The shocking story of a mentally disabled black football player allegedly raped and subjected to racial slurs in Idaho’s Dietrich School District raises questions about how other school districts are watching out for and keeping their students safe.
A school’s best defense is a strong culture of respect, says Robb Thompson, principal of Boise High School, which has 1,560 students.
“We rely and have to rely on the culture we have built within our school in terms of how our students interact with each other, with all of the adults in terms of ensuring that the environment is safe,” he said.
How can such things happen? How can schools prevent them?
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The Statesman talked with Thompson; Brian Walker, principal at Fairmont Junior High School (800 students); and Katie Bubak, of the Idaho Positive Behavior Network, based at Boise State University. They spoke generally about school policies and approaches, with no specific knowledge about what did or didn’t happen at Dietrich High in south-central Idaho.
So how do you build the right culture?
Make certain students and staff, from the teachers to the cafeteria workers and janitors, understand there is no such thing as a minor incident when it comes to bullying or harassment — whether it is predatory, sexual, ethnic or religious in nature. Said Thompson, “The smallest, slightest of comments is not, ‘Oh, they were just being kids.’ ”
Does that really work?
An open, well-understood cultural expectation with specific consequences for violating those expectations can be effective in creating an environment where harassment doesn’t take root, Bubak said. “We know what is expected of us all,” she said.
What must be done so students will report concerns they see?
Students must feel comfortable telling their stories to each other and at least one adult in the school, Thompson said. He believes that he’s hearing news about student incidents because students have a trust in the culture. Thompson is visible — in the hallways, in the parking lots. He talks with students. “Hellos turn into conversations; conversations develop relationships; relationships develop trust and give you the opportunity to then really (drill) down to those core values that you want to have in place,” he said.
Does a good set of cultural values replace a good set of eyes for seeing what is going on in school?
Both are needed, says Walker. His staff at Fairmont Junior roams the corridors and other areas of the school while students are out of class. He furnishes a schedule to staff each week, showing where and when they will post themselves before school, at breaks and at other times.
Teachers at Fairmont get to know the kids who have lockers in the hallways outside their rooms, whether or not those students take their classes. “We really try to emphasize ... getting out, being visible” Walker said.
What’s troubling about Dietrich and providing student safety?
For a series of incidents to escalate into the allegations heard in Dietrich, it would mean a group of students would have had the time and opportunity to cause problems, the group said.
At Boise High, Thompson said, “We are constantly talking about not leaving students unsupervised.”
The alleged rape happened at Dietrich in a school locker room. At Boise High and Fairmont, when students are in locker rooms dressing or showering, an adult also is in the room, the two principals say. When students are out of the locker room, it is locked.