After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, an advertising firm created a campaign to be used by the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority to try to help prevent another disaster. The initiative included a slogan that quickly became part of the MTA’s security awareness campaign. This intervention made good sense, calling us to be more vigilant and active in averting potential threats.

More recently, this slogan has been adapted by school systems in hopes of preventing school shootings. In view of a recent spree of teenager arrests and school expulsions, one may wonder if this approach really is making our schools safer.

There is actually an extensive body of research literature on teen violence. This includes risk factors, protective factors and a variety of protective strategies. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics have issued formal statements relating to teen violence and school expulsions. Both emphasize the importance of teens’ social connectedness and indicate that disrupting a sense of belonging to a community is precisely what increases violent tendencies.

An intervention applied across the board in the educational systems should be first studied in pilot projects, to be evaluated for both effectiveness and unintended consequences, but this slogan was adopted nearly universally without formal evaluation.

While applicable in places of transit, which inherently lack a culture of community, it will likely disrupt the complex communities in the schools. The slogan cultivates a mentality of mistrust and encourages classmates to tell on each other.

Will this make our schools safer? The evidence-based answer would be an emphatic “no.” Instead of “If you see something, say something,” in a school culture, a more appropriate slogan might be “If you see something, reach out to that person as if he or she were your close friend,” or something to that effect.

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