I’m shocked! Shocked, to find that gambling is going on in here.
—Claude Rains in “Casablanca”
In Upstate New York last week, four seventh graders cruelly and mercilessly mocked a 68-year old bus monitor, and one of them caught 14 minutes of this horror show on camera. Americans are shocked.
The response of Americans so far reveals a nation shocked but not confused—not confused, at least, about morality. We value decency and respect, in particular respect of children for their elders. We advocate kindness and compassion people, express empathy by donating money ($648,000 when I went to bed last night, $654,762 this morning) and lash out at perpetrators. There is consensus. It is bad to be mean to people—unless of course they have done something bad—like picking on someone—in which case death threats might be in order. If they are thirteen-year-old boys, suspension from school for a year might be appropriate. (Marilyn Price-Mitchell noted in her Psychology Today article Teaching Civility in an F-Word Society that “…many of the online comments were as uncivil as the video itself.”)
So that’s the news this morning. It looks like the teenagers are taking responsibility and learning a lesson, and it looks like their parents are taking responsibility, too. Are there other lessons to be learned?
On the Today Show last week Dr. Gail Saltz said, “I think what’s wrong with kids today is adults today. We are reaping what we sow. We are not setting a standard or an example of the importance of cultural rules, that you treat each other with decency and respect, that cruelty is wrong and punishable.”
Yes, indeed, we adults need to look at ourselves to see how we are causing this or allowing it to happen and to take responsibility. But Saltz, a psychiatrist, can’t mean that there is a lack of consensus about standards and cultural rules. The evidence of the last few days does not bear that out. Decency and respect are good; cruelty is wrong and punishable.
What the last five days also makes clear is that there is a lack of understanding about children and (as usual) a shortage of taking responsibility by people who are in positions of authority.
That adolescent children would do such a thing is only a surprise to those who have never had a teenager, never tried to teach teenagers, or forget being a teenager. Furthermore, research on the development of the teenage brain would predict such behavior. Teenagers have heard what adults have said. They have also been absorbing behaviors they have seen—both on-line and off-line—and are doing what they are neurologically constituted to do; i.e. to test reality by acting things out. How else do you know what’s really real?
Thirty-some kids on a bus to and from school is likely to be a Lord of the Flies-type situation—a situation filled with all sorts of teachable moments. Only an ignorant educator would blame parents for their children’s behavior outside of the home. Who is responsible for keeping our children safe when they are away from home? Who is responsible for teaching civility and respect on a school bus? What is the role of the school system? To find their center, children are in search of adults with backbone.
Who is in loco parentis? In the current outraged environment dare I answer? Yes. Karen Klein is clearly not up to this job. She is not even capable of keeping herself safe, let alone the children….and all the children sense it. In fact, it makes them angry and anxious, and different kids handle these feelings of insecurity in a wide variety of ways. When the authority has no authority, civility begins to erode because the civilians know their civilization is disordered. Those whose civil behavior is not a habit yet are likely to be the first to show the symptoms of disorder.
Yet, I am not blaming the victim. Who put her on the bus? The school system correctly deemed that children on a bus need monitors to keep them safe, but who is responsible for hiring, training and supporting them? Is this person taking responsibility?
Is the administration really considering suspending the students for an entire school year? Is that what taking responsibility looks like? Is suspension for a year the standard punishment for bullying? Is this taking responsibility, or is it scapegoating?
Who is responsible for the fact that our school system is only accountable for scores on paper and pencil tests? Who is responsible for holding teachers accountable for educating the whole brain and teaching thoughtfulness? A citizen or politician who wants to see what education is really about should visit a great teacher as he or she supervises thirty to fifty middle schoolers in the gym for a 45 minute rainy day recess.
It’s terrible to watch people being mean to each other. It is terrible to be reminded that hatred and evil still lurk. But let’s not project onto the children. Adults, not children, are the vectors of evil both in and out of schools. Who else still needs to step up to the plate and take responsibility? Ah yes. It’s us.
Let the record show that a child with a cell phone called this sorry state of affairs to our attention—a modern version of “The Emperor has no clothes.” Adults might ask why he did it, but my guess is he doesn’t know. A more constructive response is to look in the mirror he presents.
P.S. I couldn’t resist embedding this video as a reminder that education is essentially anti-tyranny training. Our children need to witness adults taking a courageous stand compassionately.