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Decoding Students' Code of Silence

If your child knew of a fellow student's plan to "do something dangerous," could you count on him or her to tell an adult?

A study in the February Journal of Educational Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association, tries to tease out the circumstances that lead kids to either intervene or look the other way when they hear a risky plot's afoot. The research is aimed at preventing such tragic incidents as mass shootings at schools.

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Missouri State University asked 1,740 middle- and high-school students from 13 schools what they would do if they heard of another student's plan to "do something dangerous." Would they intervene directly, tell a teacher or principal, talk about the situation with a friend but not tell an adult, or simply do nothing?

The results, while not terribly surprising, highlight areas we as parents and members of school communities should give more thought to.

Overall, kids were more likely to take action of some sort when they felt part of a strong school community. That condition may be a bit harder to maintain in high schools than in middle schools, the authors suggest, as high schools generally are larger and their student communities more diffuse. That might explain the fact that high-school students in general were less likely than middle-schoolers to say they'd talk to the student planning the dangerous activity or to a teacher or principal.

The study further found that students might be less likely to speak up to a teacher or principal if they feared doing so would get them into trouble or have other negative consequences. Rigid policies such as "zero tolerance" of untoward behavior might backfire, the study suggests, if they lead students to keep mum for fear of speaking up.

Do your kids' schools seem to foster a strong sense of community? Can your child speak freely to teachers and administrators and know he'll be listened to and treated fairly? What can we as parents and members of the school community do to make things better? The stakes are high.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  February 16, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , Pyschology  
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