It was, perhaps, only a matter of time.
The ultraconservative emphasis on order laced with overly severe punishment for any sort of disorder is finally, after more than 40 years of hammering the public about it, beginning to filter down to the bottom rungs. Mandatory sentencing, longer jail terms for more minor offenses, zero tolerance, severe fines and penalties for small infractions–all have contributed to an atmosphere of intolerance and overkill. In Massachusetts, you can be arrested–handcuffed, strip-searched, and thrown in a cell–for a motor vehicle violation as inconsequential as not paying a $25 seatbelt fine, and clearing it up will cost you as much as $1000 before you’re done.
But it’s worse than that. According to a story in today’s NYT, we’ve now reached the point where we’re putting our kids in jail if they refuse to wear the clothes we tell them to wear or say words we told them not to say.
TOLEDO, Ohio — The 14-year-old girl arrived at school here on Oct. 17 wearing a low-cut midriff top under an unbuttoned sweater. It was a clear violation of the dress code, and school officials gave her a bowling shirt to put on. She refused. Her mother came to the school with an oversize T-shirt. She refused to wear that, too.”It was real ugly,” said the girl, whose mother did not want her to be identified.
It was a standoff. So the city police officer assigned to the school handcuffed the girl, put her in a police car and took her to the detention center at the Lucas County juvenile courthouse. She was booked on a misdemeanor charge and placed in a holding cell for several hours, until her mother, a 34-year-old vending machine technician, got off work and picked her up.
She was one of more than two dozen students in Toledo who were arrested in school in October for offenses like being loud and disruptive, cursing at school officials, shouting at classmates and violating the dress code. They had all violated the city’s safe school ordinance.
Are we so frightened of our own kids that we’re willing to throw them to the tender mercies of the juvenile justice system for the sort of “crime” that used to get them a visit to the principal’s office?
What in god’s name is happening to us? We’re turning our schools from learning centers into detention centers and standardized test factories. With no regard for the potential social disruption and personal degradation of a half-assed education, we have been willing to cut their budgets, double their class sizes, lay off their teachers–even the ones willing to work for the tiny salaries we’re willing to pay–and eliminate their programs in order to put $$100,000+$$ more a year into the pockets of the wealthiest 1 or 2% in the vain hope that they might be grateful enough to offer up a few thousand more minimum-wage jobs waiting on tables or running the cash registers at convenience stores. What are we thinking?
I’ve been teaching adolescents off-and-on for almost 25 years, all kinds–from the suburbs and the inner city, from wealth and from unimaginable poverty, from every conceivable ethnic and cultural background, from the well-behaved to the criminal (real criminal: arsonists, rapists, murderers, thieves, drug dealers)–and I can say without qualification that the percentage of kids that can’t be helped out of whatever trap they’re in is very small indeed. The key to dealing with adolescents is really very simple: give their unique individual qualities some respect; if you try to herd them into a conformative, cookie-cutter sameness like cows, you’re asking for trouble. You’re also violating their humanity, although that doesn’t seem to matter much to anyone any more.
Adolescents are trying figure out who they are, mostly by differentiating themselves from their parents and the rest of a society that doesn’t seem to care much whether they live or die, and you can’t really blame them. I’ve been involved with trying to start programs aimed at teenagers, troubled or otherwise, and the massive indifference I’ve faced is incomprehensible to me. If you want to attract donations from the public and grant money from the govt for a kids’ program, those kids better be under 12–preferably under 7. There’s very little money for programs aimed at adolescents, and zero interest. The conservative philosophy–which often amounts to little more than, to paraphrase Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat junk food”–that preaches tough love and self-reliance is by no means a panacea, and while it’s useful in some ways for some kids, it is a singularly destructive philosophy when applied as a one-size-fits-all solution.
When we put 14-year-olds in jail for wearing the wrong shirt, we have gone too far.