The other morning when I was getting ready for work a story on the “Today Show” caught my ear. A 15-year-old girl named Josie Lou Ratley had been attacked by a friend of a friend over a text message and had been beaten so badly by him that doctors had placed her in a medically-induced coma.
Apparently the attacker, also 15, had become enraged over text messages in which Josie made a disparaging remark about his brother, who committed suicide five months ago. He was so enraged, that the high school student, who had never met Josie before, went to her middle school after telling his friends was going to “snap her neck.” When he arrived at the school, his girlfriend pointed Josie out and then she stood there and watched as the boy kicked and stomped on Josie’s head with steel-toed boots.
Do you remember that boy who was set on fire by his “friends” after a dispute about a video game a few months ago? Come to find out, the boy attends the same Florida middle school as Josie. Normally this would led me to think, “What the hell is going on in Florida?” But this issue hits much, much closer to home.
Just last week the daughter of my best friend was attacked after classes at the middle school that she, my oldest son and my nephew attend in our small, sleepy Midwestern town. Jessica’s attacker – a boy in her grade she had never had any contact with – punched her so hard on the side of her head that her earring became embedded in her ear and had to be surgically removed the next day.
In light of went down in Florida, you might jump to the conclusion that Jessica got off easy. But the bottom line in all three incidents is the same: A student should be able to go to school and receive an education without fear of being attacked. Pre-teens and young teenagers should NOT be treating each other this way.
Middle schoolers have been horrible to each other since the beginning of time. The rush of hormones combined with the ability to put words together in new and more hurtful ways can only lead to problems. Maybe one of our biggest failures as a society is that we’ve brushed off middle school bullying as “kids being kids”. But just because pre-teens and young teens have traditionally been terrible to each other doesn’t mean we should accept it as a fact.
I know it’s just not done to “blame the victim” but Josie was completely wrong to play the dead brother card. There’s probably nothing in the world that could have hurt the boy more. But hurt feelings are a world away from disfigured ears, burned skin and closed-head injuries. What’s changed that’s making these students commit such horrific crimes toward each other?
When I expressed shock that a boy would attack a girl in our storybook little village, my husband laughed. “There are turds everywhere,” he told me, and he’s right. No matter where you go you’re bound to find a group of bottom feeders – whether it’s a small Midwestern town or Beverly Hills.
If we could somehow weed out this sludge from our schools things might be better, but in the words of the sheriff investigating the case in Florida, “We can’t arrest our way out of a problem, we have to start early.”
He couldn’t be more right. Young children are generally taught “the golden rule” – treat other people the way you would want to be treated. The simplest way to turn an innocent child into an empathetic teenager is to continually hammer home that same principle. The most important thing you can teach your children is common human decency.
So what’s the solution? Should we replace math class with morals class? As soon as “character building” is uttered by school districts, adults generally go a little crazy. “That’s the job of the parents,” they cry. But the terrible truth is that for these kids – these horrible miscreants who would stomp another child’s head, or light their classmate on fire, or stand by ambivalently while someone is critically injured – the parents just aren’t doing their job. The “golden rule” is missing from these kids’ lives.
It’s easy to point fingers, but in these situations I truly have a hard time blaming anyone else. Once you bring a child into the world, your number one priority from that second on is to make sure that baby turns into a decent human being.
For the most part it’s not a terribly hard task. And here’s an easy way of gauging how well you’re doing: If your kid ends up on the morning news for repeatedly stomping someone's head, YOU HAVE FAILED.