Draped across almost every school entrance in this county are slogans like “The Bobcats/Lancers/Eagles stand for Respect! Integrity! Honor! Honesty!” Down the hall are variations on the theme: “Make good choices!” “Doing the right thing is never easy!” “Be the change you want to see!” And there’s always a poster telling the kids to report bullying to an adult.
But in my 20 years of working with schools, my experience has been that most students believe those are superficial slogans that have little to do with how people actually treat one aother in the school community. In fact, the slogans serve as a constant and visible reminder of adult hypocrisy, particularly in a school where one group of students has tremendous social power. Adults are either too scared or too aligned with those who have status to ever help those who don't. They often give the powerful free rein to do whatever they want and even protect them from any consequences.
The recent indictments of Steubenville superintendent Michael McVey; principal of the elementary school, Lynnett Gorman; football coach Michael Belardine and wrestling coach Seth Fluharty are a rare example of adults being held accountable. The specific charges concern underage drinking, failure to report child abuse or neglect, and obstruction. But what those adults really did was contribute to an overall school culture where every student knows that if you have power in that community you can abuse it. You can hurt others and you will be the one protected.
Let’s be clear about the Steubenville case: The boys who committed sexual assault should be held accountable for their actions. But in my experience, and unfortunately I’ve had a lot, the vast majority of these assaults take place specifically because some combination of parents, coaches and administrators nurture, condone and support the entitlement these boys feel to use other people for their own entertainment and exercise of power.
Further, when the boys’ actions are somehow exposed and could have consequences that negatively impact their collective reputation, the adults actively collude to discredit the victim and discourage anyone else from supporting him or her. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a parent whose 17-year-old son was sexually assaulted in a high school locker room shower. She told me that a booster club mom had called her to try to convince her family to keep quiet: "Do you really want everyone to know that your son was sodomized? Wouldn’t that be embarrassing? Anyway, it was just horseplay that got a little out of hand.”
The bottom line is: Adults have little to no credibility for many young people. My students are never surprised when an adult acts cowardly or hypocritically. Sadly, when an adult stands up for a deserving student, many are shocked. When young people see an adult protect a student who doesn’t make them look good, come from the “right” family or have some kind of social status, they are amazed and it profoundly matters to them. They desperately want adults they can believe in.
For every case like Steubenville, where the adults are found out, there are many, many more where the adults continue to hold positions of authority over our children and get away with the same unethical behavior. Young people’s deserved cynicism has broad implications. We say we want kids to be contributing members of our communities. We say we want them to be truthful and to stand up for what’s right. Then we're shocked when they aren't and they don’t, and shake our heads at the morality of today’s youth.
The best way to prove to young people that adults can be taken seriously is to hold one another accountable. That’s a powerful life lesson. Can we please be the adults our kids deserve? How many of these cases could be avoided if adults took the messages on those banners to heart and acted accordingly?
Have you seen a recent example of an adult behaving cowardly? Post a comment and share it here.
Rosalind Wiseman is the author of the new best seller Masterminds and Wingmen as well as Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads. For more info, go to rosalindwiseman.com. Do you have a parenting question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.