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Stop Criminalizing Children in the Name of School Security

We need a more realistic law that balances security and responsibility with children’s right to make mistakes and to learn from them. Punish them. But don’t crucify them.

Before the manic response to school shootings and the madness of zero-tolerance, those students would have been counseled and redirected, but not expelled.

Before the manic response to school shootings and the madness of zero-tolerance, those students would have been counseled and redirected, but not expelled. (Photo: via Time.com)

We went this first week of school so far this year without one of those moronic incidents typical of the occasional adolescent, typical of last school year, when it seemed we had some of these every few days: no SnapChat banter of an impending assault on any school, no bigoted threats against a teacher, no one brought a gun, a knife, a tank or an ICBM to school that we know of, and best of all, no one has been arrested, no one faces felony charges for pulling any of these gross misjudgments that end up changing the child’s life so we can all pretend that we’re keeping everyone else safe.

Because with an occasional exception that still doesn’t rise to the level of a frenzied response (children have been bringing guns and knives to school since before the days of show and tell), that’s all these incidents were. That’s how most of these incidents would have been treated until the Parkland school massacre, as we should treat the misjudgments of adolescents wired to act stupidly at times. They’re the sort of misjudgments that warrant intervention of course, but measured intervention. Detention, a few days’ suspension maybe, a judgment that must for the most part remain in school administrators’ hands, but in most cases not police intervention, not arrest, not a felony criminal record, not shaming in this retread of witch hunts.

The vast majority of those arrests don’t result in felony convictions, though this too is part of the system’s injustice: all the attention is on the supposed horror of the offense and the disproportion of the charge, but none of the attention goes to what’s usually a more even-handed resolution. We learn of the juveniles’ arrest, we’re even given their names in many cases, but from that point on, we don’t know what happens to them. Their school hearings are closed. Because they’re juveniles their court hearings are never announced, so we never learn how they’ve been walked back from the gallows. Even if their names are never published (as they rarely ever are) their reputation among peers is ruined, their dislocation from school assured.

We know in general that most of the students one way or another are able to continue their education, if on altered terms. They’re sometimes forced to stay home and take online courses or be monitored by home visits, which does the opposite of what disciplining for this type of infraction should do. It isolates the child, ostracises him or her and fuels more resentment than growth beyond that adolescent stage. It is the worst of possible outcomes. A stupid misjudgment becomes a defining factor in a child’s separation from peers and society. We’re making leprous examples of boys and girls in the name of security, which is to say we’re disciplining by terror instead of disciplining by wisdom. How does that not seed future violence? Even most first-time domestic abusers are sent to anger management and counseling, not usually severed from their family. Not so with children and their school family, though they may have done far less than the abuser.

A member of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas safety commission last week talked about how a kindergartener going to school for the first time told her she didn’t want to get shot. Adolescents express the same anxieties, usually more internally, at times more jokingly. It’s a normal psychological response, except that like everything else adolescent sometimes adolescent jokes misfire terribly. They reflect the anxieties of their world. During World War II they played at reenacting air raids and called each other Nazis when they were in foul moods. During the cold war they ridiculed those under-the-desk drills that would have saved no one, and they called each other commies. The taunts were absurd but no less absurd than those of the foolish child borrowing from the ambient follies of the day: shooting up a school.

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Before the manic response to school shootings and the madness of zero-tolerance, those students would have been counseled and redirected, but not expelled. That’s not possible anymore. Because of the acts of a few mass murderers and the reactions of a few legislators, millions of adolescents now must watch what they say and police themselves as in a police state. I don’t care if times have changed. Adolescence has not. And laws should not pretend that it has, or that it can. If we’re asking adolescents to adapt, laws should, too. The law that Florida enacted after Parkland, making a felony of every stupidly threatening utterance by an adolescent, is ridiculously broad and harsh. It has none of the measure and nuance we ask our own children to exercise, none of the wisdom we ask them to reflect. It’s one-size fits all. But words are not evidence, misjudgment is not intent, though even when the offending child is found to be as unarmed as could be, as distant from a mass shooter as could be, the charge remains as if the child was weaponized for Parkland.

The most dangerous thing that happened to Florida’s schools last week was the meeting of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas safety commission. It insists on acting like a revived House Un-American Activities Committee as it mortars its Maginot Lines of security edicts with recommendations for tougher rules directed at the wrong targets. It is the inspiration behind the rehabilitation of zero tolerance, of drills at the rhythm of boot camps, of the strange war of shame declared on school districts if they don’t fall in line.

The commission is attacking soft targets. Easier to attack school boards, to demonize children, to arm mercenaries and call them “guardians” and let the arms race solve all. Media devour the commission’s prolefeed. Like guns, the commission is sacrosanct, immune from criticism. Participants grandstand on the grave of victims every three months, all the while serving as a colossal red herring, detracting from addressing the cause of it all: our obsession with guns and our insistence on interpreting the Second Amendment as granting gun owners, sellers and dealers the rights of a protected class immune from reasonable regulations. “The misconstruction of the Second Amendment,” Craig Whitney wrote, “as an unlimited right not connected with any responsibility or civic duty has cost many more American lives than terrorism has.” But commissioners that condemned the one cop who didn’t confront the Parkland shooter refuse to confront the arsenals at large, the threat that has yet to be confronted. The NRA must send them roses at the end of every session.

Meanwhile schools, businesses (where the incidence of mass shooting is about six times greater than in schools), even private lives are reshaped as bunkers against violence, but the gun fetishists roam free, freer than they could before the Sandy Hook massacre. And so, those grim arrests of adolescents caught in the Kafka of Florida’s misdirected security regime.

Currently law enforcement has no choice but to intervene. They’re following the law. But the law should be baker acted: it is a danger to itself and to our children. We need a more realistic law that balances security and responsibility with children’s right to make mistakes and to learn from them. Punish them. But don’t crucify them. And for heavens’ sake don’t exile them from what remains, despite all, the safest, most nurturing state institutions in America: their public schools.

Pierre Tristam

Pierre Tristam

Pierre Tristam is a journalist, writer, editor and lecturer. He is currently the editor and publisher of FlaglerLive.com, a non-profit news site in Florida. A native of Beirut, Lebanon, who became an American citizen in 1986, Pierre is one of the United States' only Arab Americans with a regular current affairs column in a mainstream, metropolitan newspaper. Reach him at: ptristam@gmail.com or follow him through twitter: @pierretristam

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