Trust Less

I will be direct. When I was in my mid-20s, I was date raped. That’s another story for another time. The reason I bring it up is that I involved by mother in a visit to the emergency room. After that day with me, she sent me a letter. It read, in part:

“I’ve thought a lot about some of your attributes which are so very disarming and endearing – your openness, your loving and giving nature, your impulsiveness, your enthusiasm and eagerness, your sense of wonder at life. I can’t begin to say or even think how much richer my own life has been because of the things you have helped me see and the things you have encouraged me to do and the wonder and excitement at life (as well as the deep despair!) you have evoked in me…

“My sense of how you have managed to do this–to carry these ‘child-like’ qualities forward into life with you to such a remarkable degree–is that there is another side of you which is smart and tough enough to be able to create and maintain a safe place in the world for that ‘child’ in you to still exist and wonder at life—and to share that sense of wonder and eagerness with people around you. It makes you a very special person.

“When things happen to you like the incident which led to our day at the hospital, I find myself with a mix of feelings. Relating those feelings to the above, I hurt with the betrayed child in you and I am furious with the capable adult you also are who has irresponsibly looked the other way while the child wandered into the world unprotected. You are too smart to turn yourself over to your impulsiveness without first making a realistic assessment of the circumstances. And you are far too precious to make yourself vulnerable to needless abuse—physical, verbal, emotional, or any other kind…”

Mom loved me. She worried about me. She honored who I was. But she hoped I would be less trusting to protect myself. As a parent, I have discovered that I must teach this same lesson to each of my children according to their individual personalities.

About a week ago, Skye made a bad mistake. She brought a live rat to school and released it in the cafeteria during 7th grade lunch. It caused a disturbance. The cafeteria was cleared and the rat was caught and destroyed without injury to anyone.

Skye did not admit to her involvement initially, but eventually came clean. As she sobbed her confession to the middle school Principal, she said, “I knew I’d made a mistake as soon as I opened the bag. I’m really sorry. It’s nobody’s fault but mine.”

She was suspended from school for three days with a formal hearing to occur at the end of the third day. There was another girl who was suspended as well. This girl admitted to holding the bag with the rat while Skye went through the cafeteria line to purchase her lunch. A group of Skye’s friends had conceived the plan and knew she had the rat at school, but they denied involvement. And Skye told me she didn’t want anyone else to get in trouble.

On the afternoon of the hearing, John, Skye, the other girl and her mother, and I were present, along with two assistant principals from the middle school and a hearing officer – an assistant principal from the high school. The charges were read – “school disturbance (major incident).” The girls were permitted to testify. Both read letters of apology as well. Skye had written (without parental input):

“I am very sorry about letting a rat go in the cafeteria. I did not realize how unsafe that action was, for myself and the rest of the students and faculty that were in the cafeteria and in the rest of the school. I regret doing what I did and will never do it again. Ever. I have been punished by having to write a 1000 word essay on the diseases rats can carry. As I was researching information to use in my essay, I learned how dangerous rats can be. If I could go back in time, I would not have brought that rat to school. I understand why I needed to be punished and why a formal hearing is necessary. At the time, I thought letting a rat go would be funny. Now it doesn’t seem funny at all. If I was not caught, I would have never learned a good lesson: Not to bring live animals to school! Even though this is a bizarre lesson, it will be used in the future. Not only will this lesson benefit me, but other students also…”

Skye then apologized to specific administrators for lying. She continued:

“I am now taking full responsibility for my action. Although some of my friends knew about what was going to happen, they shouldn’t be blamed. They only knew about it. They were not a part of letting the rat loose. I am truly sorry and I will never do this again. I promise you!”

Parents were permitted to ask questions or comment. John explained to the hearing officer that rats are not gross or scary to Skye. As an animal-lover, she did not comprehend how frightening the rat might be perceived by others. But she now understands that fact.

I offered testimony that this was an example of stupid adolescent groupthink gone wrong. Skye admitted that she would not have done this without the encouragement of others. But teenagers (and adults) will often do insane or dangerous things at the urging of their peers. Skye knows better now.

All parties present viewed the videotape of the incident, though it was hard for me to make out the particulars. The middle school assistant principals then testified that the rat had scared one of the custodians and alarmed others. They stated that, since the incident, they had been receiving calls from parents who worried about the safety of the cafeteria or who didn’t want their children eating there. The administrators also worried about a potential health inspection.

The hearing officer read the range of punishments, including the possibility of expulsion and asked the girls to “marinate on that for awhile.” Then he gave his ruling: 10 days suspension from school. The punishment effectively suspended the girls for the remainder of the school year, including exam days. I asked if the suspension might be taken at the beginning of the next school year since the girls would miss the opportunity to learn what they needed to know for the exams. The answer was “no.” I was told I could appeal the ruling. The girls would be allowed to come to school on the Tuesday following the end of the school year to take all their exams.

Excepting procedural justice, which concerns the fairness of the hearing process, there are basically three types of justice (as I understand it): distributive, restorative, and retributive. Distributive justice concerns equality or fairness of the consequences. Had Skye and her friend receive a punishment that was the “same” as others who had done similar acts? I don’t know the answer to that. It would require research into records I do not have access to. And, realistically, how many incidents of rat releasing would I find?

Restorative justice means putting things back the way they were. If there are losses, it is about making up for the loss in whatever way is possible. Although Skye and her friend could not erase frightening memories or keep concerned or alarmed parents from calling the school, they did try to restore the broken relationships with their teachers and administrators through their apology letters.

But the school administration seemed to be operating on the principle of retributive justice. Retributive justice is more like revenge. It is about making someone suffer as the injured party feels it has suffered.

As we left the school that day, after clearing out Skye’s locker, I asked myself: Does retributive justice belong in schools? Is this what our schools are supposed to be about? I thought schools were about learning, about education. I know, as a former high school teacher myself, that educators take courses on child development. We learn that teenage brains are unfinished. Teens are impulsive. They make bad decisions. I thought the job of teachers was to help them learn from mistakes and make better decisions going forward.

What if the hearing officer had requested that Skye give a talk to the 7th grade on diseases that rats carry or on the dangers of groupthink? Was I wrong to believe that schools ought to operate on the principle of restorative justice instead?

And what about my child’s special needs? She has diagnosed ADHD and a school-administered 504 Plan. She is “at risk.” She needs to be in school to receive instruction. Over the past few weeks, she had been trying to pull up her grades. But this punishment denied her access to the resources she needs to be successful. The message she received was that her school didn’t care about her academic achievement.

Worse yet, Skye’s spirit was broken. She had been more vulnerable with adults than she ever allows herself to be, and they had stomped on her emotions. I had to admit, the punishment broke my spirit as well.

I could have written most of the first part of my mother’s letter to Skye:

“I’ve thought a lot about some of your attributes which are so very disarming and endearing – your loving and giving nature, your impulsiveness, your enthusiasm and eagerness, your sense of wonder at life. I can’t begin to say or even think how much richer my own life has been because of the things you have helped me see and the things you have encouraged me to do and the wonder and excitement at life (as well as the deep despair!) you have evoked in me…”

However, Skye is still a child. She needs our protection and guidance. I wanted direct my mother’s cautionary words to the school: “You are too smart to turn yourself over to your impulsiveness without first making a realistic assessment of the circumstances.”

Telling the truth had resulted in nothing but further adverse consequences. The friends who denied their foreknowledge of the rat at school were the winners. I trusted less. And I feared my daughter would take this lesson with her as well.

We sent a letter of appeal to the Principal the next day. On the 5th day of the suspension, I met with him. He told me that Skye could come to school on Monday and finish out the school year with her class. However, she would also be required to do 10 hours of community service at the school, staying after to clean and work around the school. Because she had caused extra work for others, she would be learning about the hard work involved in keeping a school running smoothly.

Now that is restorative justice. That is a punishment fitting for an educational institution.

Is Skye happy? Are you kidding?! She will have to face her peers and teachers. She will have to face her shame and embarrassment. But it’s a better outcome to my way of thinking.

Skye and I had both wrapped our minds around trusting less. In a way, it’s easier to distrust – whether a person or an institution, but it’s a miserable way to live. It’s harder to find the kind of balance my mother wrote to me about: carrying child-like qualities forward, but being “smart and tough enough to be able to create and maintain a safe place in the world.” My new mantra is: trust and trust less.

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