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Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008

The Pain of High School

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Only the most cruel and hard-hearted—people who no longer remember the pain of high school—would want to arrest and prosecute a 15-year-old black girl who reported being racially harassed at West Bend East High School.

But since right-wing talk shows thrive on fanning the flames of racial division, they were out-shouting each other last week, demanding that a racially isolated and unhappy young girl be criminally charged and even incarcerated for her complaints. The West Bend Police Department and Washington County district attorney were only too happy to pile on.

West Bend police arrested the girl at her home after the police chief said a department investigation found no evidence to support the girl’s complaints that she was racially harassed in school. And the Washington County district attorney charged the girl with obstructing an officer, alleging that she lied to investigating officers. The misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail.

How does the personal misery of a vulnerable 15-year-old high-school girl escalate into a criminal case and spark inflamed rhetoric on right-wing radio? We have begun criminalizing childhood. It’s the result of schools abandoning their responsibility to address conflicts among students within their own buildings. Problems that once were addressed by a trip to the principal’s office now are routinely transferred to the criminal justice system.

The girl’s family moved to West Bend this year from Milwaukee. A new student in a predominantly white school, the girl told school officials she was repeatedly the target of racial slurs and physical jostling in the hallways, including being pushed down a stairway. Once, she said, eggs were dropped on her in a stairwell.

School officials reportedly had the girl followed in the hallways and said they did not witness any misbehavior toward her. Police said they reviewed tapes from surveillance cameras in the school and did not see anything to confirm what she said, including the alleged egging.

West Bend Police Chief Ken Meuler claimed that his officers spent “hundreds of hours” on the investigation, which sounds like a schoolchild’s exaggeration itself. Of course, who knows how many hours the West Bend C.S.I. unit spent scraping for traces of egg DNA in that stairwell?

Teachable Moments

Let’s put the truth of the girl’s specific allegations aside if we can, just for a moment.

Let’s talk about a few things we all know to be true from our own highschool experiences. It can be one of the most emotional and painful times in our lives. Everything is amplified and exaggerated: our loves, our heartbreaks, our exhilaration, our despair.

At an age when every slight is magnified, real cruelty and bullying also can be some of the most vicious we will ever experience. At the time in life when everything is still possible, many young people can’t imagine ever getting over the emotional torment of the moment. At its most extreme, it has led to teenage suicide and even mass murder.

Now imagine at that painful age a young African-American girl transferred into a predominantly white world where she has no friends.

It is possible the girl may have exaggerated or even fabricated some of the incidents she described in order to get out of a lonely, racially isolated school situation where she was deeply unhappy.

It’s just as possible she is telling the truth as she sees it. No one is naive enough to believe it’s completely outside the realm of possibility that some students in a predominantly white school might do things to make an African- American outsider feel uncomfortable.

What’s obvious is that schools should deal with complaints of racial conflict among students in far more positive ways than just calling the cops. Conflicts between students require intervention by psychologists, counselors and other social workers trained in mediation and communication.

Most police officers are probably a lot more comfortable asserting control over a violent crime scene than they are communicating with children. Besides, in a state that arrests and incarcerates a greater percentage of its African Americans than any other state in the union, sending in the police shouldn’t be the first option to deal with sensitive racial issues in our schools.

A whole lot of cruel and unacceptable behavior takes place in schools without ever being brought to the attention of authorities so that problems can be resolved as teachable moments with positive outcomes.

So how likely is it for another African American to ever again complain about racial treatment in West Bend after a young girl who does so is arrested and prosecuted? When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. An emotionally distraught 15-year-old girl in West Bend just felt the hammer come down.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.