Our third son, 5M, has always been a solid kid. He’s kind and good-hearted, and has often gone out of his way to befriend the ‘social-misfit-type’ kids at school. He has tended to get a little lost in the shuffle in our family, with all the drama going on among his older siblings, but just a very solid, very good kid.
When he was in 8th grade, 5M had a MySpace page. Which was news to us, since we didn’t even have an Internet connection on our home computer (I mean, we didn’t even have the connection; I had removed the modem from the box – the only sure way I could finally find to keep porn out of our house). But, you know, other families have computers with modems, and he’s not under our roof 24-7.
One time, I brought my laptop home from work. 4M and 5M were eager to borrow it so they could go online without having to run to a friend’s house, and that was my first look at 5M’s page. It featured a large photo of his august self, shirtless and sleeping. It could possibly have been construed as mildly ‘erotic’, in a 14-year-old-boy sort of way. I told him I thought a different photo would be a good idea, and he switched it.
5M played on the school’s 8th-grade basketball team and, as I recall, they had a very good season. But, at one practice in December, one of the boys on the team messed up in such a way as to cause the whole team to run extra laps at the end of practice. Which, as has been known to happen among middle-school boys, didn’t endear the boy to his teammates on that particular day. One teammate in particular, was extremely angry over it, and left a nasty, threatening comment on 5M’s MySpace page. 5M didn’t think much of it – he knew the kid who left the comment, and figured he was just venting some steam. He might have deleted the comment, but frankly, he didn’t know he could (just speaking as the boy’s father, there are all manner of bloggity things that y’all do that I have no idea how to do, so he at least comes by his ‘ignorance’ honestly).
A month or so later, on a Friday when 5M was home sick, his class had a discussion on school violence. In the course of the conversation, one of the girls said, “You should see what’s on 5M’s MySpace page!” So that day, after school, the teacher calls up 5M’s MySpace page, sees the nasty, threatening comment sitting there, having been there for over a month, and about jumped out of her clothes. The teacher showed it to the principal, who consulted the policy manual and determined that, holy shit, they had an honest-to-goodness violent situation on their hands, right here in Tiny-Catholic School! So they huddled together and consulted the policy manual for what to do. They even called the Diocesan Education Office downtown.
The following Monday, Molly and I got a call, requesting that we meet with the principal. When we got there, 5M was already sitting in his office. We sat down, and he described the situation to us. My first thought was to wonder why he needed us to come in for a meeting over that – what, exactly, had my son done wrong? It became clear that 5M’s offense was in leaving the comment up on his page. So I asked 5M why he hadn’t deleted the comment, and he said he hadn’t known that he could. And besides, his opportunities to even get at his page were fairly limited, since we didn’t have an Internet connection at home. And, he had gone in and deleted it that afternoon, when the principal showed him how. So no problem.
Well, no. NOT ‘no problem’. Not by a long shot.
The principal went on to explain that, according to the policy manual, this constituted an instance of violence against another student, which would not be tolerated. He even invoked Columbine. 5M was to be suspended for a week, removed from the basketball team, and be ineligible to participate in any extra-curricular activities for the rest of the school year. Which, since he was in 8th grade, meant for the rest of his time at the school. Including the ‘celebratory’ class trip at the end of the year.
I was dumbfounded. Was any consideration given to the kind of person they knew 5M to be? He’d been at the school for eight-and-a-half years, and had never remotely been a trouble-maker (which could not have been said of at least one of his older brothers, and even one of his sisters). This seemed kind of a nuclear response to a first offense, that, when I looked at it, didn’t look like much of an offense at all. The only response I got was that this was what the policy manual said they should do in a case of violence against another student, and that Sister Scholastica downtown agreed.
I wrote a letter to the principal, asking him to reconsider, based on 5M’s complete lack of any disciplinary history. I wrote a letter to our pastor, and the parish Education Commission, asking if there was any way for them to intervene in the situation, but they declined. I wrote a letter to Sister Scholastica, too, but I didn’t hold out a lot of hope for that; with the others, I was at least talking to people with whom I had a relationship. As far as Sister was concerned, I was just Irate Parent. The suspension was gonna stick.
I would have a hard time describing the bind we were in. Our kids have been attending this school for 20 years; it’s our parish school. So, sending our kids there is virtually a matter of supporting the parish. Plus, in all other ways, we liked and respected this principal; this ‘zero-tolerance’ thing came completely out of left field, as far as we were concerned.
Molly and I agonized over what to do. It seemed a shame (and honestly, an act of ‘violence’ in its own right) to pull 5M out of the school just a couple months before his class was due to graduate – these kids (or at least most of them) had been together since kindergarten, and they were a close-knit group. And yet, 5M was effectively being held apart from them by virtue of the discipline. If we sent 5M to the public middle school, he’d only be there for a couple months, and he knew very few of the kids he’d be there with. Besides which, with a ‘violence’ action attached to his name, we weren’t even sure they would take him, anyway.
We finally told 5M that, if he could, we wanted him to finish the year with his class. If he found that it was too hard, or too strange, to keep going back to school with his ‘Scarlet-V’ status, we would pull him out and switch him to the public school, without a second thought. But, if he could do it, we wanted him to finish the year, hold his head up, and figuratively say to his ‘adversaries’ (however he perceived them to be), ‘I won’t be beaten down’.
And that’s what he did. I’ve rarely been prouder of any of my children than I was when 5M graduated with his class from 8th grade. He held his head up and didn’t get beaten down. He worked hard and kept his mouth shut. All of his teachers (except the one who had ‘turned him in’) more-or-less rallied to his side, making clear that they regarded this as unjust, also. In fact, he even got ‘reinstated’ to go on the class trip (which he was tempted to refuse, out of principle, but he ended up going).
As I said, I’ve rarely been prouder of any of my kids. 5M’s character really showed through, and he grew a lot stronger for living through an awful situation with his dignity intact. There were no ‘good’ solutions to the problem, and I just wanted to make sure that we all, in the Jones family, handled ourselves uprightly and with dignity. We had many words of support from fellow-parishioners, including a few who offered to make some trouble on our behalf. Which we declined to have them do.
Our parish is a relatively small urban parish, and the school is its life-blood. The school itself has struggled fiscally for several years, and a major brouhaha could easily result in the school’s closing. Which, in the long run (or maybe not so long), would lead to the parish closing. Not that I thought that the fate of the parish hung on what we did, but taking care for the good of the parish was certainly part of our consideration.
And looking back, I think the whole problem was the ‘zero tolerance’ policy that the school adopted. I understand, and am supportive of, the school’s concern to protect its students from violence. But, to punish a stupid comment left on a MySpace page (out of ignorance much more than malice) as if it were the next coming of Columbine was just out of all proportion, and an affront to common sense. But then, ‘zero-tolerance’ is all about not engaging common sense. If the manual says it’s ‘violence’, then off you go; nothing to think about, you just follow the manual.
And the galling thing is that, in a Catholic school, I would expect the students to be treated as persons with human dignity, made in the image of God, but ‘zero-tolerance’ ends up treating them as line-items in the policy manual. Even the remotest consideration of the person who is my son 5M would have told them that they weren’t dealing with a putative perpetrator of violence. But thought is hard, and reading a policy manual is easy.
As I said, in every other respect, I like and respect this principal. Our working relationship is mostly intact. But trust has been damaged some, and if such a situation arises again, I don’t know with certainty that I can trust that the right things will be done, and I wish that I could. I hope such a situation never arises again, and if it doesn’t, I will be gratified. We’ve only got eight more years to run of Joneses at that school (assuming it stays afloat that long), so we’ll see, I guess. . .