Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Casting stones

I walked out of high school one day with about 100 other students, and followed 99 of them for a mile to a home I'd never visited before.

I didn't even know who owned it, though I could guess it was someone who never suspected their kids would invite a few friends over while they were at work, let alone a guest list that avalanched through word-of-mouth. (I can't imagine what kind of numbers cell phones and texting would have drawn.)

I stayed for a few minutes and then kept on walking. It wasn't my scene. Illicit parties with teens puking on lawns from illegally procured alcohol wasn't a rite of passage for me so much as a strange backdrop I stood in front of, smiling uncomfortably.

I didn't want to seem alien, but I didn't want to actually take part. I wasn't a bad kid, but I wasn't a perfect one, either.

I would estimate that such scenes of negligent judgement and sheepish behavior play out on a weekly if not daily basis with most teens. Underaged drinking bashes weren't invented by texting-friendly friends. IParty existed long before iPhone. Usually groups gather deep in some wooded place, where a friend of a friend of somebody's brother's fourth cousin brings a case or a six pack and kids going steady hold tightly to each other and to brightly colored SOLO cups.

Perhaps more infrequently a teenage opportunist knew of a house that was empty. A place that was secluded. A place that was easy to get into ... they may even have keys. Maybe they said their parents wouldn't mind a few friends.

Before you know it the party takes on a life of its own. ... The 80s were filled with house party movies, where arrogant adolescents wrecked stately homes, and yet somehow hapless hosts became heroes. No parent was ever the wiser.

Life rarely has a hollywood ending, though. In real life, by the time police reports are filed and the news cameras roll, scores of kids will end up with records and a hefty debt to pay, often one that money can't always fix.

What were they thinking?

They probably weren't.

Something similar happened in North Greenbush last month when more than 80 students attended a party in a vacant but up-scale house, causing damage estimated in the hundreds of thousands. Windows smashed, cabinets bashed, urine in carpets. In that case all who were said to be in attendance are being charged with criminal trespass for walking into the house regardless of how long they stayed.

Predictably people reading and watching the news are outraged. They are quick to blame not only the students, but the parents as well. Not only do they want the kids an their families to pay, they want them shamed. They want retribution.

But on the price I find myself ambivalent.

I don't for an instant think there are 80 horrible, degenerate teens out there breaking into homes as a first step to a life of violent crime. I don't believe their parents are terrible people who are apathetic to their adolescents. If I did think that way, I
know I would be throwing stones at a glass house.

I was a teen once. I am a parent now.

Some of these kids made huge mistakes and some of them made common errors in judgement.

However, fingerprinting every single soul who went to a party, hauling them into police stations for processing and courtrooms and eventually someone who will oversee punishments, seems an excessive response that puts an incredible burden on a system that should be for justice and not just retribution.

And yet I can't bring myself to say making the teens face such a consequence is unfair.

Fairness isn't something anyone can achieve in situations such as this ... not the homeowners, certainly.

Kids are kids, and mistakes are mistakes and crime is crime. In the end the letter of the law is the letter of the law. Owning up to all of it is part of the process of becoming an adult. The realities of raising incomplete humans often means having to help clean up their messes.

But if our kids get through it without a dreaded phone call, we should thank our lucky stars instead of throwing stones.


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