May 2015 Editorial Winner

Handling teen miscreants

John Wylie II, Oologah Lake Leader

When felony charges were filed Friday against two ex-Oologah High School students involving massive vandalism at the school, our Facebook page drew almost 7, 700 readers and dozens of comments.
It produced a vigorous but civil debate over how to handle two teens who, at ages 18 and 19, are being treated as adults by the criminal justice system, and the more general question of how those accused of adult crimes at that age should be handled.
Affidavits from one of the investigating officers says the teens confessed on tape to spray painting words and pictures, many of which were profane and in all probability obscene or even pornographic, on school buildings visible to roughly 1,600 juveniles.
Damage was over $7,500 or almost eight times the threshold for charging each young man with a felony.
Most suggestions about proper consequences came from parents and ranged from saying felony charges that could destroy their entire lives were too harsh to urging even stiffer punishment that would include registration as sex offenders.
The debate reflects a growing concern by parents, teachers and law enforcement about how best to deal with individuals classified by society as adults (they can drive, vote, smoke and enlist in the military) but who act as if they were still children.
The frequent suggestion that they should have been required to clean up the mess in public might have been a good option except for the nature of the drawings. Unfortunately; it took several days to identity suspects and several weeks to get warrants issued.
Since those facing charges are no longer under the school's jurisdiction, the school (and everyone else) must presume them innocent unless they are found guilty in court.
Much of what was written and drawn is so vile we can't even describe it in a family newspaper, so leaving it in place for those responsible to clean up was simply not an option for both decency considerations and the risk of serious legal liability.
Just punishing those responsible for the assault on the school as one would punish those responsible for a childish prank, another common suggestion, seems insufficient
TP'ing a teacher's or romantic rival's house is a childish prank This went way beyond that.
A felony can always be knocked down to a misdemeanor or even deferred and expunged under the right circumstances.
We believe punishment would have to include full restitution and intense therapy-some mental and emotional, some regimented, and always retaining the hammer of restoring a felony charge if the offender evaded any detail of the agreement.
Unfortunately such sentences cost time and money; both in short supply right now in Oklahoma. That leaves this question: Will our citizens pay more to turn around lives and perhaps in the long run transform troubled teens into productive citizens?
We would, but we suspect ours is a minority view.
Two issues really bother us: The proper role of parents and the suspects' supposed statements that they declared war on the community because they were bored and needed something to do.
Let's take the last one first. This week's paper is packed with news of children and teens who have found plenty of positive activities which they enjoyed while benefitting their community. They do amazing things and we lave reporting on them.
Anyone who is bored has listened too often to Paul Simon's "My Little Town" or Bruce Springsteen's rendition of Bill Joel's "Allentown."
Sure, small towns lack the glitz of big cities but the tradeoff is the nearby natural beauty and that we all know and help each other in times of need.
Someone who is bored can go to almost any church, business, or public agency and say, "Hey I have some extra time-anything I can help with?"
Whether an individual has physical, technical or mental skills, there will always be interesting projects available plus new friendships and perhaps a start towards a previously unimagined career.
Then there is parenting. It is bad enough that it comes without an instruction book, but the expectations have changed radically. Once children grew up gradually, had correspondingly increased personal responsibility without a parent present every second and thus a chance to learn right from wrong by the consequences of stupid decisions when they got home.
Neighbors told parents if little Jimmy or Susie was acting up, without worrying that helicopter Mom might go ballistic and file a lawsuit
Most of the best kids we know from that era feared parental disapproval- especially from Mom-far more than a paddling.
Today's parents are expected to be with and making decision for their children every second-until, at 18, the children graduate from high school, leave home, and are suddenly on their own with no foundation of past mistakes and consequences to build on.
Social workers do kids no favor when they demand an individual adult's presence with each kid every second, because the parents are expected to parade a perfect child on a leash rather than providing a chance to err-and learn from those mistakes.
Sure today's world is a dangerous place, but so was Kansas City when we grew up 50+ years ago. This was the city where the Kansas City branch of "the family" held sway and some neighborhoods were off limits.
But somehow we grew up safely riding public transit and walking through downtown- even some of the less desirable areas.
We quickly learned that showing respect for and making friends with bus drivers, librarians, waitresses and cops on the beat were a good way to stay safe. And of course, they knew who our mom was.
There is no easy answer for the handful of kids who go seriously wrong, because they consider their peers who achieve positive goals to be wimps, nerds or worse and adults in responsible positions to be washed up or mean.
That's a shame, because a few rotten apples can spoil an entire barrel of prime fruit that will get better with age.
Over our 32 years at the Leader, we've gained well over 3,000 grandchildren - the graduates of Oologah High School-and their offspring, as many as 10,000 grandchildren.
Many still stop by the newspaper office to see us and we're all so proud of the fine adults they have become.
We know the community wants to repair or be rid of the few bad apples.
We just need someone with the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of a saint to show us the way.
Meanwhile, let's keep the conversation going, on Facebook and our letters columns.
And let's try to make this outrage a teachable moment so those responsible can pay their debt to the community- even though it is a daunting one-and move on to productive lives.

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