In Bus Beating Case, We Are Sending Kids the Wrong Message

John Romano, Tampa Bay Times, August 19, 2013

The beating has stopped.

At this point, the 13-year-old victim is cowering beneath a seat on the school bus, and his three assailants are standing nearby as if admiring their own brutality.

The 64-year-old bus driver, who was shouting at the trio of 15-year-olds to back off while he was calling dispatch for help, now stands in the aisle and addresses the older teens.

“You know, y’all going to jail,” the bus driver says. “Y’all going to jail.”

Looks as if the driver may have been mistaken.

Authorities have recommended that two of the 15-year-olds be given nine months of probation for the attack that took place in Gulfport but circled the nation via video.

Let me say, I understand the reluctance to send kids to any type of correctional facility, juvenile or otherwise. There is a real danger of forever altering a youngster’s life by potentially dooming him or her to the justice system at such an early age.

But, in a case such as this, there is an even greater danger in treating a violent crime as a youthful indiscretion.

Look at it this way:

Based on police reports, two of the older teens had approached the 13-year-old earlier in the day with an offer to sell marijuana. The younger boy declined and then notified a school official. Isn’t that what he was supposed to do? Isn’t that what we teach our kids?

And yet the boy’s reward was a broken arm in a savage beating.

So, tell me, what lesson should other kids take from that?

If I’m a kid who tries to stay out of trouble, I’m thinking only a fool would ever notify authorities about a potential crime. And if I’m a kid with a bad attitude, I’m not too worried about breaking bones if I know counseling is my likely punishment.

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What’s important to remember is that this was not a simple schoolyard fight. It was not a dispute over girls or sports or some other random event.

This was a premeditated attack. It was vicious. It was brazen. And it did not end when the boy fell to the floor and tried to escape.

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In too many ways, we have already failed the 13-year-old.

We failed him when school officials did not anticipate trouble on that bus ride home. And we failed him when no one else on the bus stood up to help.

If a judge decides next week that the appropriate punishment for the three defendants is nine months’ worth of counseling and supervision, I fear we will have failed him again.

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