As the father of three teenage boys I have had a couple of recent experiences with what passes for justice in the postmodern world.
The first instance of this was a few years ago, when Luke was sixteen or so. He had, stupidly, been caught smoking in the high school parking lot. When his backpack was searched a jackknife was found. He was summarily expelled from school and turned over to the police.
When I heard of this I went to see the principal, assuming that some common sense explanation would take care of the matter.
As we sat in his office I explained that my children had been allowed to carry pocket knives since they were six, that they had been instructed in their use, been told that this was a tool and not a weapon except in extreme defensive situations, and that they had never misused them. I further explained that Luke knew he was not to take his knife to school, but had spent the night at his grandma’s and had forgotten that it was in his pack. I pointed out that he was not flashing the thing around, let alone threatening anyone.
The principal would have none of it. There was a zero tolerance policy in the city schools, he explained. Anyone with a weapon must be expelled.
I said that a jackknife was not a weapon, but a tool, and that it, like any tool – a compass, a ballpoint pen, a hammer in shop class – could be used as a weapon.
It was like talking to a rock.
Luke was expelled and had to finish the rest of the year at a computer lab at the school board building. He was tried for having a weapon on school grounds and received one year probation (the irony is that he had probably done a lot of things that deserved expulsion, but had not been caught!).
My second encounter with the “justice” system was earlier this year. Please note that as I recount this experience I am laying aside my peacenik convictions and trying to sympathize with reality as experienced by a fifteen year old boy.
An older and larger kid at school was telling people that my son, Patric, was his “bitch”. Now I have told my sons that one does not fight words with fists, but with words. Patric, though bright, is also shy and not quick-thinking in situations like this. He seems to have inherited little of his father’s natural sarcasm. For example, in verbal sparring with his ten year old sister (who excels in this sort of thing) he has been reduced to the rather weak comeback “You’re mean”.
So he confronted the kid. When the boy was surly in his response Patric punched him. In the ensuing fight Patric prevailed.
Now, when I was young that would have been the end of it. If the kid who initiated the hostilities by his verbal aggression had complained to anyone he would have been told that he had run his mouth and paid for it, and let’s hope he learned his lesson.
Not in today’s world.
The kid’s mom called the police, and Patric was charged with assault.
Apparently the young man told the cops that the attack was unprovoked. One would think that the police would have investigated, questioned witnesses, and dismissed the matter after learning of the circumstances, but no. My son had to appear in Teen Court, where the prosecutors, defense attorneys, and jury (but not the judge) are all kids.
I had never experienced such a thing and didn’t know what to expect. Patric thought he would just go in, explain what had happened, and that would be the end of it.
As the “trial” began I started thinking of it as “trial by twit”: these were some of the most insufferable kids I had seen in a while. The “prosecution” was very aggressive; some kid who without the presence of the adult judge would have never have spoken to my son the way he did began to berate him. Prosecutor and defense attorney were adamant that what he should have done was tell an adult, a vice principal, say, rather than taking it into his own hands.
I’m sorry. That would have brought scorn from the other kids. I am not saying that he should have hit the kid, but absent sarcasm a challenge, an invitation for the kid to take the first swing, would have been a lot more prudent. If the kid backed down, Patric would have been vindicated, and if the other kid hit him first my son probably wouldn’t have faced assault charges. (Again, the peacenik in me suggests other approaches, but I am being realistic about adolescents and their needs).
Red-faced, Patric tried to explain himself to the Teen Court. He was on the defense against a room full of straight-arrow teacher-pleasing kids,who were all of them on him, aggressively challenging everything he said.
It looked like court-sanctioned bullying.
The judge joined in, noting that his grades were not good (he has since fixed that), that he was absent from school a lot (he had had successive flu cases) and asking him if he was involved in any extracurricular activities.
“What do you like to do outside of school?’
“Well, I play guitar a little and I like to play baseball.”
At that point I intervened. “He is being modest. He is a gifted guitarist, who was playing better than me a month after picking up the instrument. And he is a talented athlete, a great ball player. Patric is a bright kid; he read Lord of the Rings when he was six.” I went on, bragging a bit, hoping to give them a more balanced picture of the kid before them than the one they had formed in their minds.
The judge’s perception of my son seemed to change. She lectured him about living up to his potential, and then the “lawyers” made their final statements, the prosecutor calling for 75 hours of community service, a written apology to the “victim” and his family, and composing some essays on why violence is not the answer. The defense argued for 24 hours of service, along with the essays.
We were dismissed from the room as the jury considered his case.
And in the end he was given the lighter sentence. And he wasn’t required to write an apology, which means that whatever they were saying for the benefit of the judge, the kids on the jury must have realized that he was hardly picking on the other kid.
Driving home I told my son that he had not seen justice, but he had seen the system, one which could seriously damage his life is he didn’t learn to avoid trouble.
He agreed, did his service and wrote his essays, and is now a free man with no record.
But it is a shame, the moral equivalent of the dumbing down of the education system. It is the same logic as the school policy that treats everyone involved in a fight the same, regardless of who was the aggressor (if the fight had occurred on school grounds the kid who initiated the trouble would have gotten in trouble as well as my son; as it was there was no consequence for him). It is the same logic which expels a kid who inadvertently forgot a knife in his backpack, who was not threatening anyone.
These are strange times, times when small children are disciplined for biting their pop tarts into the shape of a pistol or pointing their finger and saying “bang bang”; you no doubt know many such stories of overreaction.
It’s a shame that the best you can do is teach your kid to play the game, that society conspires in idiocy, but what are you going to do?