Let’s Make It Safe to Tell

Violence prevention expert Beverly Kingston, PhD, at the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence Institute of Behavioral Science, explains the importance of bystander reporting in cases of bullying and school violence.

When I was 12 years old, I was bullied at school. As one of the smallest kids in my class, I was an easy target. I never told anyone—not my parents or any other adult—and nobody else at my school spoke up about it either. I tried to pretend it wasn’t happening, but I was scared every day, and I didn’t learn very well during that year.

That year was 1980, and as a society we didn’t yet realize how harmful bullying was to all involved. The famous poet Maya Angelou says, “When you know better, you do better.” Today we know better. Yet despite encouragement from adults, most young people don’t tell adults when they are being bullied. According to the 2012 MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey, fewer than half the students (46%) who were victims of bullying in the past 12 months have talked to an adult about being bullied. Only 1 in 3 students (31%) who witnessed someone being bullied at school in the past 12 months told an adult about the bullying.

In some instances, the failure to tell has life-or-death consequences. Unchecked bullying may lead to suicide or targeted school violence. Bullying victims are three times as likely as non-victims to seriously consider attempting suicide. In a study of school shootings conducted by the U.S. Secret Service, many of the attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to carrying out the attack. And in 4 out of 5 incidents, at least one person had prior information that the attacker was thinking about or planning the school attack. Of those individuals who had prior knowledge, 93% were peers of the perpetrator. 

“When you know better, you do better.” —Maya Angelou

Although we know it’s critical that our young people report safety concerns to a trusted and caring adult, the majority of the time it is not happening. How can we encourage young people to come forward when they learn of something that may cause harm to others—or even themselves?

Here are 5 ways to make it safe to tell:

1. Teach young people that reporting anything related to the safety of anyone is their responsibility.
2. Teach young people how to tell a trusted adult that they have a safety concern—which means that they may need to keep telling until someone takes action.
3. Create a climate in which young people feel comfortable sharing sensitive information regarding a potentially threatening situation. Do this by developing meaningful social and emotional connections and creating an environment of mutual respect.
4. Train adults on how to properly respond to students who provide them with information about a threatening or disturbing situation.
5. Provide an anonymous way to report information safely.

As Martin Luther King so eloquently stated, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Let’s break the code of silence and look out for each other. We know better—now let’s do better!

Your Turn

Has your school implemented strategies to make it safe to report instances of bullying or violence? What lessons have you learned? We’d like to hear from you. Please leave your comments below.


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