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Did we dodge a bullet, or load a weapon?

A kid with a loaded gun — in our school. The thought is enough to strike fear in the hearts of anyone in our small New England community. Has “it” finally hit our town? Did “it” get caught in time, or are we still on the “when will it happen here” list?

With the number of school shootings too numerous to list, our fears take us immediately to the worst-case scenario. Our children’s lives are in danger. Unfortunately, this is not an unrealistic fear. But after the initial shock, let’s think about what we’re really doing, what’s really going on, and what we can do about it.

Those of you who read my column know that I am opposed to punishment of any kind. Children who are punished learn to distrust themselves and others, fear they will never be good enough and either act out on those fears or hold them in with shame. The results of this type of child-rearing are anything from extremely high functioning adults with huge emotional holes filled with control, food, drug, sex, gambling, alcohol, pill addictions; depressed people, often perfectionists, who fear they will never be enough — mostly on anti-depressants; or those who act out their anger in abusive, sometimes violent ways.

So what is our method of handling the acting out behavior of our gun-toting high school student? Of course, punishment.

This 14-year-old student who apparently showed his loaded gun to other students who contacted a teacher, and who apparently was not threatening anyone, made a mistake — a very bad mistake. Should he pay the consequences? Of course. But what consequences?

Our school district’s policy calls for expulsion for no less than 12 months. This policy will be reviewed by the School Board, which will make the final decision, which is expected to be made before this column is published. I hope some serious thought goes into their decision.

It is likely that anyone who brings a loaded gun into a public place has a motive, an intent, whether or not they carry through with that intent — and a very painful self-image. In so many of these cases, the perpetrator has been a victim of bullying, isolation, ostracism and shame. What does expulsion for a year do for this student? That he is to be further ostracized, rejected and shamed adds insult to injury. Pain added on pain. Who knows what results that will bring.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has been speaking out about our overcrowded, expensive prisons with ideas of reform to lessen the prison population. President Obama has called for investments in preschools, not prisons, saying that early education is our way out of poverty and crime. But we never quite look far enough. Many blame the parents calling for them to take responsibility. I believe it is our culture of reward and punishment that has raised us since distant generations ago.

Is it realistic to expect this high school student to make better choices after being expelled for 365 days? Or is this simply a means of getting him out of our busy way because we don’t know how to deal with him? Why do we expect our children to do better after we make them feel worse — about themselves, about the ones who are in charge of their welfare, about their futures? This kind of punishment will likely take away any shred of hope he has left about a future that is already tenuous for him.

Is this the way to raise our next generation? I plead with the School Board to take a cold, hard look at what we have been doing for too long, realize it doesn’t work and has never worked to raise truly healthy individuals who will be an asset to society. Do we give up on him already? Wash our hands and say it’s somebody else’s problem? Just keep him out of sight for a year and maybe he’ll go away? Or do we help?

Study after study shows that both autocratic and permissive parenting raise unhealthy children. It’s the balance of a connective approach that raises strong, competent, resilient and emotionally healthy people. That means when infractions of rules occur, especially when the infractions are horrific, problem solving is called for — much harder to implement than punishment because it’s not what we’re used to. Punishment is easy. Getting this boy out of the school hallways for a year is far easier than supporting him and helping him become a healthier human being.

What I would like to see happen: That he be kept in school and checked thoroughly every day he enters by an administrator assigned for that purpose. That he get one-on-one counseling at school with a social worker. That he meet daily, at least at first, in well-supervised and facilitated small groups with other students who would air their concerns and feelings about him, and he would discuss his side of the story — why he brought a gun to school and what his thoughts and fears were and are. Some students would express anger and fear, some would express concern and compassion. All would give him something to learn from. The natural consequence of his behavior is hearing again and again how his behavior affected others.

This is called restorative justice and is used way too seldom in criminal cases in the judicial system, because it’s so unfamiliar to us. We have to start embracing the fact that what we do doesn’t work, and that rectifying the situation means that administrators and authorities of society, in whatever microcosm the problem arises, must learn new ways. Trial and error always accompanies new ways, but isn’t it worth it?

Parent Wise Columnist Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed, is the director of Connective Parenting and founder of The Parent Guidance Center, now The River Center, in Peterborough, where she teaches parent education classes. She is the author of “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons” and “Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With.” Email bh@bonnieharris.com.

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