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The Edges Are No Longer Parallel October 16, 2009

Posted by monty in news, school, TV.
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Because television news seems to be doing all it can to contribute to the collective intellectual retardation of this country, stories involving children seem to get an increasing amount of play, especially on the morning shows (I watch Today, because they’re so sassy!).  This isn’t necessarily anything new, as the countless stories of children falling into wells will testify.  But every time I see one of these, I – along with many others, I’m sure – wonder why these stories are considered newsworthy.  I guess they’re human-interest stories, but in terms of importance, they rank right up there with stories of people getting lost while hiking: of minor importance to anyone outside immediate friends and family.  When we could be getting in-depth stories that analyze health care reform or the war in Afghanistan – you know, things of actual importance – we get Balloon Boy instead.

But I get ahead of myself.

This week there were three stories in the news, all involving kids.  Only one of them, I think, is deserving of any kind of national attention, and even that one you have to stretch a little.

Boy In BalloonMost recently, we have Balloon Boy. If you haven’t heard this story, it involves the unfortunately-named Falcon Heene, a six-year-old kid whose parents feared he had taken off in a giant Mylar balloon they were building in their garage.  When authorities finally chased down the balloon 90 miles later – after reaching an altitude of 7,000 feet – they found that Falcon wasn’t in it.  Fears ran high that the boy had fallen out somewhere along the line.  Upon searching further, Falcon was later found at home.  In the attic.  Playing in a box.

In other news, health care reform bill passes Senate committee.

The plot thickened – as it always does – when Falcon later said that he hadn’t come out of the attic when his parents called for him because “you guys said we did this for the show.”  Was this ridiculous non-story a hoax?  Falcon’s father, Richard Heene, vehemently denied it to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer (because of course he’d admit to perpetrating fraud on national television), but the rumor persists.  Other fun facts: Richard Heene and his wife Mayumi were contestants on the 100th episode of TV’s Wife Swap and the elder Heenes also “devote their time to scientific experiments that include looking for extraterrestrials.”

Michael BThe second story is much more tragic, but I’m still not convinced it’s necessarily deserving of all the exposure it’s getting.  In South Florida, 15-year-old Michael Brewer was set on fire by five other teenagers because Brewer supposedly owed one of them $40 for a video game.

As the story goes, the boys poured rubbing alcohol on Brewer and then flicked a lighter at him.  Brewer, now burned on 65% of his body, ran and dove into a swimming pool, but it eventually took a man with a fire extinguisher to completely put out the flames.  The mother of two of the suspects denies they had anything to do with it, which is natural, I suppose.  After all, what mother wants to cop to her kids setting someone on fire?

In some ways I feel bad saying the news shouldn’t be preoccupied with this story.  It’s horrific and very, very sad, but it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know: that teenagers can be brutal and cruel and thoughtless.  We’ve seen this over and over again, and the only thing that changes is the vehicle of brutality.  From Columbine to the recent beating death of a Chicago teenager to Michael Brewer, there is never a shortage of adolescents doing horrific things to one another.  To treat it as national news is only to be redundant.

tdy_ellis_boy_091014.300wFinally, we have the story of six-year-old Zachary Christie, who was caught at school eating his lunch with a Cub Scout camping utensil that included a spork and a knife.  Under the school’s zero tolerance policy for weapons, Christie was suspended from school and sentenced to 45 days in a local reform school.  That’s right.  If you’ve ever wanted to know what pure evil looks like, just gaze at his photo.

Once this story got national exposure, the outcry was such that Christie’s punishment was diminished to a short suspension from school, and his placement in reform school was eliminated altogether.

Of the three stories described here, Christie’s is the only one that seems to me to be worth reporting.  There are a couple reasons.  The first is the social justice angle.  Any time a news story can bring injustice to light (and cause its prevention) it’s worth reporting.  Zachary’s punishment was obviously extreme, and there’s no telling what would be the future repercussions of this kid being sent to reform school at such a young age.  Reporting this story brought his situation to light and helped get his punishment reversed.

The second angle, from a policy standpoint, is the absolute lunacy of zero tolerance rules.  Any rule that effectively eliminates the context of the infraction is just not a good idea.  This is especially true when you’re dealing with young children, who often don’t fully understand the impact of their actions.  Case in point: I had a Cub Scout pocketknife of my own when I was younger.  I took it to school one day, not with the intention of shanking someone, but just because it was new and, like most little kids, I wanted to keep it with me.  I had it sitting on my desk at one point – with the blade unopened – and my teacher took it away and gave it back to me at the end of the day.  That’s fine.  I get it.  But I had absolutely no inkling that it was in any way bad form to bring the pocketknife to school.  The thought that I could get in trouble for displaying a cool Christmas present in class never even crossed my mind.  Now imagine that my elementary school had had a zero tolerance policy.  Would it be justified to suspend me and send me to reform school when A) there was no malice involved in my actions, and B) I probably wasn’t aware of the rule in the first place?

I’m not sure many people know that, post-Columbine, zero tolerance policies are actually fairly common in schools, especially for weapons, but also for drugs and alcohol.  A story like Zachary’s will, with any luck, clue people into the fact that these policies are out there, and that they’re usually a bad idea.  I understand the desire to keep kids safe, but at some point common sense has to enter the picture.  Imposing a blanket sentence on anyone who breaks a rule – without taking into account that there can be variations in how the rule is broken – is to completely remove the possibility of thoughtful, reasoned judgment from the person imposing the punishment.  It’s only through public pressure that schools will ever amend policies that run counter to intelligent thought, and it’s often only through seeing a story like Zachary’s that the public will ever be aware of what actually goes on in schools.

Television news often gets it wrong – actually, they usually get it wrong – and the fact that they got it right once this week is no reason to celebrate.  .333 might be a great average if you’re a major league ballplayer, but for a professional news organization, it’s downright abysmal.

Bonus footage: Zachary’s story on NBC’s Today:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

*****

Current listening:

Teenage fanclub howdy

Teenage Fanclub – Howdy!

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Comments»

1. Let Go of the Dream « Three Seconds of Dead Air - October 22, 2009

[…] the very worst kind of “human interest” b.s. that epitomizes the non-news I wrote about last week.  But every so often there’ll be a story that gives me pause and makes me think about my […]


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