young people in school - the Ohio school shooting last week and the case of the Rutgers University cyber-bullying suicide are only the most high-profile of recent related fatalities.

Such despairing actions like suicides and shootings aren’t aberrations. Kids across America are distressed and crying out for help in different ways. When they abuse substances, cut themselves, sink into debilitating depression and paralyzing anxiety, become truant, drop out of school or commit suicide or school shootings, they are saying the same thing: It is too much to bear.

These incidents and the hundreds that came in the decades before, are treated time and again as problems with the individual at the center of the story – but Tyler Clementi and T.J. Lane are not the only lonely teens who were at risk for drastic actions like suicide and shootings.

Educators, parents, and other concerned people often ask me to describe the profile of a bully or someone likely to commit suicide, but this is the wrong question. Instead, we need to examine problem-schools where kids endure a hostile environment every day.

Classic sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote in his seminal work, “Suicide,” that when the same affliction appears again and again, we must question whether something is amiss in our larger social, economic and political sphere. It is no longer reasonable to look merely at familial contexts or only at the pathology of a given individual. When school shootings and suicides persist as they do today, and in the company of high rates of depression, anxiety and social isolation among youth and adults, something must be wrong on a much larger level. Schools are in a position to be part of the solution - but too often they maintain the status quo where children are left to handle everything on their own.

Students are encouraged to be competitive and aggressive, to pursue success - socially and otherwise - with a single-minded zeal, and to step on anyone that gets in their way. Perhaps related, the 2004 General Social Survey reports that social isolation has tripled since the 1980s, while many studies show depression and anxiety have increased significantly among both adults and youth in the same time period.

We see this in the cases of Lane, the alleged school shooter in Ohio, and Clementi, who jumped off a bridge after his Rutgers University roommate broadcast online a sexual encounter between Clementi with a man; the roommate, Dharun Ravi, is now on trial for hate crimes and other charges. Lane and Clementi were both described by peers as outcasts. Lane is said to have few friends and a hard home life. Clementi was described as a loner, and lonely. In conversations reported in The New Yorker, Clementi had said: “I need some people in my life.” Both seemed irritated at the other’s “modest roots.”

Kids routinely speak about one another with racist, classist, and other forms of prejudice that objectify others. Girls get called “slut” and “whore,” boys get called “gay,” white poor people are called “white trash” and the list goes on. Increasing one’s social status by putting others down is par for the course. Broadcasting secrets or sexual images of each other is common and part of the culture of deceit, mistrust and cold clawing for recognition that students learn is necessary for social survival.

Schools can’t handle these problems by themselves – it’s difficult for the school community to flourish when it is infiltrated by violent media, hard economic times with little social support, and families without tools to help children navigate a harsh world. There aren’t enough counselors and social workers to help all the students who are having a hard time.

But individualizing the problem is just another way of avoiding it.

While working on my book, “The Bully Society,” I cataloged every shooting that took place in a school - not all of them high-profile or mass shootings - and found that between 1979 and 2009, approximately 30% of the school shootings were related to rage at schools for disciplinary practices which were perceived by the perpetrator to be unjust; 15% related to dating or domestic violence; another 20% consisted of violence directed specifically at girls or women; and 10% of the shootings were triggered by gay-bashing, in which heterosexually identified students tried to prove their masculinity through violence when their sexuality was questioned. These are social problems, not just individual matters.

Schools need to address the concerns children and teens face, openly and honestly and in an environment that promotes empathy. Kids - and adults - ought to be taught how to develop friendships based on trust and care, rather than competition and envy. Kids could use help to share deeply with each other instead of using one another’s secrets as valued commodities to be traded for social status. They need a reprieve from the bully society where so many are out to destroy others in order to make themselves look better

And kids need to be pathologized less. What they need is to be part of compassionate communities.

These can be created and developed by almost anyone. Counselors or social workers could be the ones to start a movement for creating more compassionate school communities - or teachers, parents, or other school faculty. Student leaders, even self-appointed, could build fervor for compassion and care in their schools.

I worked for five years as a social worker in a community-focused school, Humanities Preparatory Academy in New York. Every week, we had all-school, student-led meetings about issues that concerned the school. In Advisories, often called homerooms elsewhere, students discussed their concerns in smaller groups and participated in exercises that helped foster student and school faculty bonding. Even though it was an at-risk school for truant kids, and many came from devastating backgrounds including gangs, homelessness and domestic violence, we helped almost every student get into four-year colleges, and many with scholarships. This school continues to be a mostly peaceful and supportive place, especially as compared to other schools in the same area.

Schools could have all-school emergency meetings if anyone is hurt in the community; we can’t wait for the bullying to become “a repeated offense” as some define it. Prejudicial slurs of any kind should not be tolerated - including any racist, classist, sexist, or otherwise disparaging judgments. People need to stand up and say that speaking of one another pejoratively is unacceptable. It must become everyone’s mission to uphold values of concern for everyone. This can happen in so many ways, like students working in small groups with those whom they might not otherwise interact.

Every conflict and difficulty needs to become a teaching moment, not a cause for punishment. Students (and adults) must learn how to communicate with one another with respect.

With these efforts, our children will learn and grow with integrity, ethics and a warm regard for themselves and others. In such a school environment, we will have increasingly healthier children. We won’t have to look for what’s wrong with yet another child who exploded in one form or another - we’ll build schools, and in time, a larger society, where children (and adults) finally thrive.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Jessie Klein.



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Filed under: Behavior • Counselors • School violence • Voices
soundoff (619 Responses)
  1. Yes1fan

    Those of you dissing gym as a non-intellectual activity are missing the boat.
    My wife has severe Essential Tremor, and I can assure you that the ability to move your body properly in space involves a HIGH amount of brain activity.
    The entire back of your brain is devoted to receiving sensory response and forming a motor-response to it.
    Ask any Olympic athlete – if movements are not practiced to perfection and committed to "muscle memory", they will NOT occur properly.
    Taking out gym is the same thing as taking out the MAIN activity of the brain.
    There are ALL KINDS of education, and motion-education is probably the MOST, not LEAST important.

    March 7, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  2. Joe V

    It's gratifying that this problem is finally getting the proper attention that it deserves. And Ms. Klein is correct, this is a systemic, social problem. It's not simply about individual actions.

    I was bullied incessantly as a child, both in and out of school. My crime was being smarter, more well behaved and heavier than the other kids. The tactic of subjugating me and wrecking my self esteem worked beautifully for the bullies. I'm now in my fifty's and looking back I never fulfilled my potential in life. The lack of self-esteem and self-confidence was a severe handicap. A key to success in life is the ability to interact socially with others, but in my psychological state that type of interaction was never easy. So in my case the bullies won. Most of them probably have done much better in life than I have.

    This society has enormous group-behavioral problems. People don't act rationally, there is little self-restraint or consideration of the consequences of our actions either to ourselves or to others. People act like animals. Schools and neighborhoods are where the seeds of our society are nurtured. If we don't work to eliminate the root-causes of these behavioral problems, which have their genesis at the beginning of life, then we will never solve them.

    March 7, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  3. Heebie Jeebie

    all a student must declare a war on a bully. find a best bully and kick a bully. if a bully very big and powerful, practice on a smaller bully first and move up to the highest bully.

    March 7, 2012 at 1:59 am |

      The absurdity of this post gave me a good laugh this morning. Thanks.

      March 7, 2012 at 6:53 am |
    • Joe V

      I can understand your sentiment, but turning yourself into just another bully isn't going to solve anything. All you will be doing is perpetuating the cycle.

      March 7, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  4. Best

    @Ggmama, just because you scare your kids away into silence doesnt mean your kids will end up perfect. since you are against 'holding their hand' (you sound very cold) they will just hide things from you, do things behind your back, and run from you. your kids will be the ones too afraid to tell you that they are pregnant & need help or on drugs etc, and then you find your kid OD'd or daughter runs away to get married because she is pregnant. kids and people need BALANCE. THAT INCLUDES COMPASSION, LOVE.

    March 7, 2012 at 12:26 am |
    • ggmama

      You are confusing my expectations with lack of understanding. Since when is it cold to expect my students to observe boundaries? Is this not a critical skill in the future? And asking them what they think and listening to their reply is cold. Wow, should I just let them run around my classroom and do whatever their underdeveloped frontal lobes urge them to do? Your response is exactly what is wrong with parenting today. You think compassion cannot accompany expectation...that is balance. Nevermind that I have former students frequently visiting or that I have received numerous thank you s from parents and students. I show my students more compassion and judge less than you showed me in your response.

      March 7, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  5. gupsphoo

    When I was a high school student over 20 years ago, a fellow student in my English class laughed at me because I was taking Calculus. He said I was wasting my time because we didn't even need Algebra in our daily living. We need to change the American culture in general.

    March 7, 2012 at 12:19 am |
  6. Best

    I agree with John. thats been my problem as well, im naturally way too nice, my daughters as well. the majority of the world is down right mean & self centered. its not a school thing, it is a society thing. the breakdown of the family unit, corrupt leaders in our communities, television/media, and now especially social media-which plays into everyones ego, making them feel like a self-centered star! stars feel like everyone is beneath them, and that spreads everywhere they go-school, work, home.

    March 7, 2012 at 12:15 am |
  7. Ggmama

    A kid does well in a class, we praise the kid.
    A kid does poorly in a class, we blame the teacher.
    A kid is accepted into an Ivy-league college, we ask the parents how they did it.
    A kid drops out of school, we ask why the school didn't do more.
    A kid is kind to another, we praise the family.
    A kid bullys another, we ask why the school is not doing more.

    The teachers real obligation is to TEACH to their content area. Now we want teachers to monitor student achievement, struggle, behavior and penchant towards violence with 35 other students in the classroom during 45-minutes of class? Learning respect and boundaries comes from home. Start at an early age and practice it yourself. Verbally bashing teachers, coworks, other family members in front of your kid teaches them how to treat others. Put away the helicopter, encourage and challenge your kids, and above all, allow them to struggle. This is a part of life and they need to learn how to be resilient. They also need to learn that they can stand on their own feet. If we keep holding their hands, they will never learn to cope with their problems. Common sense. My students respect me, because I am honest with them. I set clear boundaries. I do what I say. I ask them what they think. I listen to them. I treat them like adults, and I hold them accountable for their behavior. Therefore, I rarely have any behavior issues in my class, but I will tell you it takes a lot of work when I have parents that pull their kids out of school to go shopping.

    March 7, 2012 at 12:01 am |
  8. Xena

    THis article has many rings of truth. In my school, even though I have the privilege and the talent to get into a prestigious Catholic high school. You'd think, that since I attend said school, which emphasizes on religion and respecting each other, kids are bullied, outcast, and picked on on a daily basis. People are cruel, and mean, and selfish. It's one behind the backs of adults as well. And most who see it, it's see no evil, hear no evil. It's disgusting, but in public schools I bet it's even worse. Cherry Valance said in the Outsiders that "things are rough all over." it's true. To my fellow students reading this article, I hate to sound like a cliche, but make friends with the loner kid who has a rough time. It saves lives sometimes.

    March 6, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • Claire

      Well said.

      March 6, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
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