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Drash Stubborn Rebellious Youth

Stubborn and Rebellious Youth

Drash, August 1999, By Morris Rodenstein

During services this past Shavuot, Rabbi Seidel asked TI members to volunteer to give divrei Torah or other presentations of interest during Shabbat morning services during the summer. It was a few weeks after the tragedy in Littleton, Colorado. I decided that, as someone who makes his living as a child advocate, I needed to sort through my thoughts and feelings about what was happening around school violence issues. I wanted to learn more than I was getting from traditional news sources. I thought it would be timely to present this information on the Shabbat before most of the area schools opened for the new year. With all the renewed press attention, I guess I was not the only one with this thought in mind.

In last week's parsha, we read how a "stubborn and rebellious" son is supposed to be taken to the outskirts of the city to be stoned to death. Since the boys involved in the well-publicized school shootings ranged in age from 11 to 18, I began, thanks to Rabbi Seidel, to learn more about what the Jewish tradition teaches about crimes committed by children of these ages.

The rabbinic commentaries in the Mishnah and Gemara on the topic spoke exclusively about boys. The debates strived to develop criteria by which to determine when a child is old enough to be obligated to obey laws, but opinions varied greatly. A minor was not held responsible for observing the law and commandments and therefore could not be put to death for even serious offenses. Keep in mind that these discussions took place at a time when life expectancy was much shorter than today, and children often were married and had children at what we would consider very young ages.

In the Mishnah, according to some rabbis, a stubborn and rebellious son becomes liable for his crime and subject to the penalty of stoning from the time he can produce two hairs on his face. Others say it is not until he can grow a beard or develop hair around his genitals. There also are debates whether a boy as young as eight or nine might be old enough to meet the definition of the stubborn and rebellious son. The bottom line for many rabbis in this debate is whether the boy is physically able to produce offspring.

Another part of the Mishnah includes categories defining stubborn or rebellious behavior. A "stubborn and rebellious" son is one who becomes a public glutton by eating too much meat, or a drunkard (specifically if he consumes too much Italian wine. A French rabbi undoubtedly made that comment), or eats the second tithe in Jerusalem which was reserved for adult men (the first portion went to the Levites, the second was to be eaten in Jerusalem), or eats abominable or creeping things, or steals from his father's possessions. Since his mother could not hold property on her own, by definition, he could not steal from her.

With that information by way of background, I want to discuss the issues raised by the recent highly-publicized cases of school shootings.

Earlier this year the Kellogg Foundation released a report based upon the 1998 Jonesboro, Arkansas case where an 11 year old and a 13 year old opened fire, killing four classmates and a teacher. Among the report's conclusions were the following:

  1. The current media attention has exaggerated the reality of school violence
  2. Schools actually are safer than 20 - 30 years ago
  3. Effective reduction of school violence is the result of human interaction and not metal detectors and other security devices

Last June I heard a panel of child advocacy leaders from Kentucky, Arkansas and Colorado discuss the school shootings in Paducah, Jonesboro, and Littleton respectively. All three of these advocates are well known in their states. When the stories broke, they were some of the first people called by the media for an instant reaction. Their experiences reveal how the media coverage has changed 0over time.

In the Paducah, Kentucky case, the leading statewide child advocacy organization, Kentucky Youth Advocates, received perhaps half a dozen calls. The furor died down relatively quickly. In the Jonesboro, Arkansas case, however, the media's response was prolonged and overwhelming.

It quickly became an international news story that brought hundreds of media representatives to Jonesboro, all clamoring for local perspectives and reactions. The state's leading child advocacy organization, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, was immediately identified as a reliable source for information and comment. They were inundated with requests for interviews and easily could have done 20 or more a day.

In this instance, once the media learned that the current Arkansas law prohibited the two boys from being tried as adults, and that they could not be detained past their 21st birthdays, the issues of age, responsibility and the appropriate punishment became hot media topics.

The child advocacy organization decided to be strategic in granting interviews and making press statements. As an example, they decided against debating a congressman from another state who was a strong advocate for the death penalty. They realized they needed to move the discussion to one that examined the larger context of juvenile justice rather than this one tragic incident. The public did not need the additional theater of angry arguments on television or radio disguised as thoughtful public policy.

Fortunately, the Arkansas state legislature was nine months away from being in session. It minimized the temptation of any grandstanding politician, intent on furthering his or her career, using the incident for their own political gain. A hard-working coalition in the state used this period to educate state and community leaders about some of the problems within the existing

juvenile justice system. By the time the legislature did meet, a comprehensive law was passed with several key provisions. The law expanded legal options for handling juvenile cases and enhanced rehabilitation efforts and alternative treatment for juvenile offenders. It did not change the age at which a youth could be tried in adult court. In addition, the new law mandates examining why race is a powerful determinant in arrest, detainment and treatment of

juveniles and expands the critical role of prevention in controlling juvenile crime and violence.

It is heartening to know that some good came out of the Jonesboro tragedy because of this behind-the-scenes work. The coalition was determined to look at the problems on a systemic basis. It is important to note that the education leading up to the eventual legislation was accomplished away from the media's glare.

By the way, one Arkansas legislator thought he had a simple answer to the problem of school violence. He proposed that the Ten Commandments be displayed on the walls of every classroom in the state. The legislation did not pass.

We all know about the media's extensive coverage of the Columbine High tragedy. The magnitude of the carnage in Littleton riveted the nation's attention for weeks. We have seen the event's long term impact in the widespread renewed media coverage of the school's re-opening last week.

In this case the perpetrators had committed suicide providing the story with an air of mystery. There would be no trial of the murderers. We would never know what motivated them to carry out this brutality. What did the trench coats mean? What about the violent video games with foreboding fascist overtones? What about the tensions and apparent double standards between

the jocks and other students? We thought about the parents of the shooters and wondered why they did not see the signs of trouble in their children. We were startled to learn that they did not fit our assumed image of a dysfunctional, suburban family, but were fairly typical middle class parents with good educational backgrounds and jobs. The large number of victims provided the

media with more stories to share, more funerals to cover, more ways to keep viewers.

Within hours, CNN's ratings tripled and stayed much higher than normal for several days. Extensive coverage was warranted, given the public interest and the enormity of the crime. However, as the days wore on, according to Barbara O'Brien, the executive director of the Colorado Children's Campaign, CNN realized they needed to fill more air time to maintain viewer interest, i.e. ratings. They increasingly began to stage debates and programs designed to pit people with conflicting viewpoints against each other. She specifically cited CNN as the worst offender of this staged news programming format. They knew these shows would make for

great television, but they did nothing but delay the needed healing process. Corporate greed was more important than the community's needs. In this whole controversy, the media has some soul-searching to do to separate what is news and what is unnecessarily exploitative, prolonging the agony and instilling greater fear in school administrators, parents and students around the country.

Oh, by the way, a Colorado legislator also proposed a law to display the Ten Commandments in all the state's classrooms. It too failed.

During the past three and a half years, there have been 10 fatal school shootings with multiple victims in the United States. Last April 28, eight days after the Columbine shootings, there was a fatal shooting in Taber, Alberta, the first such fatality in Canada in 20 years.

When you read about what may have motivated these boys to shoot their peers, they cite several reasons. The most common ones are they were jilted by a girl or they felt like an outsider, friendless. In the case of Kip Kinkel from Springfield, Oregon, he believed he was an embarrassment to his parents for not being perfect. He also killed his parents before going to the

school for his shooting spree. As his trial approaches, he has been quoted as feeling personal guilt for the Columbine shootings, believing the perpetrators were copying his actions.

In the aftermath of the school shootings, there have been numerous chilling examples of their impact on America's schools. Gail Russell Chaddock in Tuesday's Christian Science Monitor wrote an article, "Safe Schools at a Price". She reported that:

  • Many schools now have barbed wire looped over security fences.
  • Students and SWAT teams play out "hostage drills" at schools where they have never confiscated anything as threatening as a penknife.
  • The market for metal detectors, surveillance cameras, transparent lockers and see-through book bags is booming, driven by suburban and rural school districts. Many urban schools already have many of these systems.
  • Safety concerns are influencing school design. A rural Louisiana middle school that just opened is a fan-shaped facility with an outside barrier on each side. It comes complete with security fencing, barbed wire and an electronic gate to regulate admissions.
  • California now requires a safe schools plan for every district and is backing this mandate with $100 million in new funding.
  • Ohio, Minnesota, Kansas, Oregon and North Carolina have launched statewide school safety hotlines for anonymous tips.
  • In some districts, security expenses are outpacing expenditures on textbooks.

School security experts have expressed doubts about these efforts. One school with 25 new surveillance cameras did not have the funds available for the needed videotapes. Educators are afraid that school systems with limited budgets and scared parents will spend too much on security of questionable value. We soon may think back to the relative good ol' days when some people only lamented schools cutting programs for the arts or interscholastic athletics because of limited funds, rather than what could evolve. As Christopher Cross, president of the Council for Basic Education said, "We must avoid discovering in a few years that Columbine was the event that precipitated a decline in prominence of academics as the goal of schooling".

Perhaps now students will be treated more equally and athletes or others will not receive special favors. There has been speculation that one of the changes that may result from these school shootings is that the unofficial code of silence among students, where potential problems are not reported to teachers and administrators, may break down. The anonymous tip lines may help. Incredible pressures are being placed upon school administrators to make their schools safe.

The recent increase in highly publicized school shootings hit all of us at a deep, personal level. How could these children have so much hate and pain at such young ages that killing as many of their peers as possible becomes a viable answer?

We want someone to blame, someone to be accountable for the pain and anguish we see on the faces of those traumatized by these experiences. Where were the parents? What about the gun proponents? The entertainment and video industry's well-financed promotion of violence for profits? Those getting rich from these tawdry businesses say "it is not our fault". It is not solely their fault, but they all are responsible contributing to the climate of violence in America they have exploited for personal gain.

We can berate politicians who take money from these people getting rich off violence, but in our current political system, pollsters and candidates know that if they can bring in a sufficient number of new or infrequent voters and financial contributors on behalf of one side in a campaign, they can determine its outcome. This is how the gun lobby is disproportionately

powerful and strikes fear in the hearts of politicians. Senator Lautenberg of New Jersey has introduced comprehensive gun control legislation that the NRA vigorously opposes. Senator Lautenberg, however, is retiring next year. For those legislators, especially in swing districts, who will need to face the voters in the future, they know the political risks involved with a vote in favor of the proposed law.

Sadly, we all know that there probably will be more future victims of gun shootings to mourn. We will hug our children a little more to make them and us feel safer. We will pray that it does not happen here.

I believe that for now, fear is winning. The new visible signs of supposed safety create a climate where too many schools quickly could succumb to pressures that could turn them into "learning prisons". What is the message given to children trying to learn in such an environment? How can there be a sense of joy in learning under these conditions? A revealing quote of how priorities have changed dramatically comes from the architect of the Louisiana middle school mentioned earlier. He said, "our goal is to show people we can protect their children".

Our society has become enamored with electronic gadgets meant to solve everyday problems, we forget the that underlying reasons behind these school shootings must be addressed. Solutions without the human element are bound to fail.

The American public school system traditionally has been one of the few unifying parts of American society. Today's schools face far more demands than even a generation ago. They have breakfast programs, and increasingly provide before and after school care programs along with more health-related care. Teachers and administrators now are more alert to signs of abuse and

neglect. Perhaps in the aftermath of these shootings, schools need to hire more counselors and other professionals to better connect with troubled children early enough to prevent problems, rather than purchase expensive safety devices of questionable utility. Kids are getting lost and we as a society may pay for our misplaced priorities now and in the future.

If we look to our Jewish sources for guidance in these school shootings, perhaps all these children, with the exception of the very youngest, should be considered old enough to be held responsible for their actions. I shudder at the thought of a-16 year old serving hard time in an adult prison. As horrific as these crimes have been, however, they are symptoms of larger societal problems. There are no easy solutions and still too many nagging questions.

I welcome your thoughts.

Shabbat shalom!