When the Cruelty Comes From Our Kids

The incidents that came to light recently at the Ogden School in Chicago were disturbing for sure. A group of middle school teenagers harassing another Jewish student for months, showing him photos of ovens and inviting him to "get in"; the same kids setting up an online gaming group called "Jew Incinerator" describing themselves as "friendly racists" with the purpose of "putting all Jews in an army camp to dispose of them." Horrifying.

As a mother and as a Jew, my immediate response is "Throw the book at these kids for their viciousness and hate." Like other parents, my reaction is visceral. I want to protect my kids, all kids from this kind of hatred and pain. Punish these miscreants!

Yet, as a psychologist who lectures and works with schools, families and therapists on all sides of the "bullying" and bigotry issue, I know it's not that simple. Holding children accountable for serious actions is certainly a must, but teaching them empathy and engaging them in community building exercises is also essential. Punitive measures alone don't work. They just don't.

Children who spew hate are acting less out of bigotry and more out of ignorance; less out of racism, anti-semitism or homophobia, more out of discomfort with, and intolerance of, what is different. It is ugly, hurtful, damaging and unacceptable. It must be dealt with firmly and immediately, but it also must be a teaching moment. As a community, we drop the ball on these kids if, at 14, when they still have a real chance to learn something better, we only use this as an opportunity to punish.

Should these kids have been suspended for their cruel behavior and hateful abuse of social media? Absolutely. But the real challenge for an administration and for all of us is not only to hold these children accountable for their cruelty, but to help them learn how to change their behavior and their views, while we still have a say in their development... while they are still children in our schools.

For this to happen, families need to trust that their school is on top of these situations from the moment they learn about them. A school drops the ball on all of its families, if they drive these behaviors underground, rather than addressing them publicly as a community. Destructive expressions of hate cannot be tolerated and must be dealt with unambiguously and openly. Names of students involved cannot be shared, but incidents must be, and need to be addressed with a clear message: We are not afraid to talk about this and, as a community; we must, if we want to keep this from happening again.

If the Ogden School administrators did not communicate early on with their families about these incidents and only told them via robo-calls of a meeting to address "sensitive issues," then they squandered an opportunity to really get in front of a problem and earn a community's trust. Yes, they have to protect names of minors, but hesitating to say what happened and discuss the school's approach was a mistake. An opportunity was lost to show students and families what is often done so well in our Chicago Public schools.

Walk into many of our public schools today and you will see how they teach empathy throughout their curriculum. A humanities lesson on immigration is complemented by fictionalized stories in reading lessons about the experiences of different groups coming to America. The plight of the Chinese, Irish and Jewish immigrants made real by the personal stories of the bigotry and hardship they endured. The Trail of Tears, Angel Island, Jim Crow laws, civil rights trips, a field-trip to a play about Jews being hidden from the Nazis in Denmark -- always with the message of understanding, embracing and "feeling" what it is like to be different, always with a lesson to build a community out of those differences. Is this a quick answer to bigotry or bullying? No. But it's the right path. And it works. As the principal of my children's public school, Katie Konieczny, puts it "It's not about teaching 'tolerance'. That suggests the goal is to just put up with differences. It's about creating a real community of acceptance."

What happened at Ogden is abhorrent. There must be consequences and continued conversations about cruelty and our kids. Yet, amidst this example of bullying and hate, let's remember to use this as a teaching lesson for ourselves, as well as for our children. Adults do need to step up to these incidents, but punishment alone doesn't change our children or our views.