It has been an emotionally sad and difficulty week as the people in our community grieve the loss of a high school student in our area. It is particularly troubling because issues of mistreatment and bullying behaviors appear to have fueled the situation. When these types of tragedies occur there is an outpouring of emotions from the community usually in the form of anger and frustration, which is understandable. However, we must make sure these feelings elicit a healthy response rather than a gut-level reaction.

Mistreatment usually comes from a place of intolerance, lack of understanding and empathy, and judgment. Unfortunately, these are the very behaviors evident in the reactions of many adults to crisis situations like this one. If we want our children to be more accepting of differences, less judgmental, and more understanding, then we, as adults, must model these behaviors. Rather than pointing fingers and demonizing individuals and groups, we need to step back, shift our perspective and ask questions that help us look at the bigger picture:

• What factors lead to mistreatment among youth?
• What behaviors are being modeled that perpetuate the problem?
• What values are most important to us and how are those values reflected in our own behaviors?
• How are we as adults teaching and reinforcing our values?

This does not mean we excuse inappropriate behavior. There need to be clearly outlined consequences for poor choices, but we are naïve if we believe any consequence, no matter how harsh, will be the factor that stops the misbehavior from occurring again. If we are going to create positive change as a result of these incidents, we must attack the problem at the core by examining our values and corresponding behaviors.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident and shouldn’t be treated as such. When dealing with mistreatment, the conversation really began with an incident at Columbine High School 17 years ago and continues to this day. Behavior is communication and our youth are trying to tell us something. I pray our response is one that adequately soothes the burn and cools the flame instead of adding fuel to an already raging fire.