This week, Kristin Tate reported that an autistic student in Greenville, South Carolina was suspended for a picture of a bomb (the suspension was lifted) and last week an Alabama high schooler committed suicide after facing criminal charges for streaking at a football game. The incidents join a number of similar school disciplinary actions which have received nationwide attention this year.
Schools have become one of America’s primary cultural battlegrounds. This has occurred not only through Common Core and other educational curricula, but also increasingly through disciplinary actions taken against students. Stories about kids being suspended for plastic butter knives, hand gestures, and pop tarts shaped somewhat like guns are now far from unique.
Rhett Parham is a thirteen year old middle school student with autism. Inspired by his favorite video game, Bomberman Hero, he drew a cartoon picture of a bomb – essentially a black circle with a fuse labeled “bomb” – on lined paper. After he showed it to some older students at the school, they reported him to school officials who suspended him “to ensure everyone’s safety.”
Christian Adamek’s story is much sadder. The fifteen year old Boy Scout streaked across a football field in a video which later went viral on Vine, a social networking site. District officials recommended criminal charges be filed against the teen, with those charges including public lewdness and indecent exposure. If convicted of indecent exposure, Adamek – again, a fifteen year old Boy Scout – would likely have been placed on the sex offender registry, something which would follow him around for the rest of his life.
Understandably shaken, Adamek hanged himself just five days after the streaking incident. The principal talked to local TV stations, which had reports about the criminal aspect of the incident on their website. The press and authorities were clearly trying to make an example of one kid to show the potential consequences of a harmless act which has been a part of high school life for decades.
Rhett Parham could not have made a bomb even if he had wanted to. He simply drew a picture inspired by a video game and YouTube video. Adamek streaking was a harmless act. Neither of these actions would have any practical impact on anyone else, and in neither case did officials’ actions protect anyone.
It’s ironic that at a time when bullying and cyber-bullying among students is so often discussed, teachers and authorities are increasingly engaged in what is essentially bullying.
The lesson of the Christian Adamek story should not be an anti-streaking one for high school kids. It should be one for all officials – in the education system and beyond – stop using unjustified retribution which is much more severe than the original action.