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Don't Further Empower Cliques

Littleton: When schools, parents exalt a chosen few--in this case, athletes--the alienation of others can last a long time.

May 02, 1999|BERNARD LEFKOWITZ | Bernard Lefkowitz is the author of "Our Guys: the Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb," which will air as a television movie in May

While it's difficult to generate sympathy for a couple of teenagers who decided to vent their grievances through the barrel of a gun, the carnage at Columbine High School should not eclipse an important part of this story; the power of high school cliques to make life miserable for many adolescents.

When I heard that the two young murderers in Littleton, Colo., had targeted athletes who, they said, had ridiculed them, it sounded a lot like what young people told me 10 years ago when I was researching the rape of a retarded young woman by a group of teenage athletes at Glen Ridge High School.

In that attractive upper-middle class New Jersey suburb, 13 jocks were present in the basement where the young woman's body was penetrated by a baseball bat and a broomstick. The country was sickened by the inhumanity of a bunch of guys who were among the most admired and envied young men in their community and high school.

After the rape, they came to school and openly boasted about what they had done. Weren't they afraid of being punished? Later, many people who knew them concluded that they had come to feel omnipotent after being treated like big-time celebrities for years by their school and by many parents in town.

And why shouldn't they feel omnipotent? When you walked into the high school the first thing you saw were halls lined with trophy cases celebrating the exploits of the athletes. The school held two-hour assemblies to honor the jocks. But assemblies to honor the best students rarely lasted more than 20 minutes. The school yearbook displayed 10 photographs of the most mediocre football player. But the outstanding scholar was lucky to get one grainy photo.

The message the school sent to its impressionable students was: You don't count unless you're part of this clique or at least pay homage to it. Instead of celebrating the individuality and diversity of all its students, it chose to honor this one type of youngster--aggressive, arrogant and intensely competitive--above all the others. This left many kids feeling alienated and isolated, and not only during this brief passage into adulthood. Ten years later, I still hear from Glen Ridge graduates who remain enraged, not only by how they were mistreated by the athletes but by the school's unqualified adulation of them.

After my book was published, I received hundreds of letters from people, some in their 70s and 80s, who recalled how excluded they felt when their schools anointed one group of guys as leaders. Educators are reluctant to discourage the formation of cliques because that may be considered interference in the students' "private" lives. They are disinclined to challenge parents who are proud of their child's membership in a popular group. Then, too, some educators tolerate cliques because they think they are just a passing phenomenon.

That's unfortunate because there is much that schools can do to demonstrate that all students, rather than the few members of favored cliques, have value. They can promote activities and projects that bring together students with diverse interests and skills. They can celebrate achievements that are intellectual and artistic as well as athletic. And they can demonstrate that there's a single standard of acceptable conduct that is applied to everyone. In Glen Ridge, as in many other schools, the athletes got away with behavior for which others were punished.

We don't know much about how Columbine High School responded to student cliques. But I do know that schools are not passive entities. Educators make collective judgments about which students are valuable and which aren't. Often, educators are quick to venerate kids who are superficially attractive--who are handsome, who are athletic, who come from wealthy families. And too often they marginalize youngsters who are awkward or unsocial or iconoclastic.

Kids with supportive families and friends may ultimately succeed in life although they were treated like outcasts in school. But even they will not easily recover from the wounds they suffered as adolescents. For youngsters who already feel abandoned, the power granted to cliques by school authorities, and the inevitable abuse of that power, may be potentially devastating.

This doesn't explain the pathological behavior of two kids turned killers at Columbine High School. That will require a calmer and more thoughtful investigation into how they grew up and their school lives than is possible in the heat of the moment. But we should take the opportunity that the catastrophe in Littleton offers to reflect on the damage that cliques can inflict on youngsters when they are most vulnerable.

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