No doubt some will find this post controversial. It is a complex topic that is better not reduced to provocative headlines like the one I chose. I’ll admit I did so to get your attention as much as anything else.
ok, enough set up, so what are we talking about? In an effort to control the spread of Covid-19 on campuses this semester, many college and university administrators are openly encouraging students to report infractions of the safety protocols by their fellow students. In effect they are turning students against one another to contain the virus.
Before I say anything else, as a parent of a college student I very much appreciate the well intentioned and painstaking efforts of leaders of higher education to maintain a safe environment for all students. Opening campuses in the midst of a pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetime. Schools are mounting herculean efforts to give kids a chance to be at school. It is unreasonable to expect even the most capable and experienced leaders to get everything right. When in doubt, err on the side of safety.
Yet something about inviting students to report other students for not wearing masks or maintaining proper social distancing gives me the creeps. Do we really want to teach the next generation, the leaders of tomorrow, that the only way to solve problems with one another is to run to the authorities? I don’t see how that builds trust among members of a community, which ultimately is the cornerstone of any healthy society.
Clearly in life threatening or highly dangerous situations students should never hesitate to seek help. However, to me, kids gathering in a dorm room or failing to wear a mask does not merit the “if you see something, report it” approach that some schools are deploying.
Wouldn’t it be better to teach the kids to attempt to resolve their problems directly first? I know it’s not easy for anyone to approach a fellow student about this type of concern. However if a student sees something, the first lesson should be to assume good intent, especially if they don’t know the other person. Recognize that none of us are perfect, we all make mistakes.
Don’t craft a narrative in your head that assumes the other person is “bad” or “doesn’t deserve to be here if they can’t follow the rules like the rest of us.” Rather approach the person in a spirit of humility and generosity and share your concern. If that fails, if the person disregards the feedback and continues the behavior, then at that time engaging the authorities should be considered.
This is the sign of a healthy community, when individual citizens can work together to solve problems. A community with leaders that ask or encourage everyone to be their eyes and ears, to report anything they see, no matter how trivial, will never establish trust. If we’ve learned anything these past few months, it’s how little trust there is in our society today, especially among those of different backgrounds. Do we want to encourage kids on campuses, which often is their first exposure to people who are different from them, to behave this way?
Teaching young people to work together to solve problems will make them better leaders in their professional careers. In corporate environments I’ve seen too many unfortunate examples of people spreading hurtful, wildly misleading gossip or outright lies about co-workers to HR departments, often on matters that have nothing to do with them. Typically other, more self-centered agendas were in play beyond genuine concern for the rules or the well-being of a fellow co-worker. Candidly in those instances such actions say much more about the character of the accuser than anything else.
Again, I want to be clear, there are obvious situations on campuses and in offices where people should be encouraged to seek help or report violations immediately. No one should suffer needlessly or face harm when confronted with a situation they could not resolve themselves, especially if the person is being victimized by someone in authority. The security and HR professionals on campuses and in corporate settings are well trained to handle such matters and should be utilized. However proportionality is required. Not every infraction, even in a pandemic, requires deputizing students against one another.
Let’s teach our young people to be lights for the future by learning to trust one another and work together. Leave the darkness to the rats.