Where were the parents?
That’s what crossed my mind when I read about the lawsuit against Concord-Carlisle High School, from a girl who claimed she faced regular torment — her car keyed in the school parking lot, death threats scrawled on bathroom walls — and that the school did little to stop it.
It’s a shocking tale, as laid out in court filings, about property damage and ugly words and a culture that was clearly toxic. Nothing good is going to come from a group of sophomore girls who roam the halls calling themselves the “Sexy Seven.”
But as we hurl what might be justifiable blame at school officials, we also need to ask ourselves what’s missing from the story. What about the parents of the “Sexy Seven,’’ or anyone else whose name came up in the rumor mill? Did they know that their kids were accused of threatening a girl? And if they had known, would they have cared?
This is the actual crisis in parenting today: not whether we’re breastfeeding too little or helicoptering too much or feeding our kids the French way or teaching piano with Tiger ferocity, but whether we’re abdicating our biggest responsibility, to make sure kids treat each other humanely.
And the big question is whether this is a problem of denial, or just ignorance.
Before we go further, some caveats. We only know one side of the Concord-Carlisle story; schools have legal limitations on what they can share about students, especially when they’re being sued. (The district’s superintendent didn’t respond to an inquiry from me).
Parents need to learn more about their teenagers’ friends, to understand their group dynamics and family situations.
Also, if you’ve read anything about bullying — including Emily Bazelon’s excellent book “Sticks and Stones,” which takes an empathetic look at the perpetrators in the Phoebe Prince case — you know that these cases are often complex, the product of petty battles and hormones and crazy teenage brains.
Still, it’s good that we’re now holding schools accountable. Three years ago, Massachusetts passed an antibullying law that mandates training, sets up protocols, and forces schools to address bullying systematically.
The law is widely praised, and rightly so, but it has pitfalls. For one, it gives less-than-stellar administrators an easy way out: They can check off the boxes, do what’s legally required, then wipe their hands of a confounding situation.
And the law risks sending a dangerous message to parents: that schools are capable of handling these situations alone.
To be fair, the law requires schools to inform parents when their children are accused of bullying. But in Concord-Carlisle, school officials seem to claim they never found the perpetrators. They collected some names, accepted denials, then met their legal obligation by sending a blanket letter to all parents.
Reading the court documents, the e-mail chains filled with initials and redacted names, I found it hard to believe that nobody knew who had done it. But Elizabeth Englander, who has seen other cases like this, said it’s possible. She’s a psychology professor at Bridgewater State University and the director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center. And she told me that sometimes, kids don’t crack. Often, they don’t tell their parents. And often, their parents don’t ask.
This is where the crisis comes in. Sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman — whose book, “Playing to Win,” is about kids and competition — said that as much as parents hover and fret when their kids are small, they tend to look aside as kids grow older. She advises parents to learn more about their teenagers’ friends, to understand their group dynamics and family situations.
And Englander says parents should realize that the answers won’t always be pleasant. “We have to understand that as part of adolescence, sometimes things really get out of control,” she said. “Even good kids can make mistakes.”
On the other hand, she said, teenagers really do care what their parents think.
“They’re terrified of violating rules that they know are extremely important to their parents,” Englander said. So if they believe that treating people well is their parents’ top priority — more than grades or sports or college admission — they’ll listen.
Parents should take that knowledge to heart. So should schools. It’s easy to assume that parents will defend their kids, no matter what. And in Concord, maybe some parents wouldn’t have cared that a girl named Belle was hurt and scared. But maybe some parents, if they had known, would have actually tried to stop it.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.