A Maryland eighth grader was suspended for three weeks and did not get to graduate with his class in June. This was his punishment for appearing in the background of a friend's video in which said friend held a disabled airsoft gun. The eighth grader also posed for a photo with the friend, who held him in a headlock with the fake gun pointing at his head. The picture was shared with 13 other friends on Snapchat.
Are you silently giving thanks that social media didn't exist when you were a middle schooler? Me too. The 14-year-old boy later admitted he was trying to look like a "badass."
On Monday his dad—David Bernstein, a nonprofit director—wrote a piece about the incident for The Washington Post. He said he had asked the private Silver Spring school to reconsider the punishment. After all, his son did not threaten anyone with a gun. He did not own a gun. He did not say anything about wanting to kill students, or take his own life, or do anything violent. He was, his dad wrote, just being a "knucklehead."
But the school insisted the incident was "very, very serious" and therefore warranted suspension through the end of the year.
I'm just not sure how serious it is to be in a photo or video that is stupid but ultimately unthreatening and harmless. But anyway, in an email to me, Bernstein added that this was not the first time he was dismayed by the administration's take on things.
"I first realized something was amiss at the school when I received a call earlier in the year about another 'very serious' incident," said Bernstein. "My son had told a friend that he observed a teacher texting while driving. He was then hauled into the principal's office and asked to apologize to the teacher, which he only did reluctantly. 'The teacher was very hurt,' the principal stated. 'And [your son] didn't seem to care.' Confused about the 'crime,' I asked the principal what if my son was telling the truth. 'That's beside the point,' she said. 'He violated our community values by hurting the teacher's feelings.'"
You don't have to be John Grisham to sense something is a little off here. On the one hand, a child is punished for reporting an actual danger: a texting driver. On the other hand, the same child is punished for participating in a video and photo that did not represent an actual danger.
Clearly the school is very worried about feelings and not so worried about reality. It worried that the teacher accused of texting would feel hurt. And it worried that students might feel "anxiety" if they heard about or saw the video or snap.
In this way, the school is tutoring its students in safetyism—the word Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff use in The Coddling of the American Mind to describe the demand for pointless safety measures. The students are being taught to believe that they are literally unsafe when actually they are just uncomfortable—and that the administration is required to respond.
Note that responding doesn't actually make kids any safer, because they were not in any real danger to begin with.
As for the three-week suspension, it seems to mirror the criminal justice system's obsession with longer and longer sentences. Seems like any kid who is told to "reflect" on his actions for three days has done enough reflecting. "Indeed," Bernstein noted in his piece, "multiple studies show that long-term suspensions make for worse, not better behavior."
But of course, Bernstein is dealing with reality. The school is not.