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Boston bombing probe: What Tsarnaev's friends tell us about adolescents (+video)

The arrests of three college friends of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could be a chance for adults to help young people sort through complicated issues of friendship and loyalty, as well as moral and legal obligations.

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During adolescence and a search for identity, “friends become so important,” says Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist in Westchester County, N.Y., and co-author of “Teenage as a Second Language.” When they found the backpack in Tsarnaev’s room, “their gut probably said, ‘Wow, this probably shouldn’t be in here.’... This was a friend who they knew,... everybody talked about him as a good kid, a good guy. I think they were really focusing more on the emotion and ... the connection that they had, at the expense of really understanding the ramifications of what they were doing.”

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But the case could lead to more emphasis, at college orientations, for example, on the need to report if peers are involved in something of concern, Dr. Powell-Lunder says.

Kdyrbayev and Tazhayakov, charged with obstruction of justice, could be subject to up to five years in prison. Mr. Phillipos, charged with lying to investigators, could face eight years in prison.

How to treat crimes by young people is a dilemma for the legal system, Powell-Lunder says. “These young boys, I cringe to even call them men, may end up being the example, and hopefully other people will understand how serious this is,” she says.

Reports that Kadyrbayev’s car had a license plate reading “Terrorista #1” brings up the important role of parents, Powell-Lunder says.

According to Kadyrbayev’s lawyer, the plate was a gag gift from friends, and Powell-Lunder applauds the right of free speech in such matters. But “If I’m that parent, I would say ... take that license plate off your car right now. I’m not paying for your college if you don’t,” she says. “This is an alarm that we all need to step up.... Just because you send your kid off to college does not make them an adult.”

When it comes to ethics, there’s not enough education for young people about the concept of “complicity,” says Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute in Los Angeles.

Both teens and adults sometimes couch their action as a value, such as loyalty, but that’s “a moral excuse for passivity and avoiding involvement and conflict,” he says. “People pretend that ‘It’s my ethics,’ but it’s really just simply a self-interest.”

People should expand their sense of loyalty to realize who will be helped and who will be hurt by their decision to do or not do something, Mr. Josephson says. Teaching young people to think about that wide range of “stakeholders” is part of Character Counts!, a comprehensive character education program the Josephson Institute supports that has reached more than 8 million students in the United States.

“Moral obligations come with the situations we are presented with,” Josephson says, “and we have choices: We can either make things better, we can leave them the way they are, or sometimes we make things worse.”

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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