The High Cost of Coddling

CAITLIN FLANAGAN

William Dean Howells observed that at the theater Americans want a tragedy with a happy ending. But in life we are made of sterner stuff and demand from tragedy only this: a lesson.

Flannery O'Connor

That the mass killing at Columbine High School a decade ago -- it was on April 20, 1999, that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 13 and wounded 23 -- could offer us more than sorrow and outrage has been an article of faith since the nation first learned of the crime. The exact lesson, however, has proved elusive, and the search has seemed obdurately focused on the obscure or the strange: the trenchcoats; the question of social isolation; the possibility that jocks and cheerleaders might be so nasty to an outsider that they could render him into a sociopath.

Apparently, the thing to do was to look not at the largest questions posed by the incident but rather at its particulars and to adopt a "zero tolerance" policy toward any behavior that seemed to mimic them. The result was a longish, culturally embarrassing interlude when kindergartners could get tossed out of school for bringing a nail clipper in a backpack. We began to look like a nation of adults who were terrified of our smallest children.

The one aspect of Columbine that seemed unworthy of examination -- when it came to pondering the policy changes that might actually make American schools safer places -- was the fact that the two killers had a long track record of doing exactly what deeply disturbed teenage boys have been doing since time out of mind: getting in trouble -- lots of it -- with authority.

Ten months before their shooting spree, Harris and Klebold were charged and convicted of stealing tools from a parked van. They were sentenced to a "juvenile diversion" program, which was intended -- by dint of counseling, classes, and the coordinated efforts of school administrators, social workers and police officers -- to keep the boys out of the criminal-justice system. According to the records of that experience, Harris reported having homicidal feelings, obsessive thoughts and a temper. Both boys were placed in anger management, although -- strangely, given Klebold's history of alcohol use and his submission of a dilute urine sample to his minders -- they were excused from the substance-abuse class.

Back at school (which they attended throughout their enrollment in the juvenile-diversion program), they smoked cigarettes in the hollow behind campus, cut classes and blew off schoolwork. According to Dave Cullen's new book, Columbine, when Klebold carved obscenities into a freshman's locker and was confronted by a dean, "Dylan went ballistic. He cussed him out, bounced off the walls, acted like a nutcase." Both boys also picked on younger children and got into fights.

All of this was in addition, of course, to the notorious AOL postings in which the boys laid their murderous plans bare. Those postings were the basis of the affidavit that the Jefferson County district attorney compiled for a search warrant of the boys' houses. Lacking enough evidence to present it to a judge, however, the affidavit was not acted upon, and the thugs moved closer and closer to their goal. There was a time when boys like these would have been labeled "juvenile delinquents" and removed from the society and company of good kids, whose rights were understood to supersede those of known offenders against the law. It was once believed that good kids should be neither endangered nor influenced by criminals-in-training.

At the turn of the last century, the U.S. -- a nation of laws, of course, and a nation with an ever-evolving sense of sympathy for children and teenagers -- decided that sending youthful offenders to adult prison was a grotesque form of punishment, and so were born the juvenile code and the juvenile court system. With these innovations came something that was still talked about in tones of dread and excitement when I was a girl in the 1960s and '70s. "He's going to end up in reform school," we would say of a bully or a fighter, some luckless child of a rotten drunk or a mean single mother. One way or another, it came to pass: Boys disappeared and were not missed.

Due process? Who knew, who cared? All we knew was that the funny-looking, heavy-set boy who used to smash kids' heads into the porcelain backsplash at the drinking fountain of Cragmont School was no more a menace in our lives.

"And what if the student finds this is not to his taste?" O'Connor asked. "Well that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed."

Harsh fate that would send a boy away for no greater crime than the accident of his birth! Homeward the course of juvenile justice went, reinventing the system in yet another iteration, the one in which Harris and Klebold were allowed to stay put in their own houses and at Columbine, during the very time that they were not only committing petty thefts and cursing out their teachers but also communicating openly about their plans for mayhem.

Today only the most incorrigible young offenders are removed from their guardians' care and forced to live and study in correctional facilities. Furthermore, to expel a student in most public school districts is an arduous business. An expulsion hearing is required, and parents may choose to appeal the decision, a process that rains down a world of legal woe on whatever teachers and administrators have been involved in the action. Many expulsions, moreover, constitute a strange reinterpretation of the very word: They are time-limited and include within them plans for re-enrollment.

It is, of course, the responsibility of the state to provide some sort of education to all its children under the age of 18, and so for a host of legal, moral and economic reasons we end up with an ugly truth about our nation's schools: By design, they contain within them -- right alongside the good kids who are getting an education and running the yearbook and student government -- kids whose criminal rehabilitation is supposedly being conducted simultaneously with their academic instruction.

As someone who taught school for a decade and who has now been a mother for about as long, I can tell you that -- when it comes to children -- the rigid exercise of "due process" in matters of correction and discipline makes for high comedy at best and shared tragedy at worst. Someone needs to stand apart from children and decide what is best for them and for those around them. When it comes to matters of state-ordered punishment, someone needs to stand apart from their parents, too, and make the necessary decisions. It's a complete bummer; I will grant you that.

Who would possibly be willing to side not with the students of an institution -- those fun-loving creatures of the now -- but with the institution itself, a place ostensibly devoted, above all else, to the well-being of its population? I'll tell you who: adults. Remember them?

In my teaching days, no single document shaped my thinking as much as Flannery O'Connor's 1963 essay called "Total Effect and the Eighth Grade." It concerned neither guns nor violence, neither cliques nor experimental approaches to the treatment of adolescent depression. It was about . . . books. In defending the teaching of the great works of the Western canon rather than those of the modern day (which kids far preferred), she said something wise, the sort of thing an adult might say. She said that the whims and preferences of children should always, always be sublimated to the sense and judgment of their elders.

"And what if the student finds this is not to his taste?" O'Connor asked. "Well that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed."

 



 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Caitlin Flanagan, "The High Cost of Coddling." The Wall Street Journal (April 16, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

Caitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That -- an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

Copyright © 2009 Wall Street Journal




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