How can we instill in young people the understanding that reporting a threat is fundamentally different from “snitching”?
For centuries, individuals have been reporting criminal activity involving someone close to them, and those individuals aren’t often regarded favorably. In the 1700s “snitching” meant to betray a friend, as “snitch” was slang for nose—or rather, being nosy. History is rife with stories of betrayal for personal gain, most notably when it involves sacrificing loyalty. Judas, rat, stool pigeon, canary, fink, squealer, whistleblower, turncoat, stoolie; the archetype of the tattletale extends from biblical times to neo-noir, from Shakespeare to modern hip-hop:
Me and [snitches], we don't conversate
[snitches] love saying real [friends] tryna hate ([snitch])
But nah, [friend], I'm a real [friend], I had to bag up weight
You got fear in your heart so you cooperate ([snitch])
I can't stand how [snitches] operate
In a modern culture that grows increasingly wary of authority, a culture of “silencing” snitches has become deeply ingrained in our society, most notably with young people.
“I think in particularly with young kids who don’t have a lot of positive influences, pop culture almost becomes a larger part of that self-discovery and how you define yourself.” - Terry Gross
Teenagers are at a point in their lives where they are trying to establish their standing in a social environment that is highly critical and impulsive. Making a move like reporting threatening behavior to a teacher, which can be mistakenly interpreted as snitching, can have major social repercussions. These young people are put in the tough position where they are often having to make choices between making “the right decision” and “staying in your lane.”
How do we instill in young generations that reporting is an admirable act that can save lives, while snitching is a selfish act akin to tattletale-ing?
We first can identify that there is an immediate distinction between reporting and snitching. With snitching there is always an ulterior motivation: the thirty pieces of silver; the boss’ seat; the prison sentence reduction. Snitches are not reporting to authorities for the betterment of anyone else besides themselves, they instead wield reporting as a weapon against their opponents and even friends, not because they care about justice, but because it allows them an advantage. Snitching is neither noble, nor is it a practice that is conducive to community wellness, BUT it is far off from the act of reporting.
Whereas snitching is self-motivated, reporting a threat is selfless. A person who reports a threat is going out of their way–often putting themself in the middle of a threat assessment process—because the reporter has the clarity of mind to recognize the potential harm averted by their reporting. Not only are they acting in the interest of their own safety, but also the safety of their friends, classmates, school faculty, and perhaps complete strangers. Reporting a threat, however seemingly innocuous, may save dozens of lives and protect hundreds from potential victimization.
However virtuous the act of reporting is, there are several challenges to overcome in getting teenage students to embrace reporting threatening behavior. Chapter 8 of Warning Signs: Identifying School Shooters Before They Strike (2021) by Dr. Peter Langman identifies the “barriers to action” when reporting threats in the effort to help stakeholders find solutions. The following are the most prominent factors that inhibit students from feeling compelled to report threats:
The first factor mentioned in Warning Signs is denial, which is logical, as denial is the most common contributor to someone disregarding a warning sign or leakage. We humans use denial as a defense mechanism; a way to deal with distressing feelings without confronting them. Denial allows us to ignore problems and downplay potential consequences. Much like Occam's razor, where the simplest answer often leads to a solution, our minds have a tendency to defer to the rationale that allows us to set the distressing feelings aside–the simplest answer.
Dr. Langman specifies two types of denial in regards to reporting threats. General denial refers to the subject's sense that a mass-casualty event couldn’t possibly happen in their area, community or organization. “That kind of thing just doesn’t happen in Willow Estates!” Specific denial refers to denying that a certain individual has the capacity to commit an attack. “Jeremy could never do that, he was always so nice!”
A brief accounting of the history of school shootings would reveal that these events happen in all community types, and further, there is no one type of person or personality that commits these atrocities. Jaylen Fryberg was considered popular at his High School, being a multiple-versed athlete and that year’s homecoming prince, before fatally shooting four fellow students and himself a week later. In a statement to the New York Post on October 24, 2014, 15-year-old sophomore Shaylee Bass expressed her feelings about Jaylen, "He was not a violent person. His family is known all around town. He was very well known. That’s what makes it so bizarre."
Jaylen’s attack is just one example of how anomalous these perpetrators' characteristics can be. Students must learn that every person is much more complex and nuanced than what they give freely. Even if you consider one person close, you can’t let your willingness to report a threat rely on the pleasant experiences had with them.
“The Code of Silence”
We’re all familiar with “the code of silence.” Whether it's a secret kept between a close group of friends, or the consequences of omertà in mafia movies, when fraternity has been established, there’s always an implicit sense that solidarity extends beyond what is legal or socially acceptable. This code is deeply influenced by cultural notions of toughness, embodying the egotism associated with toxic masculinity—”We should be able to assess the significance of this threat and decide who should be informed.” “If it doesn’t hurt us–who cares about the rest of 'em?”
This is particularly applicable to high school friend groups, where the bonds of friendship are foundational and forged under heightened social pressures.
School leaders must employ reframing–changing the way something is perceived, understood, or interpreted by altering its context–to undo the code of silence. This involves appealing to the same masculine emotions embedded in that code, effectively transforming the narrative: Mass shooting events can be considered acts of terrorism—do we call people who report acts of terrorism cowards? No, we call them heroes! People that commit acts of mass violence at school, victimizing completely innocent, indiscriminate students are not friends, nor do they follow the same social codes that other students adhere to. Not only is it socially acceptable to report threats of mass violence, it is courageous, strong and akin to preventing terrorism.
If a potential perpetrator is leaving warning signs, it’s quite possible that surrounding students recognize those warning signs, and are scared of the aggression those threats imply. Students may avoid reporting these warning signs because they are scared of violent retribution from the threatener. It’s difficult for students to see the long-term implications of reporting a threat when the short-term reality is they may get attacked.
School faculty must make the effort to foster an environment where students feel protected, especially when one is involved in the threat assessment process. This should include making the anonymity of the threat reporter a priority, and clearly defining this effort to the student body.
If students feel that they are in an environment that has their well-being in mind, and that their report will be taken seriously, they will be more willing to report threats.
Have you ever been in line for coffee, thinking they called your name, but you’re not quite sure, so you hesitate to claim it? The fear of grabbing the wrong one outweighs the impatience for clarity. The same dynamic exists in threat reporting. Students and parents alike are afraid that their impression that something is wrong is simply an overreaction–perhaps the one comment they heard in passing was misinterpreted or insignificant? Certainty, they don’t want to instigate a process that involves teams, resources and human hours on the merits of a hunch!
Community members should know, it isn’t the responsibility of the parent or the student to evaluate the threat as “substantial enough” to report. The threat assessment and management teams are (if organized properly) capable of assessing the validity of the threat, and they have the knowledge and resources to do so. Where determining the significance of a threat is the explicit responsibility of the threat assessment team, members of the school community are equally responsible for reporting the potential threats they find, regardless of how innocuous they seem.
Threat Not Taken Seriously
Finally, and perhaps just as common as denial, threats are often not taken seriously. Warning signs and threatening behavior often take the form of levity, edgy humor designed to shock, or sometimes as a desperate cry for attention. Famously, two weeks before the events at Columbine, a photo of the student body shows perpetrators Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold making a “shooting gesture” at the camera. What could easily be mistaken for a juvenile stunt was, in hindsight, a clear warning sign that unfortunately wasn’t interpreted as such.It's not the role of community members to assess whether the threat was made in jest or not. This responsibility explicitly falls within the purview of the threat assessment team.
Bridging the gap between encouraging reporting and dispelling the stigma associated with "snitching" requires a multi-faceted approach. We must recognize the immediate distinction between reporting and snitching, where the former is driven by selflessness and the latter by self-interest. Overcoming barriers to action, such as denial and the pervasive "Code of Silence," demands a shift in perception. School leaders must employ reframing techniques, transforming the narrative to portray reporting as an act of courage, strength, and prevention of terrorism.
Addressing the fear of retaliation is crucial; creating an environment where students feel protected and ensuring the anonymity of reporters will foster a sense of security, encouraging more students and parents to report threats. Overcoming the tendency to dismiss threats as overreactions requires a community-wide understanding that the responsibility to evaluate threat significance lies with the threat assessment teams, not individual students or parents. By dismantling these obstacles, we can instill in young generations the understanding that reporting is an admirable act that can save lives, establishing a culture of safety and wellness within our school communities.