Sunday, December 23, 2007

Breaking the Code of Silence

I'm sure that you are all familiar with the "I ain't no snitch" mentality that runs through our prisons and ghettos. Unfortunately, this attitude also permeates our schools. I can't say for sure that middle school is the worst for this, but having taught both high and middle, it sure seems like it.

During the last week of school before the Christmas Break (which mercifully began yesterday), a situation happened in my classroom that required the code of silence to be broken. The question is, would anyone have the guts to come forward?

On Wednesday the 19th, I was standing in the doorway of my classroom as I greeted my incoming 6th period students. I have mentioned this period before, as it is my absolute worst group of students this school year. As I said hello to two students walking toward the classroom door, I heard the sound of breaking glass from inside my classroom, along with the sound of commotion and students softly saying, "Ooooooooooh." I could tell that something had been broken; the question was, what? I walked into my classroom and asked, "OK, what happened." No one said a word. I looked around on the floor, thinking that something had been dropped, but I didn't see anything. About thirty seconds had passed, and I still couldn't find anything broken, and no student would speak up and tell me what it was. As I walked along, I heard a student excitedly whisper, "He didn't see it!" I turned around, and that is when I noticed that the glass plate on my overhead projector was shattered and had collapsed inward. So that was it. Knowing I would get no response, I went ahead and asked it anyway: "Can anyone explain what happened here?" Nothing. No one saw anything. Apparently, the overhead just broke on its own. Looking at all the broken glass, I then asked, "Is anyone bleeding?" Nothing.

I called for a janitor to clean up the broken glass and haul the overhead away. At the end of the day, I made sure the Principal and VP knew about what had happened. The next day, Thursday, 6th period came and went with no word from anyone about how the overhead was broken. But then, that night, I happened to check my work email before I went to bed. There in my inbox was an email from a parent of one of my good students in that class. The parent gave me the name of the student who had broken the overhead. Apparently, the student slammed his fist onto the overhead as he walked by it. The parent told me that her child was appalled by what had happened, but was too afraid to come to me because of possible repercussions by her classmates. I printed this email and took it to my principal first thing on Friday morning.

Later that same day, the student named in the email was called to the VP's office and the student - we'll call him Moe - denied everything. Moe's mother also backed him up 100%, saying that he wouldn't do such a thing and that he was being persecuted. So it came down the word of one student against another. The VP did something risky, but ballsy. The VP called in two more known troublemakers from that class - we'll call them Larry and Curly - and told them that they had been implicated and were being suspended for two days. Not surprisingly, Larry and Curly had a conniption in the VP's office as they protested their innocence. The VP told Larry and Curly that he knew that they knew who did it, and if they named the perpetrator, their suspensions would be vacated. If they kept mum, they would be suspended. Later, Moe, Larry, and Curly were all in my 6th period class when the VP walked in, told them to grab their things and prepare to go home. As Larry and Curly departed, the rest of the students in the class waxed indignant about how unfair it was that the two were being suspended. That is when I pounced.

I said something akin to the following: "Folks, this code of silence crap is boring me to death. You all know who broke that overhead, yet here you are not saying so." I then imitated them: "Bye Larry! Bye Curly! Sorry you got suspended for nothing! I know you didn't do anything, but I'm not gonna say who really did it! See ya!"

After my animated diatribe, the students in the class did something I did not expect: they huddled. After talking for about 30 seconds, they broke huddle and walked up to me. The students then pretty much simultaneously said, "Moe did it." Keep in mind, I never once mentioned Moe's name in all this; the students gave me his name on their own, thereby verifying what the parent email had said in the first place. As individual students told me it was Moe, I was writing their names down as a witness list. After the period ended, I sprinted to the VP's office and told him what had happened. The VP still had Larry and Curly in his office, and he told them, "Your friends just did the right thing and saved your bacon." And then the VP let Larry and Curly go. Moe on the other hand, will not be joining us for the first five days when we come back from the break. I was very proud to see my students reach some sort of critical mass and agree to break the code of silence that had compelled them to protect a fellow student who had destroyed school property right in front of them.

Good Day to You, Sir


Texas Truth said...

Nice post. I have used this method numerous times in my 30+ years. They ALWAYS rat out their friends (or co-conspirators).

Remember, there is no honor among thieves.

Darren said...

It's sad when doing what's right has to be celebrated as a victory.

The Vegas Art Guy said...

Wow, I'll remember that for when I get my own classroom.

Merry Christmas.

CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

Having Moe suspended was the best Christmas gift you could have gotten!

Merry Christmas!

Mister Teacher said...

Pretty ballsy of your VP.
Good outcome, though.
The code of silence disgusts me, too.

loonyhiker said...

I am proud of your students for doing the right thing but I also admire you also for sharing your feelings with them. You set a great example for them to follow.

Don, American said...

I don't suppose Moe will have to pay for the broken equipment, will he? (In twenty years in the classrom, I never saw it.) What has happened to personal responsibility?

Chanman said...

My principal told me that she would be sending a bill to the parents of whichever student broke the overhead. Now that we have discovered the perpetrator, let's see if she follows through.

Polski3 said...

Great Post! I see here, a key ingredient in the "successful" resolution to this act of vandalism; that is, you allowed your students the time to think about it, discuss it with each other and a non-threathening chance to let you know who the real vandal was who broke your overhead.

TOO MANY TIMES, we don't allow our students (or children) the time they need to decide to do the right thing. Most often, we demand a hurried answer from them; this rush to "convict" often makes it easier for them to make the choice to just remain silent, take whatever punishment and learn that those in power over them don't usually give them a chance.

Happy New Year !