It’s time to change schools’ culture of misery

(CNN) - Misery has become the norm for young people in school - the Ohio school shooting last week and the case of the Rutgers University cyber-bullying suicide are only the most high-profile of recent related fatalities.

Such despairing actions like suicides and shootings aren’t aberrations. Kids across America are distressed and crying out for help in different ways. When they abuse substances, cut themselves, sink into debilitating depression and paralyzing anxiety, become truant, drop out of school or commit suicide or school shootings, they are saying the same thing: It is too much to bear.

These incidents and the hundreds that came in the decades before, are treated time and again as problems with the individual at the center of the story – but Tyler Clementi and T.J. Lane are not the only lonely teens who were at risk for drastic actions like suicide and shootings.

Educators, parents, and other concerned people often ask me to describe the profile of a bully or someone likely to commit suicide, but this is the wrong question. Instead, we need to examine problem-schools where kids endure a hostile environment every day.

Classic sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote in his seminal work, “Suicide,” that when the same affliction appears again and again, we must question whether something is amiss in our larger social, economic and political sphere. It is no longer reasonable to look merely at familial contexts or only at the pathology of a given individual. When school shootings and suicides persist as they do today, and in the company of high rates of depression, anxiety and social isolation among youth and adults, something must be wrong on a much larger level. Schools are in a position to be part of the solution - but too often they maintain the status quo where children are left to handle everything on their own.

Students are encouraged to be competitive and aggressive, to pursue success - socially and otherwise - with a single-minded zeal, and to step on anyone that gets in their way. Perhaps related, the 2004 General Social Survey reports that social isolation has tripled since the 1980s, while many studies show depression and anxiety have increased significantly among both adults and youth in the same time period.

We see this in the cases of Lane, the alleged school shooter in Ohio, and Clementi, who jumped off a bridge after his Rutgers University roommate broadcast online a sexual encounter between Clementi with a man; the roommate, Dharun Ravi, is now on trial for hate crimes and other charges. Lane and Clementi were both described by peers as outcasts. Lane is said to have few friends and a hard home life. Clementi was described as a loner, and lonely. In conversations reported in The New Yorker, Clementi had said: “I need some people in my life.” Both seemed irritated at the other’s “modest roots.”

Kids routinely speak about one another with racist, classist, and other forms of prejudice that objectify others. Girls get called “slut” and “whore,” boys get called “gay,” white poor people are called “white trash” and the list goes on. Increasing one’s social status by putting others down is par for the course. Broadcasting secrets or sexual images of each other is common and part of the culture of deceit, mistrust and cold clawing for recognition that students learn is necessary for social survival.

Schools can’t handle these problems by themselves – it’s difficult for the school community to flourish when it is infiltrated by violent media, hard economic times with little social support, and families without tools to help children navigate a harsh world. There aren’t enough counselors and social workers to help all the students who are having a hard time.

But individualizing the problem is just another way of avoiding it.

While working on my book, “The Bully Society,” I cataloged every shooting that took place in a school - not all of them high-profile or mass shootings - and found that between 1979 and 2009, approximately 30% of the school shootings were related to rage at schools for disciplinary practices which were perceived by the perpetrator to be unjust; 15% related to dating or domestic violence; another 20% consisted of violence directed specifically at girls or women; and 10% of the shootings were triggered by gay-bashing, in which heterosexually identified students tried to prove their masculinity through violence when their sexuality was questioned. These are social problems, not just individual matters.

Schools need to address the concerns children and teens face, openly and honestly and in an environment that promotes empathy. Kids - and adults - ought to be taught how to develop friendships based on trust and care, rather than competition and envy. Kids could use help to share deeply with each other instead of using one another’s secrets as valued commodities to be traded for social status. They need a reprieve from the bully society where so many are out to destroy others in order to make themselves look better

And kids need to be pathologized less. What they need is to be part of compassionate communities.

These can be created and developed by almost anyone. Counselors or social workers could be the ones to start a movement for creating more compassionate school communities - or teachers, parents, or other school faculty. Student leaders, even self-appointed, could build fervor for compassion and care in their schools.

I worked for five years as a social worker in a community-focused school, Humanities Preparatory Academy in New York. Every week, we had all-school, student-led meetings about issues that concerned the school. In Advisories, often called homerooms elsewhere, students discussed their concerns in smaller groups and participated in exercises that helped foster student and school faculty bonding. Even though it was an at-risk school for truant kids, and many came from devastating backgrounds including gangs, homelessness and domestic violence, we helped almost every student get into four-year colleges, and many with scholarships. This school continues to be a mostly peaceful and supportive place, especially as compared to other schools in the same area.

Schools could have all-school emergency meetings if anyone is hurt in the community; we can’t wait for the bullying to become “a repeated offense” as some define it. Prejudicial slurs of any kind should not be tolerated - including any racist, classist, sexist, or otherwise disparaging judgments. People need to stand up and say that speaking of one another pejoratively is unacceptable. It must become everyone’s mission to uphold values of concern for everyone. This can happen in so many ways, like students working in small groups with those whom they might not otherwise interact.

Every conflict and difficulty needs to become a teaching moment, not a cause for punishment. Students (and adults) must learn how to communicate with one another with respect.

With these efforts, our children will learn and grow with integrity, ethics and a warm regard for themselves and others. In such a school environment, we will have increasingly healthier children. We won’t have to look for what’s wrong with yet another child who exploded in one form or another - we’ll build schools, and in time, a larger society, where children (and adults) finally thrive.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Jessie Klein.