The Days of the Ostrich Can and Must End

August 01, 2003

Some months ago the West Virginia Board of Education, with the help of many, including Mike Hayden, developed and initiated a Student Code of Conduct and an Employee Code of Conduct. They are sound policies with meaningful language. But we all know that written requirements often need fierce implementation to be truly meaningful. We are asking for your help.  

Developing the policies was not easy. Some urged that we could never “fix the problem”, a problem as old as time, so why try to tackle it? Others fought the Board's commitment to the well-being of all students and all staff. Other critics picked at the language of the Student Code, and decided it was “too much work”. These critics missed the whole point that the policies should lead to a changed culture.  

On the other hand, the need to deal with the problem was well known by the Board: everyone who has been a student-indeed, anyone who has lived!-has experienced bullying, hurtful teasing, or some other sort of wrongful conduct. Many if not most adults vividly recall when they were bullied or witnessed bullying or when they bullied. All of us know that the problem is rampant; so what we must do is admit that it is in every aspect of school. We have to admit it and stop ignoring it when we see it. We have to make sure that we allow ourselves to see it. I know that if you take just a moment you can recall instances of bullying or harassment which you witnessed or heard about during the course of the last school year. I would bet that many of them were ignored.  

In fact, when we were developing the Codes we recalled that from time to time we had received reports from the 55 counties regarding incidents of harassment. The statistics were shocking, but not as you might expect. The reported incidents were very low. They were so low that they were obviously false. Maybe they were not “intentionally false” but at the very least they displayed the age-old ostrich approach.  

The Codes of Conduct, in their spirit as well as in their letter, must be communicated, implemented, and modeled by all educators. To ignore wrongful acts and hurtful words sends a message to students which destroys their expectation for the safe and appropriate learning environment to which they are entitled.  

The conduct of all school employees and the students in their charge greatly affects the quality of education provided to each student and the development of the whole child. Our children become victims or are witnesses to bullying, harassment, intimidation, and other such wrongful conduct every day. It happens in the classrooms and in the hallways. It happens to the public school students, the private school students, and the home schooled students. It happens on the playing field, the practice court, the band room, and on the school bus. It happens because some adults in positions of authority are perpetrators and because some other adults in positions of authority are enablers. We have allowed wrongful conduct to happen in our presence. We have been made aware of it and we have minimized or otherwise ignored it. Wrongful conduct happens because adults and some students have come to expect it. We owe it to our children and to each other to break the cycle. Everyone involved in the educational process must make this commitment because now we all know that the impact on a child can be devastating and even life-altering. By 2003 we all should have learned that it puts lives a stake.  

The Codes of Conduct were implemented to protect students and staff. They were implemented to help empower students and staff. They were designed to raise awareness and to require facing and addressing these problems. YES, IT CAN BE ELIMINATED IN SCHOOL SETTINGS. It takes: 1) the decision to rid ourselves of the mentality that “boys will be boys” or “girls can be so cruel”; 2) the acceptance of the approach that “reporting is right” and required; and 3) setting the example of “good conduct” and requiring nothing less.  

The appropriate school climate will cause former victims to want to come to school. It will make our students “better learners” whether learning mathematics, baseball, or how to play a trombone. The appropriate school climate will make students and staff alike better human beings. Principals, coaches, and teachers must take their leadership roles, responsibilities, and obligations seriously. Simply put, parents and students must be consistently shown that everyone in the school system will require that every other person will be treated with respect.  

The Codes of Conduct require each student and each employee to “do the right thing”, look, listen, and follow-through. Make sure that neither you nor anyone in your presence mistreats any other school employee or student. Let that expectation be known consistently through your words and conduct. Then and only then will you have that model “classroom” wherever and whatever it is that you are “teaching” and the students are “learning.”  

Most importantly eliminate from your thoughts and actions the antiquated idea that reporting is tattling and tattling is wrong. Examine your “style” and make sure it includes modeling and teaching respect and compassion. Don't look the other way any more. Let your students and colleagues know that you will do your part to make sure that those days are done. Do bury one thing: bury the concept of tattling. Greet the school year by taking the Codes of Conduct to heart and to action. Show your students that they can count on YOU to “right the wrongs”. It could save a life. It will break the cycle. And it is the right thing.  

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