The ugly business of peer bullying has been accepted for far too long.
Recent history is replete with examples of harassment of a student who is "different" by classmates leading to suicide or serious injury. The psychological scars which students receive when called constant derogatory names or physically assaulted can last a lifetime. And for what? To allow certain students to be caught up in "Lord of the Flies" type shunning which allows students to take out aggressions and frustrations against a defenseless target?
At worst it leads to the type of twisted "loners" who mass murder at Columbine.
In the wake of an ugly, unaddressed incident at Corona del Mar High, my then-wife and a group of angry parents intervened. They addressed the issue head on instead of hiding it under the rug of ignorance. Creative approaches to promoting tolerance were tried. Challenge Day, which showed students what it felt like to be singled out and isolated, was especially successful. Different groups like the Anti-Defamation League were invited in to help restore a better human relations environment.
Frankly, whether my daughter gets admitted to Harvard or masters calculus is of far less concern than that she develops character. This country has an abundance of skilled, clever businessmen and political figures who are almost sociopathic in their lack of concern for others.
If we allow the cruelest students to control a school, what lessons are we teaching our kids?
My daughter Katie had a boy's name written in pen on her arm when we had dinner last week. I asked her why. She responded, "Dad, there's a nice kid in one of my classes who is very smart, but a little nerdy, and has virtually no friends. He keeps talking about his birthday, and I want to remember to do something nice for him."
Sixteen years old and she has learned empathy.
High school tends to be the time when young people are consumed by their friends and have a level of self-consciousness about peer acceptance. The wrong clothing, hairstyle, expression or behavior causes self-consciousness and embarrassment. The establishing of identity within a group or clique often is unfortunately coupled with a desire to judge or bully those who are different.
Unrealistic beauty and body-type standards and razzing that follow destroys self-esteem. Schools tend to be stratified with different student groups ranked in terms of status and prestige.
Whatever terms are used, athletes tend to be at the top of the social scale, along with a privileged "in" crowd.
"Goths, stoners and nerds" tend to be less desirable. I can't profess to be totally in touch with modern youth culture, but some things never change.
This is why athletes can play a vital role in setting the trends for tolerance and acceptance on a campus. They are physically strong, respected for their achievements, and no one questions their manhood.
I used many athletes over the years to promote this attitude. Former heavyweight boxing champ Lennox Lewis cut a public service announcement that said, "Real Men Don't Hit Women."
Former 49ers quarterback Steve Young and former boxing champ Oscar De La Hoya had a poster, PSA campaign that stressed "Prejudice is Foul Play."
Athletes can permeate the perceptual screen that students use to tune out authority figures — teachers, police, commercials and politicians — to impact values, especially among our young. If an athlete does something, it must be "cool" and "popular."
Athletes can be opinion leaders on campus and create a climate that protects students who can't protect themselves. Tolerance training is an essential part of building character.
My friend, Ken Kragen, who was the force behind "We Are The World" and "Live Aid" asked me to help him in a similar campaign he is designing. I have enthusiastically accepted.
As my Dad used to tell me, "Don't wait for the amorphous 'they' to solve problems because it will never happen. The THEY is YOU, son."
As parents and students we can create the most healthy, esteem-building academic setting for those we love.
LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports or blog.steinbergsports.com.