A Dad Ponders Gulf Between 'Good' and 'Bad' Kids

On the coldest night of this autumn there was a pep rally at my daughter's high school. Students who play sports now in season competed for bragging rights in the skits they presented.

While parents froze in the stands and the season's first snowflakes drifted down, the kids capered and cheered for each other. They were the most active students in the school, the ones who seem to be involved in everything. And the hundreds of adults who came to watch were the most committed: the coaches and teachers and parents and booster club members who raise funds for so many of the school's extracurricular activities. All the human energy that shapes a positive high school experience was gathered into one crowd a week ago Wednesday.

The next morning the TV news was full of horrific tragedies in distant towns.

In Mississippi, a 16-year-old boy was accused of stabbing his mother to death, then taking a rifle to school and killing two classmates. The principal said he was a quiet boy who hadn't drawn official attention because he had "not been a discipline problem."

In New Jersey, a 15-year-old boy stood accused of sexual assault and murder in the death of an 11-year-old boy who was selling candy door to door for a school fund-raiser. The TV interviewee in that case said the suspect didn't mingle much, rarely left home, and spent a lot of time at his computer.

The contrast between the tragic stories of the morning and the festive air of my daughter's school the night before was striking. They are all kids of the same ages, all living in towns where people assume they are safe. What accounts for the vastness of the gulf between celebrating youth and assaulting it?

I cannot be absolutely sure that those boys never went to a high school pep rally dressed as a California raisin hearing it through the grapevine.

But my guess is that they never did any such thing; that they were outside the main currents of life and socializing in their schools. Did somebody forget to invite them in? Being different need not mean isolation. Kids have an enormous tolerance for the eccentricities they define as benign. But they also shun the truly troubled as "too weird."

It would be foolish to suggest that the herd instinct of teenagers protects them from committing the kinds of outrage reported on TV that morning, just as it would be equally foolish to assume that those who cherish solitude rather than socializing are somehow tilted toward trouble.

But it does seem in report after report that the suspects arrested in teenage tragedies turn out to be the misfits, the outsiders, either by withdrawal or by expulsion. In Vermont, where I live, and in many other states, school systems are beginning to recognize and counter that pattern. There are programs designed to enfold the alienated, to make the school environment more friendly for those who don't have the social skills or the courage to push themselves into the mainstream of high school society. In such schools it'll be harder for administrators to say nobody paid attention to a troubled boy because he was not overtly disruptive. Or to fail to notice another boy is actively antisocial.

Kids always know but aren't always compelled to say what they know.

That's why building better relationships between a student body and its support groups is vital. It's not that every student should become a cheerleader or a linebacker or a goalkeeper. But teachers, coaches, and parents can be better positioned to distinguish between the odd and the ominous if they help create a vibrant school community, and then work to include those who need help in thriving there.

* Steve Delaney, former host of Monitor Radio Early Edition, lives in Milton, Vt.

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