Urge them to tell, but be reasonable

Did you ever make a nasty joke about hurting a classmate? Say you're going to kill someone, you're so angry?

Kids do it all the time. Many adults can remember making a comment or two that could have been misconstrued.

These are dicey times, when common modes of expression or outbursts of anger, however misguided, can prompt a school lockdown. More than a dozen students have been questioned for threats since the shooting last week in Santee, Calif., learning the hard way to watch their words.

If adults are unified on one point, it's to impress on kids the need to report threatening comments or actions. Several possible tragedies have been averted recently because of student willingness to break the code of silence.

But adults should also join forces on another issue: being reasonable. It's dangerous to put too much pressure on students to be the eyes and ears for problems - or to ostracize those who, after the fact, learn they made a serious but unintentional misjudgment.

Speaking up is hard. It's not always easy to know the difference between a real threat and jokes that have as their reference point a violence-saturated entertainment culture. Many adults would have trouble making the same call. Taking action is complicated by rigid zero-tolerance plans that can land a friend in serious trouble when he really was just venting or kidding around, however stupidly.

Adults need to stay alert. But they also have to see school life as the complex, nuanced, constantly changing, and largely safe entity that it is. That will help increase the kind of communication between students and adults that truly matters.

E-mail newcomba@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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