I Publius: Crime and punishment at school

It’s time to do some serious thinking about crime and punishment, particularly as far as our young people are concerned.

We have myriad laws and sometimes it seems like the punishments handed down make very little sense in light of the crime committed. In fact, some people literally get away with murder.

Look at criminals who run red lights at excessive speed and get all of three months in jail. That’s infuriating. Compare that with the case of a football player who shoots himself in the thigh with a concealed handgun. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is demanding that he be treated to the full extent of the law — a 31/2 year sentence.

Let’s look a little closer to home and examine what we do with young people who cause chaos in our communities. Consider the youngsters who want to close down their high schools by calling in bomb threats. We are experiencing an epidemic of that behavior. What should we do with them?

They are interrupting the education of hundreds of students at a time when every day of education is priceless. Should they be sent to a juvenile center (we used to call them reform schools) where they can be segregated from the law-abiding population?

In earlier days, Americans had a better idea, putting perpetrators in stocks in a public display of humiliation. Which punishment do you think might be more likely to prevent a kid from committing another stupid act?

We know that prisons (by whatever name) are breeding grounds for crime. Many of these kids come out far worse than they were when they went in, so what’s the point, unless the whole idea was just to get them away from the rest of us?

What about demanding they do intensive community service, wearing green uniforms with “PRISONER” stenciled on the back? Yes, they’d have to be intensively supervised, but it might serve as a visible deterrent to other kids thinking about acting out.

Recently, this newspaper ran a story about a North Adams kid who took some mercury to school and purposely spilled it on the floor.

Mercury is very scary stuff. We know a lot more about it now than we used to when we busted thermometers and rolled the silver mercury all over the floor. Environmentalists keep warning us about it, and it has been listed as one of our most toxic pollutants. Did you know that the expression “mad as a hatter” came from the hat factories, where mercury was used in the manufacturing process?

As a result of that student’s action, the school had to be closed for several days and thousands of dollars were spent on the cleanup. Students who were put at risk will have their urine tested. In fact, a state health official interviewed by The Eagle said this was the first time he had ever heard of an intentional mercury spill, noting that the greatest danger to human beings was the inhalation of mercury vapors.

Mayor “Big” John Barrett was probably the unhappiest man in North Adams. He’s already faced with a whopping budget deficit. In Singapore, the child would have been subjected to corporal punishment. I wish I could be inside Barrett’s head to see what he would have done to the kid. He is not only mayor but the head of the School Committee.

Some of you will tell me that this behavior can be blamed on bad parenting. Some of you will suggest that the parents should be asked to pay for the damages and the cost of clean- up. So what happens if the parent can’t pay? Would you put them in jail?

One thing is for sure. Would-be student perpetrators have to be made aware that actions like this have serious consequences. In Great Barrington, the police seem to be making some progress on the graffiti front by never letting up. I hope they understand how bad the drug scene is.

If we just let this stuff go, the consequences to society will be serious. When DA Capeless went after the kids in the Great Barrington parking lot and made it clear that things had to change, things got much better.

Originally Published in the Berkshire Eagle, 12/6/08

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