Schools Stop Put-Downs

Richard Wendell Fogg
Center for the Study of Conflict
5846 Bellona Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21212

(Published in Journal of the New York State Middle School Association, Vol. Xii, #,3 Fall, 1995 "In Transition" 31)

Introduction (added later)
Richard Wendell Fogg

One of the students who committed the massacre at Columbine High School in
Colorado last year wrote in his diary that one reason for his decision to
kill was that students had put him down mercilessly. Furthermore, six of
the nine student killers portrayed in Time (May 31, 1999, pp.36-37) said
that put-downs were a reason for their committing murder. We must stop the
rampage of putting-down in schools--but how, in view of the pervasiveness
of it in our culture and the unfortunate fact that making one's peers seem
below oneself can mask or even diminish a youth's insecurities?

Two schools have used a method that has been effective, lasting, and has
not increased school budgets. Here is their story.

About twenty years ago, the principal of a new public junior high school in
a ghetto in Washington, DC, created a school culture that discouraged
put-downs by students and teachers. Put-downs are inappropriate criticisms
or nonverbal humiliations. Examples include calling someone "fatso", or
"sex machine", hazing by making athletes and others run a gauntlet, and
even some eye-rolling dirty looks. What the principal and his faculty came
up with worked very well. During a lengthened homeroom period, the
teachers described the put-down concept. Then they asked what the students
felt when they were put down, and of course, the answer was that it hurt.
Next, the teachers asked what might be done to reduce the number of
put-downs, and the students could not think of much. What they did answer
was ipitomized by the student who said, "At least we could agree that we
don't want put-downs, and we could say to anyone who does it that we don't
do that here."

This approach of the Washington School came up in 1984 when I attended a
routine meeting of the parents of the sixth grade at the Park School, a
school that my daughter attended outside of Baltimore. Ken Seward, the
principal, asked us what problems were on our minds, and some of us said,
"Put-downs". I then proposed that he use the system devised by the school
in Washington, which I described in no more detail than in the above
paragraph. He and the parents liked the idea so he implemented it.

Mr Seward told me recently that "in putting each other down, the students
hadn't understood what they were doing because they were supporeted by the
larger culture, including TV, movies and comics. Kids create a school
culture based somewhat on the national one, and they teach theirs to each
other. However, faculty and administration can affect that, particularly
by drawing out what kids want but don't usually fully understand and say.
That drawing-out is the root definition of education. Mr. Seward
understands Sara Lawrence Lightfoot's point in her The Good High School:
Effective Schools create a school culture to carry out their goals.

Mr. Seward led the put-down community discussion himself with the whole
middle school. In subsequent years, teachers led the activity in classes.
In the community discussion, Mr. Seward said to the studewnts that
"people's sense of self and their relationships are formed by language, so
we shouldn't use language casually or use it as a weapon to hurt people.
Other people do these things, but we don't like doing that here." Then he
gave some examples of put-downs from the old demeaning-drill-sergeant
method of conducting Marine basic training...Next the students admitted
that they had all used put-downs and had been put down, and that it hurt.
Thus, the term "put-down" placed everyone in the same boat, not singling
out bullies as perpetrators or members of a subgroup as victims.

During the second semester, we parents of the sixth graders had another
meeting, and Mr. Seward asked, "What about the put downs?" We replied that
the problem was alleviated. When my daughter graduated from Park, I asked
her whether the culture of the student-body had been changed in terms of
ending the prevalence of put-downs. She said, "Yes." Three of the parents
told me recently that they thought that the put-down problem had been
addressed, though four of the students told me recently that, of course, it
continued somewhat. One measure of the success and failure is that a short
student did not get teased about height, but an overweight student did get
teased about weight in middle school. Recently, I spoke with a student who
had put other students down more than most, and this student gushed when I
asked if the community discussion had succeeded. At first, the student
said there was little success because "the authorities have little
influence." Then the student shifted: "You don't recognize what a put-down
is. You aren't trying to hurt people, even though it hurts when you're put
down. The discussion showed that put downs actually carry some meaning.
Yes, the discussion helped. Even if it helped for a month, that's

Mr. Seward believes that "the put-down assembly" succeeded in raising
students' level of awareness. The student body agreed that insults and
unwarranted criticisms should be avoided in order to have peer-acceptance,
which everyone wanted. That is, the meeting gave a common community
reference point, an appeal to collective authority. Besides, when kids
said, "We don't do that here, remember," they had a quich phrase to use to
stop a put-down and perhaps get an apology. As well, students no longer
had to ask, "What is it about me that made the kid insult me?" Instead,
they just rejected the insult. The community decision made the person
suing the put-down become the issue, not the victim."

Debbie Roffman, life skills and sex education teacher at Park, adds that,
"Saying 'bad' words in the community meeting took the taboo out of those
words. Doing so was also a real trust builder with students, who clearly
appreciated the principal's level of honesty and openness in this

When parents, administration, faculty, and students work together,
humiliation can be defeated.

Put-downs are the root of a good deal of violence in society. In learning
to say "No" to them, the students may have learned to say it to even bigger
problems later, such as sex abuse, and thus protect themselves and reduce
the amount of violence in society.


Dr. Fogg holds a doctorate in Social Studies Education from Harvard, has
taught that subject at the State University College at Buffalo, and
currently directs the Center for the Study of Conflict, located in