When I was in junior high school, we used to have to watch those corny “gateway drug” educational films. Do you remember those?

They followed a similar plot: Some clean-cut teenage boy would steal a beer from the family fridge; next we see him bowing to peer-pressure and puffing on a joint; soon he’s snorting cocaine at a wild party. Finally, he’s shooting heroin in some rat-infested alley. These films follow a similar plot and usually end with the boy’s parents identifying a body at the morgue.

“See, John?” the mother would say, “I told you not leave beer in the fridge!”

The anti-drug films of the ‘70’s, ‘80’s, and ‘90’s were melodramatic at best and ridiculous at worst. But they had an undeniable impact on impressionable kids like me – I was frightened to experiment with street drugs.

The validity of the gateway drug theory is still being debated, but its overall premise is undeniable: Bad behavior leads to worse behavior. If we don’t draw limits for behavior early in a relationship, we will suffer the consequences of rapid, dangerous escalation.

In the institutional setting – whether it’s a school, a hospital, factory, shopping mall, juvenile detention center, or prison – the person with the worst behavior sets the tone for what is acceptable for everyone else.

This is true no matter what example leaders provide.

So, if a high school or juvenile detention center allows kids to curse, they become a cursing facility. If a factory manager says nothing when they overhear sexual harassment, they become an enabler for sexual harassment. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that people are more likely to harass (and be harassed) in a facility that enables harassment.

So does allowing some bad behavior put us at risk for other, more dangerous, behaviors? Yes, it definitely does.

Joel Lashley
Clinical Security and Violence Management Trainer and Consultant
Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin