It's harder for teens to tell on friends than adults may think, experts say

Published: Friday, Jan. 27 2012 5:29 p.m. MST

When teens are faced with the reality of betraying a friend, it can be extremely difficult to think about the common good — particularly if they don't have many friends to fall back on, experts say.

Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

SALT LAKE CITY — Raising kids who don't hurt others isn't enough for Gina Taylor.

She wants her kids to be the kind of people who step in to protect others, regardless of the social implications.

But that kind of initiative can be hard to come by in the microcosm that is high school, where teens are hard wired to value friendship above all. It's the kind of nerve at least one teenager at Roy High School had Wednesday when she alerted an adult at school to the plan two classmates allegedly had devised to detonate a bomb during an upcoming school assembly.

Taylor, a Salt Lake mother who has raised three teenagers, was impressed when she heard of the Roy teen's integrity, because she knows how difficult those kinds of decisions can be for adolescents.

"They want to fit in," said Taylor, whose daughter attends Highland High. "The peer relationship becomes more important than the parent-child relationship."

Experts say teens don't always view teachers and adults as trusted leaders to whom they should turn — even when trouble or violence is imminent.

"It's in the adolescent culture to be mistrusting of adults," said Melissa Heath, associate professor of school psychology at Brigham Young University. "Not very many kids will tell an adult, even with something serious like suicide. … They don't like the power and authority that people have over them."

When teens are faced with the reality of betraying a friend, it can be extremely difficult to think about the common good — particularly if they don't have many friends to fall back on.

"They'll be seen as being a traitor," she said. "It would be very difficult to step forward. … If they're also sort of marginalized, they may feel extra hurt over it."

Though it's still difficult, Heath said students might be more likely to alert an adult when threats take place online or via cell phone text messages, which is what happened in the Roy case. An in-person verbal threat is more easily dismissed than a remark written in black and white.

"When things are texted, it's much more like a harsh reality," Heath said. "It's very hard to excuse it away."

Carol Lear, director of law and legislation at the State Office of Education, said even though it may be difficult for children to come forward, administrators are ready to take action once they're aware of legitimate threats.

"Every day we have to evaluate the situations and the threats and the imminence of the danger," Lear said. "Seasoned administrators are pretty good at analyzing."

But that's not to say there's a uniform protocol in place.

"Every situation is so different," she said. "They have to assess the student's credibility, or the likelihood of it being carried out."

Whether or not the threats were made on school property or over the weekend all impact how an administrator would respond. There's more to consider now than a decade ago, when zero tolerance policies prescribed immediate, harsh consequences for water guns brought to school or pocket knives forgotten in backpacks.

Oli Olafsson, a consultant who helped write policy to keep schools safe, said the state is in a better place than it was a decade ago. It shows that trust does exist between adults and youths.

"The Roy incident demonstrates that things are better," he said. "That is exactly what the solution of the future and current needs to be. ... Students (need to) be encouraged to bring up concerns, issues, behaviors."

Roy administrators say they're glad the student felt comfortable enough to take her concerns to school faculty.

"The hero is the young person who can stand up in a world of peer pressure and say, 'This isn't right. I don't know what it really means. I don't know if it's serious. But I need to go to someone if this is serious,'" said Nate Taggart, spokesman for the Weber School District.

Taylor said she thinks parents can do a lot to give their kids similar confidence so they can have to the courage to make the right choice, regardless of social standing.

"I think as parents we need to show them there's a big world out there. There's so much more than high school," she said. "Kids need to have a way where they can earn some self respect. As parents, I think we need to find that thing for each child."

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com, Twitter: mollyfarmer

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS