I was in a roundtable discussion not long ago when a comment was made and passed unchallenged, drifting by as the current of conversation moved on.
“We’ve become a too touchy-feely society.”
You’ve probably heard or seen something similar, generally as a comment on an article like this one, where a second grader was suspended for turning a Pop-Tart1 into something vaguely gun shaped, and who then may or may not have pointed it at a fellow student2.
This incident has been taken as evidence that we, as a society, are too quick to judge, too focused on being kinder and gentler, a society that is still called, decades after the term was popularized, too “P.C.”3
The Baltimore Sun quoted the boy’s father: “I feel this is just a direct result of society feeling that guns are evil and guns are bad … and if you make your pastry into a gun, you’re going to be the next Columbine shooter.”
I think outsized punishments for pint-sized offenders has less to do with any societal stance on gun control, or violence, and more to do with bureaucratization, the replacement of common sense with Rules From On High For All.
I asked my wife, a teacher, what she would have done if confronted with a Toaster Pastry Gun being waved around her classroom. Her actual answer was more nuanced, but to sum up: Take the treat away, and ignore the larger implications. Which would probably not be in line with official school policy.
Senate Bill 1052, technically titled “Electronic Harassment of a Minor” but generally known as “Grace’s Law”, is coming, sponsored by Howard County’s own Allan Kittleman. It’s flying through the legislature. It passed out of committee unanimously.
A person may not maliciously engage in a course of conduct, through the use of electronic communication, that alarms or seriously annoys another: with the intent to harass, alarm, or annoy the other; after receiving a reasonable warning or request to stop by or on behalf of the other; and without a legal purpose.
And then look at the penalty for such an act:
A person who violates this section is guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction is subject to imprisonment not exceeding 1 year or a fine not exceeding $500 or both.
How hard to you have to try to come up with a scenario in which this generic language overrides common sense? All it would take would be hyper-protective parent or politician trying to make a name for himself and a thirteen-year-old making thirteen-year-old decisions. Misdemeanors don’t read well on college applications.
This isn’t to say cyber-bullying, or any bullying for that matter, is not important or a problem or a threat to children. But this bill does not empower teachers to correct classrooms. It does not give administrators another tool in the anti-bullying toolbox; in fact, it may take them away. If a teacher or administrator worries that correcting a normally well-behaved child could lead to a court case, what should they do? What will they do? What would you do, if you found your child calling someone names online? Are they a criminal?
Have we empowered our teachers and administrators or boxed them in?
I visited my wife’s school recently as part of an ongoing Career Café.6 The teacher running the program pulled me aside just before I began and asked me to talk about the importance of being responsible in online behavior. “These kids don’t realize that stuff will be out there for anyone to find for a long time,” she worried. This teacher took it upon herself to monitor kid’s profiles, making sure they were set to private, and constantly tied “being a good citizen” –the school’s offical goal for students- to “being a good citizen online, too” in every possible lesson. That type of program, in the case, run only by the free time and energy of one teacher, could actually make a difference. It ties the lessons kids learn in school about proper behavior with what they do at home and online, connections that are something that have to be taught. Teaching that takes time, expertise, and resources. Things the state could potentially provide.
That one teacher is going to be far more effective against cyber-bullying than SB 1052.7
I believe in the power of good government, and think that proper policy sets the foundation for a civil, in both sense of the word, society. I know Senator Kittleman has the best of intentions, and what’s more, he also co-sponsored legislation this session to remove criminal penalties for low-level crimes that did more harm than good.
A hammer might be the easiest tool to reach for, but it’s often not the best. SB 1052 is the wrong approach.
- Note: It was actually a generic Pop-Tart-like substance, which is in and of itself an interesting look into what happens in our school cafeterias. ↩
- On that, who do you believe? The witnessing teacher, or the second grader in trouble? ↩
- There’s a whiff of the straw man about “politically correct”, in that it’s generally deployed by the opponents of some practice. It’s an insult, but one constructed as a rejection of a worldview that may not actually motivate policy decisions, or even exist. ↩
- Shocker. ↩
- Read the whole thing. It’s short. ↩
- Vyan Eht Noij. ↩
- And probably costs less, too, once you factor in police and court time for any one potential case. ↩