Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed August 1999
Copyright ©1999 by James Morone and Elizabeth Kilbreth

The Columbine laws and the real world

By James Morone and Elizabeth Kilbreth
James Morone is professor of political science at Brown University. His next book,Hellfire Nation, will be coming out soon from Yale University Press. Elizabeth Kilbreth is director of the Center for Health Policy at The University of Southern Maine.

"We have spent the past year visiting high schools across the country to see how they cope with teen troubles. ... We saw creative people stretching tight budgets to meet their teenagers' needs"

Columbine laws are all over the news. The House Republicans led the way with their now-celebrated solution — posting the Ten Commandments in the schools. Oklahoma legislated its own road back to basics: Parents got the green light on "paddling, spanking, and switching" their kids.

In Indiana, teens can’t pierce their navels (or anything but their ears) without a note from Mom and Dad. Tennessee wants Mom to sign off on body piercing in person. Louisiana law now requires teenagers to "sir" and "ma'am" their teachers. One law in Texas would get the execution age down to 11.

All this is nothing new. The greatest book-burner in American history, Anthony Comstock, prefaced his own 1873 book of dire warnings with a line that neatly sums up our post-Columbine buzz: "Our youth is sent out into the world as sheep in the midst of wolves. The danger, however, is not that they will be devoured…but that they will be transformed into wolves."

The theme goes even farther back. The most famous meeting of Puritan ministers, held in Boston in 1679, roasted the parents of the day for not properly disciplining their children. "Most of the evils that afflict us," summed up the ministers in their great Call for Reform, stem from "defects as to family government."

Well, here we go again. Listen to the news and you’ll hear endless variations on that old jeremiad about sparing the rod.

But far from the headlines there is a very different story. We have spent the past year visiting high schools across the country to see how they cope with teen troubles. We didn’t see any wolves. We saw creative people stretching tight budgets to meet their teenagers’ needs.

A task force on youth violence in the Louisiana legislature was electrified by testimony from a high school student. He described how his plan to shoot an abusive stepfather was diverted by mental health counselors in a school-based anger management class. "This spring," he summed up softly, "I’m graduating high school instead of doing time." Any adult in the packed hearing room who had ever experienced an abusive relationship or an angry divorce could understand the young man’s anguish. And the quiet victory he shared with the community.

In Pawtucket, R.I., a charismatic principal stands in the middle of the crowded lunch room in his inner-city middle school. He seems to know every kid by name. They gleefully call out to him and slap him high fives. He steps aside with a few of the older kids and has intense private chats. He tells us that when he realized a lot of his kids needed basic health services, he rounded up some parents in the construction business. They converted some school rooms into a clinic. A local hospital provided staff. State officials and a private foundation came up with the money.

In Colorado, home to one of the great concentrations of socially conservative political groups, the Denver school system has quietly introduced primary health care — even a full range of reproductive health services — into more than a dozen high schools.

In these cases — and many more — responsible adults are putting together creative programs and coalitions. Each of these people will tell you the same thing: Teenagers have enormous needs and get remarkably few services.

The kinds of problems that the teens face — illegal drugs, alcohol, reproductive health, violence, suicide, psychological trouble — are just the thing to land them in hot water at home. Worse, they are the issues that raise the loudest voices in the American culture wars. Teen sex? Cultural conservatives prescribe the Ten Commandments. Liberals change the subject to gun control. Well, we are firm believers in both gun control and the Ten Commandments. But in the real world of teenagers, communities and schools, it takes lot more. Yes, it is high time to have a national discussion about teenagers in our society. But let’s put aside the high-flying symbolic policies. While we’re at it, let’s make a break with that whole Puritan attitude. A grudging approach that only frisks the kids for guns has never gotten us very far. Besides, we already have almost two million people locked up and that’s plenty.

A more imaginative dialogue begins with a straight look at the needs our young people face. They are not hard to figure out. Just tune out the microphone hogs with their "paddling" and "spanking." Instead, listen to the many people coming up with creative ways to stretch a few resources across a lot of kids. As it turns out, their message is not so scary. Forget wolves — what’s really out there are young people with needs.