By Nick Braune
Although there has been a flood of articles commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Columbine High School tragedy, lamenting the violence of youth, maybe a little different perspective might be permissible too.
I was living in South Dakota at the time, where I was a minor presence in the legislature as a lobbyist on peace and justice issues. I watched the legislature closely for three years, and I watched them solemnly “upping” (toughening) the sentences for this and that offense, always “sending a message” that evil actions would not be tolerated. The Clinton years were very punitive: they killed a half million Iraqis through sanctions and made our prisons swell like sores.
It was a particularly harsh decade for children. Hillary and Bill, who believed it takes a village to raise children, were advocating school uniforms early in the 1990s but basically settled for prison uniforms. The “trying youth as adults” fad was intense throughout the decade. I wrote a one-act play -- it was performed in a few places -- about a kid in South Dakota who received a “life in prison with no parole” sentence for a crime he did as a 14-year-old.
It's a true story. The boy, Paul Jensen, trying to impress an adventuresome 18-year-old who was sleeping with Paul’s mother, became totally confused about what it meant to be grown-up, shot a cab driver on orders from the 18-year-old father figure, and is in prison today, where, I suppose, he will stay forever. The prosecutors and the press called him a “predator,” and the trial was a slam dunk. He did wrong, and everyone wanted to “send a message” to other youth not to do wrong.
There are only five countries in the world which give the sentence “life in prison with no parole” to children. According to a Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International joint report in 2005, Barbados allows that sentence, but the report did not state how many were in prison there with the sentence. Tanzania had one person in prison under that sentence. South Africa had four. Israel had seven, and the United States had 2,200 people in prison for life with no parole who had committed the crime before turning 18. (This sentence, which Alexander Cockburn calls the “living death” sentence, incidentally violates the international conventions on the rights of children, which the U.S. has refused to sign.)
Also in those Clinton years we saw a cancerous growth of “boot camps” being set up around the country, “tough love” centers, where the children were humiliated, screamed at, and tortured to make them better. When I lived in South Dakota, a 14-year-old girl, Gina Score, who had shoplifted some petty items, was trapped in a boot camp (to modify her behaior) and was killed. An interesting book on boot camps, although it only scratches the surface, is American Gulag: Secret P.O.W. Camps for Teens, by Alexia Parks.
In my opinion, Columbine is the symbol not of youth violence but rather of a very cruel decade toward children: Paul Jensen in prison for life without parole, shoplifter Gina Score in a grave, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children dead because of sanctions, the children burned to death by the Clintons in Waco, children sentenced to execution, children dead in Columbine. If any readers would like to examine two interesting sociology books studying our negative and exaggerated attitudes toward youth in the 1990s, I suggest Mike Males’ wonderful studies, Framing Youth and Scapegoat Generation -- I love those book titles. (Available from Common Courage Press.)
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The following related piece, “The Criminal Justice System and Kids: One Dad’s Story,” appeared in my column in the Mid-Valley Town Crier, April 12, 2009 -- N.B.
While chit-chatting with everyone this week about April being the tenth anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, I learned that Randy Jarvis (a Sociology and Criminal Justice faculty member at South Texas College) has a perspective much like mine -- but with a special personal side. I asked for an interview.
Braune: As you know, I am miffed that America began locking up more and more youth starting in the 1990s, and I think the fad about “trying youth as adults” has been disastrous. The media began labeling children as “dangerous,” as “predators,” as “lacking in consciences,” and then after Columbine, we began turning high schools into little jails. Youth could not be trusted. If I understand correctly, your son was hit by a false accusation right after Columbine. Please, fill us in.
Jarvis: Two days after the Columbine incident, my son (at Burlington High School in Iowa) had some lead shot in his book bag. I had purchased a smelting pot for making fishing weights, and he was transporting the shot to his grandmother’s house where the smelter was located. Another student in his class saw the lead shot and asked what it was, and my son told him. The other student made a comment to my son that this could be used to make a bomb and my son replied “I guess you could.” The student immediately told a teacher about “bomb-making materials” in the book bag.
The school police officer was immediately notified [there is more about school police later] and my son was arrested, charged as an adult, and taken to jail.
Braune: The press and prosecutors went bananas?
Jarvis: Oh yes, the news media, hyped by Columbine, plastered his school picture in the newspaper and on all four local channels and the next morning were present at my son’s arraignment. I had money ready to bail him out. But this was not to happen -- the local prosecutor grandstanded, claiming my son was a danger to society and should be held without bond. The judge, reacting to the cameras, agreed and increased the bond to one million dollars.
I retained a good attorney who immediately asked for a psychological evaluation to determine if my son was a danger, giving us some time for the hype to calm down, so he was sent to a state mental institution for evaluation. After a month, the psychiatrist determined that my son was no danger to anyone and should be returned to the judicial system.
Because we got a different judge from a month earlier, I thought the nightmare was over. But this was not the case. In the court hearing, the school police officer showed up with a document, electronically signed by the vice-principal, showing that my son had been expelled from school. According to this document, a copy had been sent to his mother, the guidance counselor, the principal, the police officer, and me. But the document was dated the same day as our court appearance.
Then the chief jailer/police officer was placed on the stand, who even claimed that my son was convicted of drug crimes in Henderson County, Illinois, clear evidence that my son was a danger to the community. Our attorney asked for a recess until that afternoon to substantiate the claims. I rushed to Henderson County Court House and obtained an affidavit showing my son had never had any criminal history in the County. Our attorney went to the school and ascertained that the school did not even know about the expulsion notice and in fact the only copy that existed was the one presented in court.
Braune: Had the school police officer lied?
Jarvis: Apparently, it was discovered that he produced the document on the Vice-Principal’s computer early that morning without their knowledge. After we proved this, the judge admonished the two officers and the Assistant District Attorney and sent my son to the Juvenile Court where he belonged in the first place, releasing him to his mother and me. Soon my son was acquitted of the charges, but his reputation was damaged -- with his name plastered all over the news because he had been charged as an adult.
Braune: After the dust settled, did you receive an apology from the police, the school, the prosecutors, press, etc?
Jarvis: No one apologized for anything. After civil litigation the school finally privately apologized, but only because they wanted the litigation to end and refused to apologize publically.
Braune: I think your kid was lucky to have you in his corner.
Jarvis: He was very fortunate that I could get the ten thousand dollars needed for the attorney’s fee. Otherwise, my son would probably have received a court appointed attorney and probably would have been convicted as an adult, sentenced to ten to twenty years.