Crime & Punishment

The other day, my wife and I received a phone call. It seemed that our son, in concert with two other boys, had created a prank, that went a little haywire. There was a box of beads, rigged up to the art room door with a guitar strap as part of a booby trap, so that an unsuspecting student would open the door knocking the beads to the floor and scattering them everywhere. In addition, there was garbage dumped (a collection of paper, sticks and old markers) into the third floor toilet. The boys were observed during the commission of their crime by the school director, as well as witnesses who saw them flee the scene in laughter.

As my son had not reached home yet when this call came, a family meeting was called as soon as he arrived. At first he feigned innocence, laughing it off. But as we probed, we quickly got a full confession, as he knew he was caught and that he would have to face the music the next day. As I was scheduled to attend school the next day with my daughter, who is visiting, it was an opportunity to observe “free-school justice” in action.

The first meeting was scheduled for 10 am in the RUC (Rampaging Underaged Children) advisory room. That group, aged 10-12, discussed the days’ topics, and added the incident to the day’s agenda. I seated myself behind a book shelf as to not be a distraction and to quietly listen to the proceedings, all conducted by the children. All three boys admitted to participating in the crime. They were asked to explain themselves, which they attempted to do. A proposal for punishment was made, but was voted down. As the motion did not pass, the accused thought they had escaped the axe.

Their advisor was not satisfied with the judgement. So it was brought to the larger all-school meeting, as the last agenda item. This time, the jury was not too kind. After asking why in the world they would consider doing something like this, and being admonished for “disrespecting” the school, a resolution was passed: 1) The 3 boys would have to decide on their own punishment. When they all came to agreement, they were to call an all school meeting, in which the student body would have to be satisfied with the resolution, and then vote on it. 2) The boys will have their “off-site” privileges revoked until a resolution is passed.

My son did not take this very well. He came to me for consolation after the meeting. We resolved the trauma over a lunch away from the school. By days end, they had decided on what their punishment should be (cleaning toilets for a week.) Hopefully, by this afternoon, I will know the outcome.

If you have been through public school in any capacity, you will admit that this situation would likely be handled in a very different manner. In my day, it would involve being sent to the principal’s office, or the dean of boys; or you would be kept after class, and made to do some meaningless chore in order to atone. Our parents would be called in. We are all familiar with the image of Bart, in The Simpsons, writing over and over how he will not be a bad boy anymore. I am told by guidance councilors and teachers in public schools, about how kids are handcuffed and taken away in squad cars. These modern day policies of criminalizing children is well documented in the film, The War on Kids. There is a public battle against children and how they develop naturally. Their rambunctiousness is seen as a constant threat to order, and only those who “behave” will be rewarded.

“I urge you to examine in your own mind the assumptions which must lay behind using the police power to insist that once-sovereign spirits have no choice but to submit to being schooled by strangers.”  ― John Taylor Gatto

I have recounted an incident of my own on this blog, as well as the innovative way my former home room teacher handled the incident. I have told Noah stories from my own past. We were constantly getting into mischief. We would regularly throw rocks at the neon letters over the local Food Fair supermarket, or break windows at the school on late night jaunts. We regularly raided trash rooms, stole old baby carriages to be used to create  soap box racers, set fireworks off under nasty neighbors windows and were branded neighborhood hooligans. The police would chase us on many an occasion, but we had the woods to hide in.

The difference for me was that there was no one looking out for us. Everyone was preoccupied. There was no real guidance. Our role models were  Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, The Little Rascals and The Bowery Boys.

The natural inclination for a developing boy, who is on the verge of becoming a full teenager, to create mischief, is as natural as breathing. I am glad that my son is in an environment where he can exercise this natural inclination, face the consequences of his actions, and learn from it all. He is not punished for who he is, but is allowed to explore himself, and see where his actions impact the greater community. In this way, he will define what his place in the world will be.

“…good things happen to the human spirit when it is left alone.”  ― John Taylor Gatto


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