In the Lull before the Storm…Break the Code of Silence



By Wolfgang W. Halbig (published in the March 2000 edition of the American School Board Journal)


The words of the oft-used lament “could have… should have… would have”, tragically, describe sentiments of regret shared by numbers of students in Pearl, Mississippi; Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Littleton, Colorado; and other communities across the nation, wherein young people failed to seize the opportunity to Break the Code of Silence. Their reticence to bring to the attention of responsible adults the voiced intentions of fellow students bent on violence was a common denominator in each tragic scenario. Their silence is a powerful testimony to the need to provide our nation’s youth with programs and vehicles that encourage and make easy their reporting threats made by their peers against life and property. In a number of the cases of violence that have resulted in injuries and fatalities in public schools during the past two years, there were students who could have alerted authorities to potential danger. They should have felt comfortable and expected to do so, as a result of concerted school district initiatives to encourage such behavior. Had the students acted on information they possessed, lives likely would have been saved.


That a Code of Silence exists should not come as a surprise to parents, school administrators, School Board Members, legislators, or law enforcement officials. Students historically have been loath to tattle, “rat,” or  “narc” on their peers, particularly in secondary grades when social acceptance is of such importance to adolescents. The taboos that often thwart responsible actions are powerfully ingrained in the youth culture.


A decade ago, President Bush and the governors of all 50 states adopted eight national goals for education and established the target year 2000 for their attainment. Goal Seven reads, “By the year 2000, every school in America will be free of drugs and violence and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.” The events of violence in public schools across our country over the past two years alarmingly remind us that, while some gains have been made, much still needs to be done to realize the lofty aims of Goal Seven. Kenneth J. Cooper of the Washington Post recently reported, “In the case of two goals, teacher quality and school safety, the (National Education Goals) panel reported the nation has, in fact, gone backward.”


Charles W. Colson, lay minister, author, and former attorney and official in the administration of President Nixon, writing in the Wall Street Journal in 1997 noted, “The recent dramatic drop in the crime rate has politicians making political hay. They’d better be quick about it. We are merely enjoying a brief lull – due mainly to the aging of the baby boomers – before the arrival of the mother of all crime waves.” Thus, school safety and security must continue to be a “front burner” issue for School Board Members, school administrators, teachers, and parents. Why? Because, as Colson goes on to report, “The bipartisan Council on Crime in America, chaired by William Bennett and former Attorney General Griffin Bell, warns that by the year 2000, the huge increase in 14-17 year-old males will cause violent crime to spiral out of control. These kids, far more dangerous and violent than the generation before, will be, in the council’s words, like teenage wolf packs.”


It is predicted that there will be 23% more teenagers in the violence prone group in the United States by 2005. Colson describes the new teen criminal class as, “cold, remorseless, conscienceless,” and states that their numbers will be sufficient, “to destabilize the social and political order in America.” Law enforcement officials are quick to concur with Colson’s depiction of the new criminal class, often referencing the callousness of violent acts committed by teenagers that reflect desensitization to the value of life itself.


The Council of Crime in America paints a bleak forecast.  School Board Members must determine what they can do to provide the “good kids,” the hundreds of thousands of young people across the land who regularly exhibit appropriate and responsible behavior in school environments, with effective means to protect themselves from indiscriminate acts of violence. Many districts, in response to escalating threats, have instituted / re-instituted Character Education programs. Within the curriculum strands that address traits such as responsibility, courage, and caring, the National Institute for School and Workplace Safety strongly recommends that our students be taught to utilize whatever proactive reporting /alert systems School Board Members have provided in their districts to sound an “early warning” of the potential for any threat to school safety and security.


Consider these facts:

Ø The United States Department of Education reported that over 6,000 handguns were taken from students on public school campuses throughout the United States in the 1996-97 school year.

Ø  Ninety-two percent (92%) of those handguns were taken because of students’ reporting their presence on school grounds.

Ø A 1998 Department of Education survey led to an estimate that more than 11,000 fights in which weapons were used, 4,000 rapes and other forms of sexual assault, and 7,000 robberies occurred in public schools across the nation.


 Columnist Mark Trahant, writing for The Seattle Times Company in 1998, noted, “America is a culture that celebrates violence as a part of its identity. This is something from our past that we don’t really care to talk about. But we have been a violent people for a long time.” We must counter this aspect of our culture! Students must be taught that violence is not an acceptable or legitimate means to an end. They must be taught that sharing information that can head off violence and safeguard others with principals, teachers, guidance counselors, bus drivers, parents, etc. is the right thing to do. 


Crimes against Students Often Underreported


Only 28 percent of violent crimes against children are reported to police.  Even when a weapon was used against a child or the child was injured.  Shay Bilchik, administrator of the Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, recently noted, “We must teach our young people not to be too proud or afraid to go to the police (School Resource Officer in their school), and we must train law enforcement to work with child victims.” The National Institute for School and Workplace Safety further recommends that all school system employees be trained, both to recognize the signs of an escalating crisis or potentially dangerous situation and to be “student friendly” in listening to the children in their charge. If suicides, drug use / abuse, sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation, hate crimes, and the like are ever to be substantially reduced in the public schools of America, students must be encouraged and empowered to act on their own behalf.


School Board Members and Superintendents would be wise to remember the observations of elegant voices from history.


“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

                                                                                                                                                                    Edmund Burke


“The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of those that do evil, but because of those who watch and let it happen.”

                                                                                                                                                                   Albert Einstein



How can students, administrators, and School Board Members make a difference?



Use the “Save-a-Friend” Hotline


In one Central Florida school district that provides a “Save-A-Friend” Hotline, a twenty-four hour/day, seven days/week, live voice, private contracted monitoring service, a Hotline call was received from a high school student early one morning. The student anonymously reported that, in the student parking lot of the high school he attended, drugs were going to be sold before the start of the school day. In so doing, the Code of Silence was broken. Under the protocol that was in place, the contracted service provider contacted the district’s Security Director, who, in turn, alerted the school’s Resource Officer. The officer proceeded to the student parking lot, where he witnessed a non-student interacting with arriving students. When the non-student was approached by the police officer and challenged as to his reason for being on the high school campus, he immediately became defensive and took off, running from the scene.


The Resource Officer pursued and, ultimately, apprehended the non-student. The non-student was transported to the administrative office of the school, where he was questioned and searched. The search revealed the non-student to be carrying on his person twenty-two dime bags of cannabis.


In this instance, one student having the courage to pick up the phone and utilize a vehicle provided by his local School Board to anonymously report a concern made a positive difference.


Don’t Blow an Opportunity!


The morning the non-student was busted, Florida gubernatorial candidate (and now Governor Jeb Bush) was visiting the campus. Television reporters were covering his visit. When the district Security Director received details from the Resource Officer of the drug interdiction that occurred in the parking lot, he immediately informed the school principal. Unfortunately, possibly fearing the glare of perceived negative publicity that would be associated with the confiscation of drugs on the campus, the principal insisted that Mr. Bush not to be told of what had occurred at school that morning. As a consequence of the principal’s silence, the state’s front running gubernatorial candidate was unaware of the manner in which the district’s Save-a-Friend Hotline had successfully worked to remove a substantial amount of marijuana from circulation within the student body. Mr. Bush was also denied the chance to gain a full appreciation for the foresight of the School Board in establishing the “Save-a-Friend” Hotline. He was unaware of the courage of the reporting student in Breaking the Code of Silence, or the skill and dedication exhibited by the School Resource Officer as he responded to information transmitted by the Security Director.


Let’s Get Real!


When an opportunity exists to better inform legislators and politicians of the realities that confront School Board Members, Superintendents, school administrators, teachers, School Resource Officers, school bus drivers, and other staff, the battle cry must be “carpe diem!” If educators expect government officials and tax payers to provide them with adequate resources to assure the establishment and maintenance of safe and orderly schools, both the challenges that are regularly encountered in schools, as well as the victories that are achieved in the quest to maintain safety and security must be honestly shared. Responsible educators and School Board Members can ill afford to be silent.


How can parents make a difference?


Parents as Partners


A student riding the school bus home from school one Friday afternoon saw a fellow student on the bus with a handgun in his waistband. As soon as he arrived home, he called his father, a county Deputy Sheriff to share what he had seen. His father immediately contacted the School Superintendent to report what his son told him. The Superintendent, in turn, contacted the district Director of Security to initiate an investigation of the report.


Over the ensuing weekend, the Director of Security visited the father and his son to gather information. The reporting student’s father urged his son to provide complete and accurate detail to the Director of Security, but also sought assurances that his son would be appropriately protected from possible retaliation, as a result of his reporting the student with the gun.


The student who had the gun was unknown by name to the reporting student. However, the reporting student was able to provide an excellent physical description of the student with the gun. The Director of Security additionally learned the students’ bus number and its normal arrival time at the high school. Arrangements were made for the Director of Security, an Assistant Principal, and the School Resource Officer to be strategically located on the bus ramp at the time the students’ bus arrived at school on Monday morning. The reporting student had been instructed to wear a specific football jersey to school that day and to closely follow the student who had had the gun on Friday as they exited the school bus. That tactic provided a means by which to identify the suspect student, without him ever knowing how he had been identified.


The suspect was escorted to an administrative office, where he was searched. A twenty-five (.25) caliber handgun, with a bullet in the chamber, was found strapped to his inside thigh under a second pair of pants. The student was arrested and charged under state statutes and expelled from the public school system for two years under the School Board’s Zero Tolerance Policy.


An Opportunity Seized!


In Breaking the Code of Silence to his father, the reporting student gave his dad the opportunity to responsibly partner with school officials to enhance the safety and security of his son and his peers.

The father’s swift communication to the School Superintendent initiated a well-practiced protocol within the school system for investigation and apprehension of students in violation of the law and the School Board’s Zero Tolerance Policy. Because of one student’s sense of responsibility and courage and trust in his father, plus his father’s prompt action, information was shared that gave the school system the opportunity to evidence that it deals with every report as though it were true and, accordingly, investigates. The combined actions of a student, his parent, and school officials ultimately enhanced the state of safety and security on a school campus.



Before the Thunder Rolls and the Lightening Strikes


Prudent School Board Members and Superintendents would be wise to acknowledge the fact that there is real potential for a tragic episode of school violence to occur in every school system in every state at any time. No district is immune! While it is impossible to protect students absolutely from all risk of victimization as a result of violent acts, there are actions that can be taken, which have the potential to prevent harm and save lives. 


The National Institute of School and Workplace Safety urges School Boards and Superintendents to aggressively pursue every means at their disposal to adopt, as part of the national agenda for public education, a commitment to Break the Code of Silence. There is abundant evidence that the majority of school age young people want to attend schools in which they feel safe and secure. Parents across the country expect School Boards to ensure that everything possible is done to assure them that their children will return home at the end of each school day as safe as when they left for school in the morning. What legislator is not a vocal proponent for safe schools?


 The elements of a powerful alliance to ensure the means to Break the Code of Silence are present in every school system in the nation. There is a moral imperative for School Boards and Superintendents to provide the leadership to make this happen. We cannot allow even one more child to shoulder the guilt of knowing he could have, should have, and would have made a difference, had he had the courage and the means to share information he possessed that literally had life and death significance.


Wolfgang W. Halbig is President and CEO of the National Institute for School and Workplace Safety. He is a former teacher, coach, assistant principal, alternative school director, school district director of safety and security, and Florida State Trooper. For additional information and a video on means to Break the Code of Silence, Mr. Halbig can be reached at (407) 496-5551.