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Urban Rhythms

Animal Logic

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 4/11/2001

Let's pause for a moment and consider what some grownups are saying about the sex scandal that has rocked the St. Paul's School for Boys these past few weeks.

Mitch Whiteley, head coach of the lacrosse team at the center of the scandal, noted that adolescents sometimes fail to think things through. "That self-absorption that is so prevalent on the part of adolescents really came into play here," he told The Sun. "There really wasn't much thinking beyond what they were doing and the immediate situation. I think that was the fatal flaw that brought down some very good kids."

"Kids are looking for some of the same things kids were looking for 20 years ago, namely some sense that their lives are vibrant and meaningful and fun, which means testing some boundaries," Richard Prodey, the director of guidance and counseling at Loyola High, another area private school, was quoted as saying in the same April 8 Sun article. "The problem is that the boundaries have gotten a lot wider."

They're talking about the 16-year-old St. Paul's sophomore who secretly videotaped himself having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend. He then showed the videotape to a group of teammates on the junior-varsity lacrosse team. The tape eventually made its way to the varsity team as well.

This prank, if that's how the young men viewed it, was as vicious and invasive as a violent assault. And school officials have treated the incident with the seriousness it deserves. The young man who made the videotape has been expelled. Nearly 30 other students were suspended. The Brooklandville school has cancelled its lacrosse season this year, although its team was nationally ranked. And the Baltimore County state's attorney's office is investigating to see if criminal charges should be brought against any of those involved.

Most importantly, however, the grownups seem to understand what makes adolescents tick: They are self-absorbed to the point of lunacy. They crave excitement and meaning in their lives. They test boundaries. And sometimes, they fail to think about the consequences of their actions. Sounds like the textbook definition of teenhood.

Because the adults understood adolescence, they crafted a finely tuned response that punished the young men involved and drove home in no uncertain terms the seriousness of their acts, without destroying them--a textbook definition of adulthood.

I just wish with all my heart and soul that we could somehow manage to take those lessons, that maturity and wisdom, and apply them to inner-city youth.

I know this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but I am convinced that a large percentage of inner-city crime and violence committed by teens is directly related to the inherent stupidity of adolescents: their self-absorption, their thrill-seeking, their frequent, almost bovine inability to foresee the consequences of their actions. In fact, the most controversial issue of our times may revolve around that very question: Are inner-city teenagers adolescents spiraling out of control, or are they cruel, heartless animals?

Where one falls on this issue isn't a function of race or class. There are African-American men and women from those very same mean streets, churchgoing people, who will insist with their last breath that inner-city crime and violence is committed by a bunch of savage, rampaging beasts. And there are affluent whites who live far away in the distant suburbs who will look at the same behavior and see rampaging adolescence.

Now, this next part is very important, so I want you to read it very carefully: A violent killer deserves to be punished severely, whether he or she committed the act out of cold-hearted savagery or stupid, blind immaturity. But the same perceptions govern our reactions to lesser incidents, from nonviolent misdemeanors to schoolyard fights. And as we reflect on the crime, and ponder ways to prevent other young people from making similar mistakes, it makes a difference whether we conclude that we are dealing with animals or adolescents.

Right now, the animal lobby is winning. They pound their chests and scream, and make certain that youthful offenders receive the most ostentatiously long sentences the law allows--because that's what one does with animals. You slap them across the snout, rub their noses in the mess, and get down to their level. And all that posturing appears to have no effect on inner-city crime and violence.

I happen to prefer the contemplative approach taken in response to the St. Paul's School scandal. The Rev. Mike Wallens, the school's chaplain, has been conducting counseling sessions with some of the young men involved. He told The Sun that while those sessions have been intense, and while the young men have been barraged by a tidal wave of emotions, they appear to be getting the point.

But those young men are presumed, even now, to be humans; adolescents yes, but capable of learning from their mistakes. Inner-city teens do not always receive the benefit of that presumption.

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