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Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

October 19, 2007

What Can We Do About the Teen Code of Silence?

Recently, a handwritten note was dropped on a stairway at my daughter’s Catholic high school. Not a really big deal when you consider that almost 700 students bounce through the school corridors every day. But this note—recovered by one of the cleaning staff—was a death threat. It was aimed at six of the school's high profile African American students in a student body that’s proud of its 16% minority enrollment.

The school administration acted fast. Threatened students and their parents were called in. The students agreed not to come to school the next day. The police were notified and a thorough investigation began. Two weeks later, after front-page coverage in the local newspaper, everyone in town knows about the note dropped on the stairway at our high school. But the writer of the note has not been identified. Many questions remain:

• Who wrote the note?
• Was the note dropped accidentally or on purpose?
• Was this a serious threat born of sick, racial hatred?
• Or was this just a really stupid adolescent prank?

For school administrators, teachers and law enforcement authorities, there’s another big question:

• Aren’t there any students at this school who saw or heard something about this hate note?

Adults who work with teens know they’re up against a brick wall in cases like this. Catholic school teens seem to be no different. That brick wall is the unspoken “Teen Code of Silence.” Teens really don’t want to “rat” on one another—no matter what. They close ranks. They stick with the code.

Often, their silence is understandable. There could be reprisals if one teen tells on another, and word gets around. Young people are also terrified by the social ostracism that could come with being identified as a “snitch” or a “tattle tale.” Added to that, high school students also believe that they should mind their own business. “I don’t bother anyone else. They don’t bother me” seems to be a key part of the teen code.

How Do You See This Issue? How Do You Handle It?

1. Has your school faced issues like the one described above?
2. When have you experienced this “Code of Silence” among your students?
3. How can teachers and administrators help teens balance this wide-spread “don’t rat” policy with concern for truth, justice and the welfare of those who can hurt others or themselves.

For further information on this issue, see how schools and school districts in
Starkville, Mississippi, Boston, and Silver Springs, Maryland have handled the problem.

If you have any valuable ideas, please feel free to share them in the comment section below.

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