05 April 2011

The Age of Reason

These kids in our schools... are they children? are they adults? does it matter?

In Pennsylvania - a state in the human-rights-challenged United States of America - the courts continue to wrestle with the question of trying a 12-year-old as an adult for murder.

Jordan Brown (right) - an adult in Pennsylvania
Actually, Jordan Brown was 11-years-old when he allegedly committed the crime, the age which marks the entry into secondary education for most American children. Well, Jordan wasn't there quite yet, at the time he was in fifth grade.

That's him, on the right, with his father, in the year he is accused of killing his soon-to-be-stepmother.

"In Pennsylvania, there is no lower limit for the age someone can be charged as an adult with criminal homicide. If convicted, Jordan, now 12, faces life in prison without the possibility of parole." "In almost half the states across the country, children can be prosecuted and tried in adult court, according to the University of Texas' Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs." [CNN]

So Jordan, at 11, is considered by the State of Pennsylvania and a number of other states, to be an adult because he is alleged to have acted badly. My first question is, how good must an 11-year-old be to be considered an adult?

But my real question is, at what age does a child become an adult? The United States allows all those under age 25 to be discriminated against by insurance companies and car rental companies. The presumption is that people under 25 lack the requisite maturity, the brain formation, to make adult decisions. Fine, actual brain science sort of backs this up. But if so, how can a 24-year-old, much less an 11-year-old, be considered an adult in one court of law but not another?

Central Dauphin Middle School in Pennsylvania's
capitol city. Can students vote and drink?
On the flip side, if Jordan Brown is an adult in Pennsylvania, your Pennsylvania middle schools are now filled with adults, who, for example, should have the right to come to school or not, to allow parental involvement or not, who can eat and drink what they want, right? And, yes, no reason they cannot vote, drink alcohol, etc.

Might change the environment just a bit in the average Middle School. But the law is the law, right?

If you're confused by this, imagine now that you are between age 10 and age 25. If you are you are in a bizarre never-never land where your age will always be used against you, but rarely get you anything. Kids in this group can get nailed for simply having alcohol in their systems - for "walking while intoxicated" (that campus cop favorite, "minor in possession"). Kids in this group get asked to pay full price in the movies, on airlines, at restaurants. Kids in this group are constantly told that they must be "responsible for their actions" - yet - as we know, the only way to be seen as an adult be society is to commit a crime. Your kid can serve three tours in Afghanistan and yet get arrested as "minor in possession" and refused the chance to rent a car for another four plus years. In school your kids get "adult" schedules, "adult" homework, "adult" grades - but - none of the choices which seem to accompany that faux adulthood. In fact, most middle and high schools are far more controlled and controlling than their primary school counterparts.

Yes, there is an argument for graduated adulthood, but all of that founders on the rocks of logic if juvenile justice ends before that process is complete. An acquaintance, a county sheriff who works around Grand Valley State University, has argued for this for years. "There's nothing on campus," he argues, "which can't be handled in juvenile court," adding, "our juvenile justice system sucks but it is way better, and way more effective than our adult system." Of course he doesn't make his department's policy, the "narcotics cop" - who shot a student for selling marijuana - are still on the job. The student who was shot was, of course, tried as an adult.

Kids are pretty good bullshit detectors, until school teaches them that there's some magic group of adults who tells them the right answers. So kids know when they're being buffaloed.

Let's start by correcting our juvenile justice laws. And while we're doing that, let's make sure that we are moving kids toward freedom, that Middle School looks more open, more chaotic, than elementary school. That High School looks, and is, more open still. That, like adults, kids aren't badgered for being five minutes late, or for forgetting something. That, like adults, kids have the freedom to sit, or stand, or walk around - the freedom to use the toilet, the freedom to eat and drink in most places. That, like adults, kids have the freedom to control their own learning.

If we are training our kids to be adults, lets first not make them adults for the wrong reasons. And then, lets show them what it actually means.

- Ira Socol


David said...

You arguments are just so fabulously written and constructed. If we could elect the next Secretary of Education for the US, I'd want you on the ballot.

(even though I'm not from the US and wouldn't be able to vote).

Great argument Ira, keep them coming.

Anonymous said...

You nailed it. As you pointed out we are continually changing the rules to try to make them fit different situations. Kids can't help but be confused and for that matter, we all should be.
Thanks for your insight and social conscience.

Irenicum said...

It's been far too long since I've read your blog Ira, but boy do you hit a home run here. Spot on!