As educators, what are we to make of the ongoing tragedy in Steubenville, Ohio – a community in which one teenage girl was raped and publicly humiliated, two teenage boys are being shipped off to juvenile detention, and two other teenage girls are now under arrest after threatening to beat and kill the victim?
First, we must recognize the central role that parents play in helping their children develop a clear sense of right and wrong. As the victim’s mother said in a prepared statement to the court, “We hope that from this something good can arise. I feel I have an opportunity to bring an awareness to others, possibly change the mentality of a youth or help a parent to have more of an awareness to where their children are and what they are doing. The adults need to take responsibility and guide these children.”
Second, we must acknowledge that every community has the potential to allow this sort of behavior to occur. Like other communities, the members of Steubenville High School’s football team were afforded respect and privileges few teenagers can manage responsibly. More troubling, however – and more relevant for those of us who have dedicated our lives to supporting the learning and growth of young people – was the behavior of all the other students who gave implicit support to the boys’ actions by documenting and trading pictures of the assault – and doing nothing to protect the girl, whose drunkenness was so severe it prompted one of her assailants to say she resembled “a dead body.”
Finally, we must take stock of the work we are doing every day in our schools and classrooms – the only factor squarely in our control – and ask ourselves what it is we are explicitly working to instill in the young people we are there to serve. The fact that our state and national policies continue to overvalue academic knowledge (and a myopic definition of academic knowledge at that) at the expense of every other aspect of child and adolescent development is not an excuse for inaction. As educators, we have a responsibility to think long and hard about what kind of people we hope will graduate from our schools – and what sorts of skills and dispositions those people will need to embody – and then make sure the work we are doing each day (and the standards to which we hold ourselves accountable) are aligned with that vision.
The good news is this is already happening in scores of schools across the country – from New Hampshire to Iowa to Colorado. It’s even happening at the state level in Illinois, where every school has not just a set of academic standards – but a set of social and emotional standards as well. And it can start happening in any school, anywhere, as soon as that community decides that the holistic development and growth of children matters more than anything else.
“Human compassion is not taught by a teacher, a coach, or a parent,” the victim’s mother also said. “It is a God-given gift instilled in each of us.”
That’s not quite right. Our capacity for compassion is certainly present in each of us at birth. But it’s equally true that while all of us are born with the potential to behave compassionately, none of us is able to do so without the benefit of strong support, clear guidance, and a supportive network of adults that believe characteristics like empathy are not merely soft skills – they’re benchmarks of what we aspire, on our best days, to become.
(This article originally appeared in Education Week.)