Grant High School student resource specialist Karl Acker remembers the time a girl came to him to report that a friend might be getting verbally abused by a boyfriend.
Like many students, the girl feared that bringing the information to authorities might complicate the situation. Acker, who has deep ties with hundreds of students at the school, knew he had to look into the situation. Student safety is a priority for him.
After meetings with administrators, parents and the students the situation was resolved.
“I feel it’s better to go to the administration,” he says. “They’re trained professionals and they have the tools to help you, versus you trying to figure it out yourself or you telling one of your friends who’s just gonna try to make you feel comfortable instead of solving the problem.”
Such endings don’t happen every day and, for the most part, students at Grant and across the nation are more likely to keep quiet about issues when faced with the opportunity to diffuse something by bringing in adults.
In light of the sex crimes investigation at Grant, the level of trust students have with administrators, teachers and others comes under scrutiny. Do students have a willingness, or the lack thereof, to inform authorities of potentially criminal behavior amongst their peers?
“I think there is a certain peer pressure not to report other students’ behavior, including crimes, out of fear of being labeled a ‘snitch’ or, as the younger kids call it, a ‘tattletale,’” Portland Police Bureau Spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson wrote in an email. “The fear of being labeled or shunned by friends and peers can sometimes keep people from reporting misconduct to staff or police.”
Some feel the social consequences associated with reporting issues outweigh the legal ramifications of withholding information. Others believe that withholding information from administration is unethical.
What most students know is that if they report an issue, their reputation can be severely damaged. But with the recent incidents at Grant, students are also often unaware that standing witness to certain illegal activity and not reporting it can result in consequences with the school and law enforcement, and can go as far as time behind bars.
From an early age, children are encouraged to live by a strict moral code. When observing bad behavior, they are instructed to report things to teachers or school administrators.
But as students enter high school, they begin to undergo major developmental changes and the social reality shifts. Popularity and being accepted are heavily valued in a high school setting.
“It’s the most important thing when you’re in high school,” says Jan Alexander, who offers stress management and counseling to youth and families.
Alexander says that for teenage brains, combating potential future consequences often takes the backseat to being loyal to friends.
Today, many students allow immoral behavior to slip under the radar. Doug Mandell, a teacher in Grant’s social studies department, acknowledges that this is not a new issue.
“I grew up in Chicago and it was the exact same thing,” Mandell says. “You didn’t talk about stuff because if you talked about it you were ostracized by your peers. I know from life experience that as a teenager your relationship with your peers is in many ways your most important relationship. Risking that can be scary.”
Students who witness dangerous behavior tend to feel as though they are trapped. They feel if they do tell someone that they will be discovered for “snitching” by classmates and friends.
Simpson says despite the social punishment, students should always look past their social desires and value integrity. “Students are not ‘mandatory reporters’ under the law so there is no legal obligation to come forward,” Simpson says. “But I’d say there is a moral obligation to report things to staff or police when something is occurring that could be incredibly damaging to someone.
“While it may seem to some that everyone involved is on the same page, in reality someone speaking up could help prevent future incidents where someone becomes victimized.”
As a student, junior Jacob Andrews, 17, understands where kids are coming from with not reporting issues.
“Kids feel like the social consequences are a lot worse because they have to live with them every day,” he says.
Joanne Miesen, a parent of a Grant sophomore, feels that circumstances are heavily dependent on kids’ understanding of social implications.
“It has a lot to do with overall maturity and the fact that as a teenager you’re very much in the moment,” says Miesen. “Teenagers need to know that adults were teenagers, too. We’ve been through all that.”
Some students, though, say they won’t hide things if someone is in jeopardy. Junior Sam Malloch believes that in potentially life-changing situations, people need to step up. “If it’s a bigger consequence to keep it hidden from people than to not tell, then it’s someone’s job to tell,” he says.
Simpson agrees. “Witnesses coming forward to police is a critical component of holding people accountable,” he says. “In many cases, police have a very good idea of who a suspect may be but without an eyewitness or other witnesses with information, the case cannot be solved and suspects are left in society to continue to victimize people.
Not reporting the crimes can lead to legal consequences, too. In the ongoing case at Grant, authorities say jail isn’t the only thing people should be worried about.
“With respect to the posting, possession and sharing photos of sexually explicit conduct involving a child, it is a felony crime and, upon conviction, a person might have to register as a sex offender,” Simpson says. “Certainly, all of this would affect a person for the rest of their life.”
The “Use of Child in Display of Sex Act” can be identified as a Measure 11 crime, potentially requiring a minimum mandatory sentence, even for minors, of five years and 10 months.
Some students say there’s a disconnect between students and adult staff. Coming forward isn’t always the first reflex because students don’t always feel like they hear enough support from adults.
Mandell wants to promote the opposite to that reaction. He tries to maintain a classroom environment where students feel comfortable speaking with him, if necessary. “As an educator, I would always want someone to come to me and tell me if they saw something really bad happen. My job is to make sure that this place is safe for everybody.”
Because of the series of events, Vice Principal Kristyn Westphal says the counseling office and the administration are working together to create a curriculum that keeps students informed on these issues. She also mentioned that a new curriculum is in the works around “speaking up versus being a bystander.”
Tearale Triplett, a counselor at Grant, is also working on the development of the new curriculum. He says the administration is “going to be talking about the dangers of communication and how young teenagers communicate, which include cell phones (and) other cell phone technology.”
It will be combined with the anti-bullying curriculum that already exists at Grant, officials say.
Westphal says it will build on “the idea that if you’re not helping solve the problem, you’re part of the problem” and that the teacher-student relationship also plays a part in solving issues.
“I think it’s important for adults in the building to have their relationships with students,” she says. “You wouldn’t want to share something with somebody that wasn’t your friend.”
She wants to make it clear to students that reporting bad behavior is the expectation at Grant.
“When it’s part of the regular culture of the building, then people feel like that’s just what people do,” says Westphal. “And they feel more comfortable doing it.”
But should students always be obligated to report what they see?
“That would be in an ideal world, where I would love to see more open communication between authorities and teenagers where they feel free to be able to disclose what’s going on,” says Alexander. “It’s a dialogue around the world that needs to happen.”◊