Fearful Kids Maintain a Code of Silence
By Kevin Merida
It's the graduate program for drippy-nosed tattletales. Or so it seems to so many teenagers who definitely don't want to go there. The School of Snitching is not a cool school. Your reputation will suffer among your peers. You could get hurt. You could get hurt real bad. You could die. Kids say this stuff.
At Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, five students mention they have seen guns. They're not whispering like this is secret news, and they're not shouting like the building's on fire. They say it with casual comfort. Yeah, weapons in school. As in: Everybody knows this. Schoolmates with pieces stuffed in their pants. Students with knives.
"You name it, they got it," says one senior. "It shouldn't cross anyone's mind that people would carry guns to Blair. It's a school like any other."
So, why not go to a counselor or a teacher or a coach or the principal and report what you know? Now, that's tricky. Nothing good can come from dropping a dime on a classmate, some students believe.
"Around here, it's not even a question of being a snitch," says Ben Henderson, 17, a Blair junior. "If you know someone who has a gun" – and you even think about turning informant – "you're liable to get killed."
"When people snitch in this society," explains Wendell Horton, an 18-year-old junior, "you're not really respected anymore."
Whenever there's a major tragedy like the shootings in Littleton, Colo., the search for answers leads back to questions of prevention: Who knew what and when? Did they tell? Did they tell the right people? Did they even recognize the warning signs as warning signs?
There were clues that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold might be disturbed youngsters capable of masterminding the mayhem at Columbine High School. Confrontations with kids they disdained. A fascination with Nazism and automatic weapons. A video made for a class project months ago in which the real-life shooters play trench-coated triggermen who mow down athletes in a school hallway. How eerie is that?
But sometimes other bits of information can mask the clues. They worked at the local pizza parlor. Harris could recite Shakespeare. Klebold tutored kids in English. And what to make of the experience of Columbine student Brooks Brown? He was threatened by Harris and Klebold last year but has been telling the media about the warm greeting he received from them outside the school on that fatal morning. "Brooks, I like you," Harris reportedly said. "Now, get out of here. Go home." And so Brooks did "and didn't think twice about it."
Which is pretty much the reaction of Blair senior Richard Lee as he ponders in retrospect the strange doings of a student he befriended last year who's no longer at the school.
"He would say stuff like, 'Oh, I'm going to go kill people,' " recalls Lee, noting that his schoolmate once mentioned that he lived "within sniper-shot range" of Blair. The kid's behavior was odd in other ways, but goofily so. He would often do a fake-limp like Keyser Sose, the mysterious character in the crime thriller "The Usual Suspects." When he was five, he told Lee, he took a peek at his medical records and discovered what a doctor had written about him when he was three: "turned evil."
Lee thought nothing of it. "Okay, whatever." He let his schoolmate be.
"I'm sure he's just a normal guy," says Lee, "but sometimes people go through phases."
Was it a phase or a sign of an unstable mind and potential danger? It's easy to play out what-if scenarios in the aftermath of death. It's more difficult to live in the skin of a teenager every day, managing the expectations of the adult world while navigating the pressures of the youth culture.
Take Rose Eisenbeiss, a 16-year-old Blair sophomore who believes she has nowhere to turn if she needed to unload a big burden. No parents, she says. Long story. She feels she can't talk to her uncle. Another long story. And school officials?
"The counselors are so busy with academics," Eisenbeiss says. "A lot of times teenagers feel like we don't have anyone to go to."
And so on the question of whether a gang of armed kids would prompt her to notify school authorities – or any adult, for that matter – she sighs a regret.
"No matter how bad I wanted to tell," she says, "I feel if I snitched, I would be putting my life in danger because people with guns feel they have more power than people who don't. You just don't feel safe, no matter what. And then if those people get arrested, they'll have other people get you. That's how it is."
Some students feel it's better to be cautious than alarmist.
"You can start something over nothing," says Elizabeth Pendley, a Blair junior, noting that it's possible to misread a situation, blow the whistle and feel like a dope. "It can be BS. How do you know if it's serious?"
Long black trench coats? Targeting blacks and athletes?
"I honestly would actually think it was a joke," says Kobina Baffour, an 18-year-old Blair senior who is black.
And then there's the question of what happens if you report suspicious behavior and your bravery is greeted with a shrug – or worse?
"I don't think my mother would care," says one Shannon Botts, another Blair junior. "It would be like, 'Oh, Shannon, they're just fooling around.' "
"Interesting," says Shannon's mother, Deborah Beebe. "You never know what they're thinking. Maybe what she was really trying to say is I trust her judgment as to what she believes is safe and not safe."
A month ago, Thea Delage discovered a dagger on a Blair staircase. "No one would pick it up," says the 16-year-old junior, "because it was like, 'Security is going to get you.' "
"You report something like violent acts and they're going to assume you're involved," chimes in Pendley.
"Students already feel incriminated," adds Delage.
And perhaps even more demoralizing than incrimination is ostracism.
Tonya Aultman-Bettridge, a researcher at the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, recalls the case of a Denver area public school student who told authorities about guns in his school and found that his life took a bad turn. His fellow students made him a pariah. His grades started slipping. His parents felt that school officials were not supportive enough, so they turned to the center, which is really in the business of studying violence. The center notified the school board.
"A lot of kids are afraid of that happening," says Aultman-Bettridge. "But it's very crucial that they come forward."
"From the adults' perspective, I'm concerned about this code of silence," says Peter Blauvelt, president of the National Alliance of Safe Schools and a former director of security for the Prince George's County school system. "Not all kids subscribe to this, but enough of them do that I'm concerned. One thing we have learned from the tragedies of the last two years is that in each and every case the perpetrators talked about what they were going to do, and the kids knew it. And either they didn't believe it or felt it wasn't their place to tell anybody.
"What we need to convince kids of, quite honestly, is they need to trust the adult population, and that when they do, their information will be treated properly."
School districts and even some private firms are setting up hotlines to provide cover for students who want to share sensitive information. But Blauvelt, who conducts workshops on how to create safer school environments, says the best way to change teen attitudes about turning in their friends is to make teens part of the conversation.
"For far too long, we've given the impression that students were not an integral part of a school safety plan," he says.
There may be some hopeful signs: The percentage of students reporting the presence of street gangs in school, according to federal statistics, nearly doubled from 1989 to 1995, from 15.3 percent to 28.4 percent.
Hope also may be found in Aaron Weiman and Jeffrey Tien.
"I trust my guidance counselors and teachers, really," says Weiman, a Blair sophomore. "It's not a problem for me."
Says Tien, a Blair senior: "If I knew someone was planning on shooting someone, I would go into one of the counselors and tell him what's going on."
And yet for many kids, a troubling code of silence persists. Ironically, the value of keeping a secret is a value they often learn from adults. Remaining mum in the face of punishment has long been celebrated in the popular culture, presented as an act of courage, a symbol of integrity.
In "Scent of a Woman," hardly a teen pic, a trio of students vandalizes a disliked headmaster's Jaguar. Chris O'Donnell, who plays a poor kid on scholarship at the prep school, is called before a school tribunal because he witnessed the episode. Even when threatened with expulsion, he refuses to reveal the vandals' identity.
To the rescue comes Al Pacino, a retired Army colonel who staunchly defends the kid.
After the headmaster labels O'Donnell's character, Charlie, a "coverup artist" and a "liar," Pacino bellows: "But not a snitch."
"He won't sell anybody out to buy his future. ... What is your motto here? 'Boys, inform on your classmates, save your hide, anything short of that we're going to burn you at the stake'? Then well, gentlemen, when the [expletive] hits the fan, some guys run and some guys stay. Here's Charlie facing the fire."
In the end, Charlie doesn't snitch and is vindicated.
Code of Silence
On this beautiful afternoon, school is out and Wendell Horton and his friends are refining their jump shots on Blair's outdoor basketball courts. They are asked to gather for a discussion about the Littleton shootings.
"I just think a lot of schools could use more security," says Horton.
"That's probably the only love they got, that Trenchcoat Mafia," says Ben Henderson. "That probably was their family."
"You gotta ask a kid how's his day," explains Horton.
"If you're a parent, you gotta be on top of your kid," chimes in Henderson.
Courtside psychology from the teen set.
Now, about their own responsibility. What if you knew a kid who had access to weapons and was issuing threats?
"To be honest, it all depends," says Horton. "If it involves another individual and someone else and doesn't involve me, it's out of my hands. That's on them. But if it involves blowing up the school, that's a different matter because I don't want to get hurt."
There is also this: The young men don't exactly trust school officials. Thus, "it's just best not to tell," says Henderson.
Horton says, for instance, he knew who vandalized a school window recently, but he didn't bother claiming the $200 reward school officials offered. Not worth the worry and potential hassle. Horton and his friends think they'd only end up being outed in the school newspaper, instead of being celebrated on Hero's Row.
And yet they are bothered that classmates would vandalize their own school, a new multimillion-dollar complex they are proud of. At Blair, they say, some students revel in lighting toilet paper on fire in the boys' bathroom and setting off the sprinkler system. They hate that, but they won't rat on the culprits.
"Sometimes in this world, with all the stuff going on, it's crazy," says Horton, who hopes to attend college and major in the study of amphibians and reptiles.
The Littleton shootings bother him. He prays every day before he leaves the house. "You never know, one of the five of us here could be gone before tomorrow."
But it would take a lot to make them snitch.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company