By Sherilyn Moore, CEO
Driving home from school last week, my children and I witnessed a group of middle schoolers from another school getting off the bus at their stop. They seemed to be joshing around, but then we quickly realized that two of the boys were not wrestling for fun. They were starting to really fight. A few of the children cheered, some ran away, and the others simply watched. Just as I was about to get out of the car to interfere, another mother pushed the boys apart and was clearly giving them all an earful. The kids dispersed and acted as if it was an everyday occurrence. Maybe it was in their world. Not in ours.
Witnessing this incident shook my children, who have only been Montessori schooled, and admittedly we are privileged to live in a community that is not touched daily by violence as so many people do. Even in our enclave of Montessori, we have real students with real issues, so a physical altercation is not impossible to comprehend. If there are issues, the response team at our school is adept at conflict resolution and Restorative Justice to address situations with active measures and a holistic approach. However, at twelve and nine, my children have never seen people hit each other for real. Perhaps in a movie they may have seen it, but not real kids their age actively trying to hurt each other. This was a shock.
When we discussed the incident at home, they revealed that the worst part wasn’t seeing the two boys fighting, it was the other students: The ones who did nothing but watch. The ones who ran away. And…the ones who cheered. How could they cheer? My girls wanted to know, but how could I tell them the truth about that base element of our society and keep their hope and motivation to create a better future alive? How could I share with them the violent capacity of human beings and not fertilize their minds with a jaded adult world-view? How could I not?
I thought about the parents who have to explain why a child’s brother was stabbed in front of their home. I thought about the Parkland families, the Columbine families, the Sandy Hook families. Those once-extreme acts of mass-violence are indelible blood stains on our psyches and real-and-present examples of the worst of human behavior. How did they explain to their children the “Why”? My challenge didn’t even exist on the same universe as what those parents had to endure, but there I was trying to find a way to explain violence and the unacceptable responses to it in real time.
For the ones who did nothing but watch, I explained they may have been in shock. It was upsetting for us in the car, so just imagine what those other students felt being right there in the mix. The students may have been afraid for their own safety, or trying to “mind their own business.” The girls didn’t let that one slide. Isn’t it everyone’s “business” to stop violence? They were right.
The ones who ran were probably afraid. The girls understood this, but they asked what would have happened if everyone just ran away. What if the mom hadn’t stepped in? They rightly pointed out the concrete curb and the real danger each student could have faced so close to the road with cars rushing by them. Aren’t we supposed to get over our fear to help others? What about all the other adults, the bus driver, and the people in the other cars? Why didn’t they help? We talked about everyone’s different levels of acceptable risk. As a person who had her hand on her seatbelt ready to leap out and interfere, it was as hard to deliver the justification as it was for them to accept it. There were other adults around doing nothing, and there were children hurting each other.
That was tough, but the “ones who cheered” were the hardest to explain. Those who enjoy the fight, relish the release of the base instinct, and celebrate the pain are part of our world. There are people who do take joy in the suffering of others and look at the world as a win/lose game. They cheer the fights. They start the fights. The incite the violence. The girls were not the only ones with tears in their eyes as I explained what some would call “human nature.” However, I don’t actually buy that excuse for a minute. It is not nature. In nature, most predators do not torture and most kill for sustenance not vengeance. Humans are a product of nature and nurture.
Violence and using violence as a method to “resolve conflict” is a learned behavior. As a society, we teach this as an option. We don’t have to. And if our larger society still makes this choice, we can resist, and we can teach our children different lessons. It is times like these that make me so humbled to be a part of an organization that teaches peaceful conflict resolution and restorative justice. In talking with neighbors, I realize how incredibly rare it is that my Middle Schooler is not beset with witnessing fistfights on a weekly basis. Our students are not without issues to be resolved, nor without conflicts, but they are learning a better way.
The CDC has issued an an impactful report on how to PREVENT youth violence. The overview discusses specific things we can do as a society, as a community, in our relationships, and individually to help prevent violence. The risk factors are detailed, as well as the “protective” factors that counteract some of these risks. So many of these protective factors are well-within our control. If each one of us makes an effort for our children, our neighbor’s children, and with each other, our community can become an even stronger oasis of peace.
Like the students who were frozen and helpless watching those two boys fight, we are often convinced that there is “nothing we can do” to stop the increasing levels of violence in our country and in our schools. Like the students who ran from the fight, we don’t want to be immersed in the darkness. However, we can do something to help prevent violence, each and every one of us, and it is our duty as the adults to lead the way.
Peace is not passive. Peace starts in our own homes, our own school, in our own community. Increase the peace today.