To Tell or Not to Tell?

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Why we’re programmed to keep dangerous secrets—and how cracking the code of silence can save lives 

At first, Matthew Garrett figured it must be a joke. Or maybe he’d heard wrong. Why else would this kid at his lunch table be talking about shooting up their high school?

Matthew, then a freshman at Cedar Crest High School in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, barely knew the other student. They’d found themselves eating together only recently, when schedules had shifted for a new semester. Matthew couldn’t be sure the boy wasn’t kidding. Besides, other kids at the table had heard the same threats. No one else seemed worried. 

So Matthew brushed it off. But over the next few weeks, the boy repeated his plan. Then one day, he pulled out a map of the school and “started picking dates,” says Matthew, now 16. “It had gone too far.”

Together with a few friends, Matthew reported what he knew to school administrators, and police ultimately arrested and charged two students involved in the shooting plot. “The police told me this was one of the most credible threats they’d ever seen,” says Cedar Crest Principal Nicole Malinoski. 

Today, Matthew knows he did the right thing. But what if he hadn’t spoken up? That’s something he thinks about whenever he hears news of a deadly school shooting. 

Matthew’s situation may sound extreme, but at some point, you’ve probably noticed something that sounded alarm bells in your head. Maybe you witnessed a classmate being bullied, feared that a teammate had gotten in deep with drugs, or saw signs that a friend was depressed. You might have thought you should keep your mouth shut. (Weren’t you always taught to mind your own business?)

The truth is, you were. But sometimes being a loyal friend involves being a whistle-blower: someone who temporarily breaks that seemingly impenetrable code of trust when a person’s health or safety is at stake.

The Culture of Quiet

It’s not surprising that so many kids who overheard plans for the shooting at Matthew’s school kept mum. According to research, four out of five school shooters revealed their intentions to peers ahead of time—but no one reported the threats. 

What gives? Sometimes, when people witness something—say, a friend being bullied—in a group, they believe that someone else will intervene. The behavior is so common that psychologists have even given it names: They call it “diffusion of responsibility” or “the bystander effect.” The most famous example of this phenomenon is the 1964 stabbing murder of a young woman named Kitty Genovese in New York City, when more than 30 people allegedly heard her cries for help but didn’t call the police.

But even if you’re the only one who sees or overhears something, it’s a normal reaction to want to keep quiet. Think about it. As kids, we’re taught that no one likes a tattletale. We pride ourselves on our ability keep our lips zipped, especially when it comes to friends. And how many times have you solemnly sworn that you wouldn’t tell “a single soul” what a pal was about to confide?

In fact, teens are especially prone to staying silent, explains Amy Syvertsen, a research scientist at Search Institute, a nonprofit that works to improve the lives of young people. They fear “everything from being labeled a snitch, to getting into trouble,” says Syvertsen, who has studied the bystander effect. “And they worry that divulging concerns will mark the end of the friendship.” 

The Power of Instinct

So when do you know it’s time to tell someone? And how can you judge the difference between a friend who’s having a bad day—and one who plans to harm herself or others?

The answer: Trust your gut. In other words, when you get that sick feeling in your stomach, pay attention to it. “If you’re feeling concerned, there’s probably a good reason for it,” says Lucie Hemmen, a psychologist in Santa Cruz, California. “Use your concern as the evidence you need to take action.”

That’s what Natalia Szurawski did. The 17-year-old was in the midst of a Halloween party at her Danbury, Connecticut, home in October 2014, when a friend asked if they could talk privately. Once they were alone, Natalia’s friend confessed that she didn’t want to live anymore and pulled up her sleeves to reveal shallow cuts on her wrists. 

Even as she comforted her friend, Natalia knew she couldn’t handle the problem alone. Still, her mind raced with worries. “I thought, ‘What if she hates me for telling and never wants to talk to me again? What if I lose this person by trying to save her?’” But her fears for her friend’s safety outweighed her other concerns. Natalia told her mom, who contacted the other girl’s parents, and the friend received the help she needed.

Natalia did experience some of the awkwardness she feared when her friend returned from treatment. “She didn’t like to talk about what had happened, and I didn’t want to mention it to her,” Natalia recalls. Experts say that’s not uncommon. Speaking up can cause a friend to feel betrayed and lash out, or it could create a divide within a group of friends. 

The important thing to remember, though, is that while the fallout is definitely difficult, it is almost certainly temporary, says Sarah Moon, an adviser to high school students at Saint Ann’s school in New York City. “I’ve seen it many times before,” she explains. “There is absolutely the day or the week where it’s terrible, but then it passes.” 

Natalia knows she made the right call, despite the period of awkwardness she endured. “If I hadn’t said anything, I’m 90 percent sure my friend wouldn’t be with us today,” she says. “I tell people, ‘Please speak up. Otherwise the weight of somebody’s death could be on you.’”

Living With Regret

No one understands the consequences of staying silent more than the family and friends of Brett Finbloom. On a summer night in 2012, the 18-year-old Carmel, Indiana, teen passed out at a friend’s house after drinking vodka. Unable to rouse him, Brett’s friends delayed calling for help for fear they would get arrested for underage drinking. 

Crucial minutes ticked by. Brett’s pulse faded as a few friends debated what to do; others ran from the scene. A partygoer eventually called 911, but when first responders arrived, no one came clean about exactly what had happened.

Brett, suffering from alcohol poisoning, was rushed to the hospital and placed on life support. He died two-and-a-half days later. A large group of his friends, keeping vigil at the hospital, sobbed in disbelief when they heard the news. “It was so tragic,” says Brett’s mom, Dawn. “So many things went wrong the night Brett died.”

She wishes Brett’s friends had known about Indiana’s Lifeline Law, which provides immunity for alcohol-related offenses by minors. In other words, if you call 911 for a friend and stay on the scene to provide info, you won’t get in trouble. (Other states have similar laws.)

Today, Dawn and her husband, Norm, help educate young people about what to do when a friend is in danger. They urge teens to pledge to call for help—and also to give their friends permission to make the call for them—before an emergency develops.

“If you think about it ahead of time and have a plan, you’re more likely to do the right thing,” says Dawn. 

Taking Action

Luckily, the word is spreading about the importance of speaking up. A new program called Say Something has trained nearly 400,000 students in 350 schools about how to take action when something’s not right. 

The initiative was created by Sandy Hook Promise, an organization founded by several family members of the 26 people killed in the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. 

The program stresses that students are the eyes and ears of their school, often privy to info—particularly on social media apps like Snapchat, Kik, and Burn Note—that adults aren’t. By staying alert to warning signs and then telling a trusted adult, they can save a life, says Nicole Hockley, a founder of Sandy Hook Promise. (Her 6-year-old son, Dylan, was one of 20 children killed that day.) 

“You don’t have to diagnose what the problem is,” explains Hockley. “You just have to take the action of saying, ‘I’m seeing or hearing something that is concerning to me. I’m going to make sure an adult is aware.’” 

Last fall, Natalia helped bring the Say Something message to her school. She spoke about her personal experience during an assembly in front of hundreds of students. Afterward, as people filed out of the auditorium, Natalia’s friend, the one who had confided in her, approached her slowly. “She took my hand,” recalls Natalia, “and she just said, ‘Thank you.’”

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