Over the years, I haven’t been bashful when it comes to sharing my thoughts on issues that trouble me with those who are in a position to make a meaningful difference. While I seldom receive even the courtesy of a response, let alone some indication that my efforts have moved the needle however slightly in favor of the changes I believe are warranted, it really hasn’t dissuaded me from continuing to make my feelings known, as will be evident from the next few days’ posts, which exemplify the would be “world-changer” in me. The following letter is an example of my efforts. It was written the day after news broke that a 13 yr. old middle-schooler, who later was convicted of first degree murder, slit the throat of a middle school classmate and then stabbed him 42 times in a school restroom. I not only sent it to then Governor Bush, but to the principals and headmasters of several local elementary, middle and high schools:
February 4, 2004
The Honorable Jeb Bush
Governor, State of Florida
Dear Governor Bush,
Yesterday, Miami joined a growing list of communities struggling to come to grips with a horrifying reality – our children are killing each other at school. Now, the search for “answers” begins. Some will suggest that these kinds of heinous acts are inevitable, given the extent to which we, as a society (and, more specifically, our children) have become desensitized to violence through exposure to increasingly graphic and, in some instances, pornographic video games, movies, music, and television shows, and there certainly appears to be an ever-expanding body of scientific and psychological literature to support that point of view. Others will point to what they perceive to be the deterioration of the family unit – the fact that many of today’s moms and dads, either out of desire or necessity, work too much and, as result, are simply “too busy” or too self-absorbed to devote the time and energy required to effectively parent their children. Still others will continue to dismiss or otherwise disregard these “warning signs,” naively believing that unspeakable events, like those that shook the Southwood Middle School community, are simply isolated manifestations of hopelessly “troubled” young people.
I suspect that some combination of the foregoing societal factors may eventually help to “explain” what happened at Southwood Middle School yesterday, but I do not believe they tell the whole story. Last night, I discussed this incident with my 18 year son, who, in 3 short months, will be graduating from a local private high school. When he dispassionately told me he was “surprised [things like this] don’t happen more often,” my jaw nearly hit the floor and my heart sank. Urged to explain the basis for his disturbing comment, my son simply responded: “Dad, you have no idea how kids treat each other these days . . .” Unfortunately, that was not the first time our children have shared this rather heartbreaking sentiment with my wife and I during their middle and high school years, nor, I suspect, will it be the last, unless all of us commit to doing what is necessary to address what I submit is this at the root of the “student killing student” problem – children need to learn how to relate to one another and, more importantly, how to resolve conflict without the use of violence and school administrators and teachers need to be more proactive in recognizing and taking steps to intervene in student/student conflicts before it’s too late.
Three years ago, I tried to emphasize this point in a letter that I sent to the administration of a local school in explaining our decision to take our children out of the school. The name of the school is inconsequential, the message is not:
“(*) also needs to do more to build a sense of relationship and community among its students. As a Christian school, (*) should be on the cutting edge in programs designed to instill in its students a sense of belonging, friendship, integrity, and character. Instead, dozens of students feel alienated from their peers and are unsure how to break into the “cliques” that have been allowed to flourish at (*) over the years. While a weekly chapel service certainly is a step in the right direction, (*) can and should do more. Among other things, (*) should take a page out of several institutions of higher learning and implement a student administered Honor Code designed to: (a) prevent and/or properly address cheating; and (b) educate students about the importance of intellectual honesty and integrity.
In addition, (*) needs to establish a mandatory course that focuses on the complexities of interpersonal relationships. Students need to be taught, in a creative fashion (i.e., through role playing, etc.) how to interact with one another, the importance of friendship, the meaning of friendship, and the devastating impact that a lack of kindness and compassion can have on their peers. Students also need to be taught how to deal with conflicts among themselves constructively and without resorting to violence or abusive tactics. Historically, we have depended on the family to instill these fundamental values. However, recent history teaches us that we simply no longer can take these critical life skills for granted. They need to be reinforced, if not taught, in the environment where they are being played out every day and, where our children are concerned, that environment is (*).”
Governor Bush, as a fellow parent, I implore you to take a careful look at this evolving and deadly “disease” that is infecting the most precious commodity of our State and our country (i.e., our children) and to act aggressively to wipe it out before it claims another innocent life.
(Note: 5 years later, a 17 year old 10th grader at a local high school was stabbed to death by a classmate in a courtyard altercation over a girl. He was later found guilty of second degree murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison. I suspect, heart-breakingly, that it won’t be the last tragedy of its kind).