Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Jurisdictions Here are Backwards... Aren't They?

Both of these stories have been around a while, but I didn’t get a chance to post on them when they first appeared, and it seems to me that they fit together in a way that hasn’t yet been discussed by anyone whose commentary I’ve read.

First up is a story out of Houston. Diane Tran is an honors student at Willis High School. She works a full-time job and a part-time job, and goes to school full-time, taking advanced placement and dual-credit courses as a high school junior. She uses the money she earns to support two siblings; her parents divorced and both left town. Not surprisingly, even the most focused and responsible adolescent will sometimes buckle under that kind of pressure. Ms. Tran sometimes overslept, and missed school because of it.

Her case ended up in the Justice of the Peace court of Lanny Moriarty, who (of course) sentenced her to 24 hours in jail and a $100 fine for truancy. Yes, really. Moriarty, of course, is a moron, as only a Texas Republican can be. He sputtered “If you let one [truant student] run loose, what are you gonna do with the rest of ‘em? Let them go too?” Well, no, sir, you’re supposed to exercise a little judicial discretion: that’s why you have your cushy job, because you are alleged to have more critical thinking skills than a banana peel. Sorry to have over-estimated you. Because if you want to use someone like Ms. Tran as the vehicle by which to “send a lesson,” the only lesson in question is that you are a heartless douchebag who shouldn’t ever be allowed into a courtroom except as a defendant (again).

It didn’t take long for an on-line petition on Ms. Tran’s behalf to get started, initially with a goal of 5,000 signatures. That number was shattered within an hour or so. The petition closed with over 277,000 virtual signatures, when Moriarty, his profound unfitness for office now trumpeted around the world (the Internet is sometimes a wonderful thing), decided to cut his losses, reverse himself, and vacate the charges. Oh, did I mention the $100,000+ in donations to Ms. Tran?

Somehow I suspect that Mr. Moriarty might not run unopposed next time, as he did last. He’s not important enough to be this embarrassing.

The other case is from Indiana, where three 8th-grade girls were suspended for the remainder of the school year for joking (obviously) on Facebook about which of their classmates they’d like to kill. As Gavin Rose, an ACLU lawyer, points out:
The fact of the matter is that no reasonable person looking at this conversation would think that these girls were going to go out and inflict harm on anyone. If you make a legitimate threat against someone ... you don't follow it up with an emoticon.
Moreover, the “threats” were not directed at the presumed “victims,” as they were visible only to the Facebook friends of the girls. Of course, some officious mother called attention to the posts, and the Facebook conversation, conducted outside school hours, on personal rather than school computers, was seen by idiot administrators (apologies, as ever, for redundancy) as somehow disruptive to schoolwork—it would have to be, as even the megalomaniacs as Griffith Middle School don’t claim jurisdiction otherwise.

I am reminded of one of the first essays I wrote in this iteration of my blogging life, about Gloria Gadsden, who was suspended by her employer, East Stroudsburg State University, for posting the following two Facebook status updates: “Had a good day today, didn't want to kill even one student.:-) Now Friday was a different story ...” and “Does anyone know where I can find a very discrete [sic] hitman, it's been that kind of day.” No rational person would think there was any real threat to anyone involved here, but educational administrators at any level don’t necessarily meet that “rational person” threshold.

And so we have the ACLU filing a lawsuit to protect what they describe, quite accurately, as “teenage banter.” The salient part of the ACLU suit follows:
At no point in this conversation were the girls expressing any actual intentions to inflict harm on any person, nor were they threatening or attempting to intimidate any person. Rather, they were simply engaging in a casual conversation and joking with one another. A reasonable person would interpret the entirety of the conversation as made in jest, and would not interpret any portion of the conversation—or the conversation as a whole—as threatening or as a true threat.

The conversation did not cause an actual disruption at school, nor was it likely to or foreseeable that it would substantially disrupt the school or the educational environment. All three (3) girls attended school for the entire day after this conversation took place, and nothing out of the ordinary occurred. To their knowledge, the conversation was not even mentioned at school by any person, and it certainly was not mentioned by them.
But that, of course, didn’t stop the Amalgamated Hand-Wringers from punishing a trio of 8th-graders for the crime of acting like teenagers while on their own time.

As I wrote in April of 2010 about the Gadsden case,
I have an inkling that about midnight at some tech rehearsal somewhere along the line, I’ve probably told my stage manager not that I’d like to kill some actor or designer or props person, but that I was going to do so. I never followed through, though, curiously enough. I don’t recall ever posting on Facebook that I’d like to kill a student, a colleague, or a boss, but I might have… if I did I, like Prof. Gadsden, would have been careful to ensure that anyone with an IQ over room temperature would know I was joking. And I’m certain that I’ve volunteered to be the “discreet hitman” (I’d have spelled it correctly) for a friend. I was, however, never actually engaged to perform such duties. One of my favorite people, a former student, now a teacher, posted a Facebook status not long ago that suggested her desire to “beat someone to a pulp.” I even endorsed that sentiment because… wait for it… I’m not a moron, and I know—not just think, know—that she didn’t plan, literally, to commit assault.
We saw the same phenomenon play out in the case of Widener law professor Lawrence Connell, whose obviously hypothetical scenario about killing his dean got him in deep doo-doo. Inability to recognize humor, even humor we don’t think is terribly funny, is a crippling malady in an irony-rich society such as ours. It is sad that so many people in the education hierarchy seem to suffer from this affliction.

But there’s something else that ties these two cases together—apart, that is, from the rampant stupidity of the people with decision-making power. What I find fascinating is how the logical jurisdictions of the school system and the courts seem to have reversed. Once agai, Gentle Reader, I remind you that I am not a lawyer, and that I’m arguing what should happen, not what current laws dictate. This is, in short, another When They Make Me Tsar© musing.

OK, so I wonder if I’m alone in this. When I first read about Diane Tran’s story, my first thought wasn’t that Lanny Moriarty is a cretinous yahoo, although that idea did occur pretty quickly. My first response, however, was to wonder what the hell Ms. Tran was doing in a courtroom at all. I suppose I had some dim recollection of students being charged with some sort of legal transgression for truancy and/or chronic tardiness, but it makes no sense. And, as an intriguing if perhaps over-wrought article by Sarah Seltzer on AlterNet suggests, the incarceration of teenagers for the most minor of transgressions ultimately independent of even minor-scale criminality poses a series of rather disturbing questions about American culture in general. In other words, even if we leave out the whole backstory to Ms. Tran’s case—say she’s just an ordinary kid with an ordinary family, getting ordinary grades—one is still tempted to wonder what the hell she’s doing in court.

Truancy is, in a reasonable universe, its own punishment. And if Ms. Tran can successfully complete her coursework without necessarily being in class every day, it’s really not a matter for the courts. True, some courses have legitimate attendance requirements, and the school should have the right to deny advancement to students who fail to comply with those rules. But I’m hard-pressed to understand a rationale for transferring the decision-making power out of the hands of the schools themselves.

Conversely, what happens outside school hours and outside school property is none of the school’s concern, yet there are myriad instances of absurd intrusions into students’ private lives: the Indiana case discussed here, the Illinois case of a principal’s prowling through a student’s Facebook account, the Kansas case of a school district going apoplectic because of a student’s Twitter feed… you get the picture.

If, for example, in the Indiana case, there really was a suspicion that this trio of (barely) adolescent girls was plotting some sort of violence, then the authorities—the criminal justice system, in other words—needed to be called in. But either that didn’t happen, or the cops took one look at the alleged “evidence,” laughed in the sniveling administrators’ faces, and told them to call back if and when there was anything a sane person would deem problematic. In my dream scenario, they also prescribed a couple of bowls of All-Bran.

When They Make Me Tsar©, in other words, school decisions will be made by schools, and non-school activities will be regulated only by legitimate law-enforcement authorities, and only to the extent that there is probable cause that a real crime has been committed or is about to be committed.

I know, I know. I’m a cockeyed optimist. But I’d rather be from South Pacific than Les Mis on this one.

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