Criminalizing Adolescence

Think back to your days in middle school (or, as it was known when I went through it, junior high).  I know you don’t want to think about it, because those days in seventh and eighth grade were painful exercises.  The haircuts, the clothing, the cliques, the acne, the bizarre hormone-deranged behavior of your classmates — virtually everything about that period was disturbing and embarrassing.

cafeteria-2It’s important that you fix that grim period of your life firmly in mind, however, to fully understand the story of F.M., a seventh-grader at the Cleveland Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  The story begins with F.M. in physical education class — the place where, with kids changing clothes and taking showers, adolescent chaos reigns.  F.M. thought it would be funny to disrupt class by fake burping.  No surprise there; adolescent boys have long believed that belches and farts are the height of sophisticated humor, and virtually every grade has a kid who has somehow become a maestro at voluntarily gathering stomach gas and burping it out at the moment of maximum hilarity.  In the adolescent boy pantheon of laugh-producing activity, fake-belching is right up there with being able to make funny noises with your armpit or having a stable of gross jokes to tell at lunch so one of the kids at the table would snort milk out his nose.

When F.M. wouldn’t stop fake-burping, the teacher sent him into the hall — but F.M. kept sticking his head back in and belching some more.  By then, I’m guessing, some of the other boys in class were helpless with laughter, but the teacher had had enough.  He called the “school resource officer,” an officer in the Albuquerque police department assigned to the school.  The officer questioned F.M., who of course denied the belching incidents — and the “school resource officer” decided to place F.M. under arrest and charge him with the misdemeanor offense of disrupting school activities.  F.M. was put in handcuffs, patted down, and driven to a juvenile detention facility, where his mother picked him up later that day.  He also was suspended for the rest of the school year.

In this modern world, the inevitable response to the overreaction by the gym teacher and the “school resource officer” was an overreaction by F.M.’s mother, who sued alleging that F.M.’s constitutional rights were violated.  The school officials involved argued that F.M.’s behavior in fact constituted disruption of school activities under the New Mexico statute, which is why a federal court of appeals recently handed down a 94-page opinion holding that arresting a teenager for repeatedly burping in class wasn’t actionable.

It’s one of those stories that tells you how much things have changed.  When I was in junior high, if one of the class clowns disrupted gym class with belching the gym teacher would have gotten in his face and made him run laps until he puked, or sent him to the vice principal, a severe, scowling former Marine who kept a long wooden paddle hanging on the wall in his office.  There wasn’t a police officer — or “school resource officer” — at the school, and no teacher or school administrator would dream of calling the police on a jerky kid who was fake-burping to impress his classmates.  Paddling?  Sure.  Detention?  Absolutely.  But no handcuffs, pat-downs, or trip to juvenile detention.  And, if a kid was disciplined for disruptive behavior, his parents not only didn’t sue, they always sided with the teachers and school, and the kid was going to get punished on the home front, too.

There used to be a saying:  “Don’t make a federal case out of it.”  It was used to convey that people shouldn’t overreact to some minor incident.  Now we’ve reached the point where the gross, but nevertheless common, behavior of an adolescent boy can lead to arrest and a lengthy opinion by a federal appellate court.

I don’t consider that progress.

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“Slap-Ass Friday” And The Awkward Years

Some parents and school administrators are growing concerned in Las Vegas. Middle school students have adopted what they call “Slap-Ass Friday,” where every Friday they slap their classmates on the backside.

It’s not clear from the story how strong the “slap” is — whether it’s a tap or a real, rear-back-and-smack, spanking-like stinger — but the story makes it sound like the “slap-ass” practice is widespread. The guardian of one student says she’s not going to let her charge, a seventh-grader, go back to school to be “accosted” on Fridays and that the slapping students should be punished. The school, in turn, says it has a zero-tolerance policy for physical violence and disciplinary action will be taken “if appropriate.”

This sounds like a weird story — how would something as strange as “Slap-Ass Friday” develop in the first place? — until you consider the phrases “middle school” and “seventh grade.” Those are just about the most awkward years imaginable, when pretty much any kind of bizarre behavior might occur. Puberty begins to kick in, and the bodies of your classmates start to change noticeably. Braces and pimples suddenly assume enormous importance. You’re hungry all the time, you constantly grow out of your clothes, and you begin to notice odd urges and feelings — including the desire to be accepted and popular.

“Slap-Ass Friday” seems like precisely the sort of stupid, pointless thing that middle-schoolers inexplicably do under these superheated teenage circumstances. No doubt some of the “popular” kids started doing it, and the practice was quickly adopted by everyone in a rush of conformist behavior. I remember weird crazes and conduct during my junior high years. People passed notes asking whether someone “liked” them. Loafers with pennies in the slot were thought to be cool. Kids made paper fortune tellers with weird or sappy messages. Your friends thought it was hilarious to slug you on the arm for no apparent reason. If two people said something at the same time, one would rush to say “you owe me a Coke” before the other one did. “Cinnamon sticks” — toothpicks soaked in cinnamon oil — were all the rage, even though they burned the corner of your mouth.

None of this meant anything long term, although at the time it seemed awfully important. We survived adolescence and ultimately grew out of the curious behavior. So, I’d be cautious about overreacting to “Slap-Ass Friday” and depicting the participants as violent bullies. It just sounds like more of the awkward conduct that characterizes an awkward period of life that every adult survived and now would rather forget.

The Bully’s Excuse

I think the police in Lynn, Massachusetts are being played for saps.

The police are warning middle-school kids not to play a kicking game.  According to the police, the “game” consists of one kid walking behind another unsuspecting student and kicking him in the back of the head.  Apparently one perpetrator — who is facing charges of assault and battery — told the cops that the kick to the head was part of a game called “Big Booting.”

Yeah, right!  That sounds to me like the classic bully’s excuse when caught beating up a kid, sticking him in the back with pens, and doing the other things that make bullies such beloved figures.  Biff says “We’re just playing a game, teacher, honest!  Go ahead and tell him, Joe.  We’re just playing a game, aren’t we?” while doing whatever he can to give the victim the message that if he doesn’t go along with the story there’s a knuckle sandwich in his future.

I don’t pretend to have a good sense of what middle-schoolers are like these days, but I seriously doubt kids have suddenly decided its a fun “game” to go around kicking people in the back of the head.