Friday, February 5, 2010

Over the Top

Two articles in the Daily News in the last couple of days caught my attention:

Mom Fumes After Son, 9, Is Busted for Bringing 2-Inch Long Toy Gun to School (follow-up here).
Queens Girl Hauled out of School in Handcuffs After Getting Caught Doodling on Desk.

Allright, what's going on here? Reading through the comments attached to these articles, I see two schools of thought emerging (not counting this-is-all-liberal-socialist-Marxist-PC-commie-leftist-Obama's-fault):

1. Rules are rules, the kid broke them, zero tolerance, parents need to get over themselves;
2. It was just a toy, it's no big deal, kids will be kids, how dare the principal punish the child so harshly.

What I'm seeing here is an awful lot of overreaction, on just about everyone's part, including the aforementioned commenters. The school officials overreacted to the children' s inappropriate behavior, the parents overreacted to the overreaction, and the public is now overreacting to both. In the case of the boy with the little toy gun, the child probably shouldn't have brought any toys to school, let alone a toy gun no matter what size it was. To hear the boy and the parent tell of it, though, the principal completely wigged out over it and treated the boy as if he had actually shot someone. I should note here that I don't entirely believe this; she probably did overreact, but not to the degree the boy and mother are claiming. We all know how children tend to exaggerate and distort things in order to cast themselves as innocent victims of arbitrary meanness, and parents nowadays are no help in that they take these distortions as gospel truth and then double-down on the distortion to pump up the outrage.

We can dispense with the lawsuit talk right now; it's an empty threat, and everyone knows it. Neither the parent nor the child has any cause of action here, against either the principal or the school/DOE, let alone one that would justify the expense of litigation. Bunch of nonsense, this. Even as an attorney, it annoys me to no end whenever something like this happens and everyone's first thought is of a lawsuit. The reality is that no parent, no matter how outraged, is going to go through the time, expense and effort of pursuing a cause of action in court that has no chance of succeeding, let alone of producing a large recovery.

I think that in this case we're just looking at a lot of bad behavior on everyone's part, most of which could have been avoided if anyone along the line just did the proper, reasonable thing in the first place. And as always, the important things get lost: the need for schools to have and enforce reasonable rules, the need for them to enforce such rules in a reasonable and effective way, and the need for parents to stop teaching their children that they are the center of the universe and that anything and everything they do is just wonderful.

Which brings me to the second case, the girl who was handcuffed for doodling on her desk. Now, in this case the child actually was punished for her behavior (the boy in the other case just got a stern talking-to and was made to sign an acknowledgment form), and in this case the behavior actually was, in a technical sense, criminal. Vandalism is still a crime in New York, as far as I know, whether the perpetrator intends to "undo" the damage or not (or, perhaps more to the point, whether or not it is possible for the victim to undo it). What's interesting to me is that the child is quoted as saying, "It could be easily erased." Note the use of passive language here, reflecting the complete lack of acknowledgment that someone would actually have to do the work of erasing it. And how does she know whether such work is "easy?" More importantly, why does she feel entitled to impose such work on someone else? The article says the marker was "erasable," but I don't buy it. I've seen plenty of desk graffiti over the years, but I've never seen a child using a dry-erase whiteboard marker on a desk.

Now, all that said, I think the whole arrest and handcuffing thing was over the top. I'd be lying if I said I never thought about having a student arrested and cuffed for vandalizing a desk; in fact, this past semester, I had a student who was a serial desk vandal (among other things) and I had that thought often. The tension here, I think, is between a proportional response to an isolated incident of inappropriate behavior on the one hand, and on the other the idea that we cannot let students think they can behave in an antisocial way and not have to pay a price for it, even if the harm appears to be minor. In this particular case, without knowing more about this girl and other surrounding circumstances, the response was probably disproportionate. If this girl was a serial desk vandal and had been repeatedly warned to stop doing it, that's another story.

There is a risk in letting students get away with "minor" infractions, in the sense that they eventually come to decide for themselves what the magnitude of the harm is, and therefore feel empowered to commit even greater harms while convincing themselves that the harms are not so great. One of the things that bothers me most about kids is that they tend to proclaim themselves the arbiters of the value of other people's property. The classic example of this is two boys playing "keep-away" with a third boy's baseball cap, throwing it back and forth, until it falls in a mud puddle and is permanently ruined. The owner of the cap will react strongly, and the cap-throwers will admonish him that it's "just a baseball cap" and only worth $30, or whatever such caps go for at Modell's. What they might not know, for example, is that the cap was the last thing given to the boy by his uncle, who died last month. Yes, that's an extreme example, but the point is that the taunters in this scenario have no right to tell the owner of the property which they destroyed that it was not worth preserving. No one has the right to determine the value to its owner of any property which does not belong to him. (That includes the value of labor, re: the girl's claim that undoing the damage she caused would be "easily" accomplished.)

I realize I'm taking the reader down a bit of a slippery slope here, but I believe the risk is genuine. I've said time and time again, and made it the thesis of my Law Review Note, that teenagers do a very poor job of evaluating risk and considering their actions carefully, to the point of being unable to even perceive risk. While they don't always need to be handcuffed and "taken downtown" every time they step out of line, they do need to understand that sometimes their actions do cause harm, and they cannot escape the consequences by unilaterally declaring that the harm is insignificant.

The worst aspect of this may be that these parents, particularly the mother of the boy with the Lego gun, are teaching their children that it is normal, proper, acceptable, even preferable, to feel and act outraged and victimized whenever they get in trouble in school; that the proper way to respond to what may or may not have been a lapse in judgment resulting in what may or may not have been unfair treatment, is to attack, threaten and actively try to destroy the life of that person. They will do this even when they are in the wrong.

People should enforce their rights, yes. People should be wary of unfair treatment, yes. Punishments should be proportional, yes. But no one is helped when everyone loses their minds.

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