The parents of a teenage girl, a high school freshmen in Lancaster, California, are facing $40,000 in legal bills because their kid did what school officials all across America have been urging kids to do for years: tell school officials if she saw or heard anything suspicous.
She did, quoting a classmate as saying: "We want to kill people; we're sick of them." (If I or anyone reading this called the police everytime we came across that comment online, a lot of teenage boys would be in jail.) She said the boy later threatened her for reporting his remarks.
He was immediately charged with making terrorist threats and intimidating a witness, and a juvenile court judge ordered him to serve six months' probation, according to the Times. But courts overturned his expulsion as unconstitutional and unjustified, and the boy and his parents then sued his accuser, her parents, school and Los Angeles county officials. The charges, said his suit, made him the object of ridicule, hatred and distrust.
A Los Angeles Superior Court Judge threw out his suit, but not before the girl's family had spent $40,000 in legal fees defending her. The school, which asked her to inform, refused to represent her after she did. So now her parents are suing them to recoup their losses.
Now, school and county officials are squabbling about whether they are obliged to pay her legal costs or not. In considering the implications of student informing, one has only to think about the fear, anger, and humiliation, the court, school and legal time expended, and the overall cost and implications of this single remark. Then multiply it by millions of kids informing on millions of other kids, as is now seemingly national educational policy.
School officials in California are arguing that it's going to be tough to get informers if schools won't defend them. You bet. But it's unclear whether insurance companies will pay such claims. The Times quotes the director of the Education Legal Alliance of the California School Board Association as saying schools do not have a responsibility to shield or indemnify students in that kind of situation. There's a legal difference between students and employees, said the official. That raises free speech issues on both sides of the student informing issue: kids who say stupid or ill-considered things are treated as terrorists, and kids who think they are doing the right thing aren't protected with they speak out either.
That suggests that neither of these high school freshmen should have landed in the position they did. Both deserve sympathy. As repugnant as informing is to many (me included), kids are told over and over that it's their job to protect themselves and their friends from dangerous peers, by turning them in. Adolescent boys have been saying offensive, profoundly stupid things -- even hateful ones -- forever, as everybody online knows. Are schools really creating safer environments, or instead institutions in which speech of all kinds is unsafe?
Turning kids into informers is viscerally anti-democratic. Student informing has been a hallmark of the worst political systems on record, whatever political labels have been attached to them, by bringing out the worst in human foibles, from fear to unchecked malice. Now it's easier than ever to turn a classmate in -- just make an anonymous call to an 800 number or, better yet, turn somebody in by e-mail. The target usually never gets to confront his accuser, unlike the student in California.
There's also the question of proportion. If a high school freshman expresses a desire to kill somebody, isn't there any educational response or remedy short of arrest for terrorism?
The story illustrates the dreadful position both of these people have been put in by the insane response to the Columbine tragedy. In a sense, the girl was doing what she's been asked to do. The boy -- there was never any evidence he planned to harm or kill anyone -- is threatened with jail for allegedly making a remark that would, in other times, be considered stupid or worthy of some suspension time.
In the months after Columbine, students all over America were asked to become informers by law enforcement authorities and educators. Companies like the Pinkerton Corp. under contract to state and local governments, even created sites like WaveAmerica.com, which urges kids to report the errant behavior of their friends and classmates, and provides toll free numbers manned round-the-clock by people who take and store reported information in a computerized system.
The chilling implications of student informing on social ties, civil liberties and free speech went largely unremarked-upon by the popular media in the national hysteria that followed the Columbine killings; by most parents, and by the people who really ought to have known better, educators themselves. Civil libertarians did sound repeated alarms, but they were ignored.
Definitions of dangerous behavior are wildly subjective and complex, and kids often had a tough time distinguishing between run-of-the-mill obnoxious and posturing behavior, and truly dangerous behavior worthy of being reported to the police. Trained psychologists disagree about symptoms and behavioral warning signs.
Lost in the Columbine mob scene was the fact that violent incidents in schools are rare in America, and getting more so by the year. Gamers, oddballs, Goths and geeks, kids who are bored, angry, alienated, or individualistic are naturally particular targets for kids-turned-informers. Anybody who's different or doesn't conform -- or who is angry -- can seem dangerous, especially given the wildly varying criteria applied in different schools.
Online, teenagers flame each other and everybody else all the time. If they do it in school, they can -- and do -- end up in jail.
But the bottom line seems as clear as it was after Columbine. It's the job of parents, educators and psychologists to watch our for and anticipate dangerous behavior. It should rarely be a legal or law enforcement issue, and it ought never to be the job of kids, students or classmates.
The message to kids isn't that schools are safer, but for everybody is to watch not only what they say, but what they hear.