Bad teen behavior is a mirror reflecting

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Can you believe it? This and similar sentiments arrive by inbox and social media feed each time teens are caught behaving badly. And, for the record, yes, I totally believe it.

The most recent national dust-up arrived courtesy of four male students at Westside High School in Anderson, S.C. The young men were participating in a football game against a neighboring school, Daniel High School. The game was part of the “Touchdown Against Cancer” series intended to fundraise on behalf of and bring more awareness to breast cancer.

Ten students had each painted a letter on their chests. When they stood together, the letters spelled out, “Bump Cancer.” Four of the students — two seniors and two sophomores — rearranged themselves to spell the word “rape,” had their photo taken and then posted the image to Snapchat alongside the message, “What we do to Daniel.” Several students who received the photo saved it and then reposted it on more social media sites.

A county-level nonpartisan group that advocates on educational issues addressed the image on Facebook: “Needless to say, using the threat of rape, even as analogy, is not behavior that any school or any parent should (or hopefully would) condone. Rape culture in high school and college is a real threat to many students. The juxtaposition of a violent message with the breast cancer awareness symbology is of particular concern. The assumption these young men seem to have made is that their position and privilege allows them to make ‘jokes’ about rape as a viable threat.”

The organization and, presumably, the larger community demanded action by the school district.

“They have not been expelled, but they have been punished,” a district spokesman told a local newspaper this week, not releasing further details about the consequences the students faced. “This is not acceptable anywhere and anytime. … At best, this is offensive to just about anyone, and at worst this is traumatic to some people.”

To some extent the situation in South Carolina was an echo of a photo circulated earlier in the month by a group of five Iowa high school football players from Creston who posed in white hoods, one wielding a firearm and another waving a Confederate flag. A cross burned in the background.

That photo, which does not appear to have been taken on school property or during a school-sponsored event, also garnered national attention. The young men were removed from the football team and apparently suffered additional, undisclosed discipline by the district. At least one of the families has publicly apologized for their son’s participation. A somewhat confusing report in the Des Moines Register hints that a lawsuit may be forthcoming.

Frankly, I probably could fill an entire newspaper with “teens behaving badly” stories. But, what’s the point?

We all know teens often display impaired judgment. They still are working through their place in the world, pushing the envelope to determine what’s acceptable.

Before the advent of the internet and social media, most of us passed through this stage of our lives doing ignorant things that weren’t amplified by national news organizations. Although I couldn’t find any studies that directly research this issue, I don’t think teens’ poor judgment is necessarily resulting in more bad behavior. Instead, I think our connected society is simply more apt to hear about such incidents and respond in shocked horror.

Behavior - A computer screen becomes a makeshift mirror, reflecting the image of the user.
A computer screen becomes a makeshift mirror, reflecting the image of the user. (Sarah Conard/Reuters)

I’m fully in favor of consequences for bad judgment, even so-called “jokes” or “pranks.” I also believe our society could do much more to provide clear lines around what is acceptable.

The best and most recent example was provided by President Donald Trump when he first capitulated, then condemned and then capitulated again on racist activities in Charlottesville, Va. It’s confusing when the leader of a nation that once went to war against Nazis chooses to defend them.

Although found guilty of sexual harassment in a court of law, not one member of the Iowa Senate Republican Caucus has taken responsibility — nor have they suffered any consequences for their bad behavior. Instead, Iowa taxpayers are expected to pony up the $2.2 million settlement.

U.S. Rep. Steve King defended keeping a Confederate flag on his desk in Washington, D.C. In fact, he lambasted South Carolina officials from the U.S. House floor after they removed their flags following the shooting deaths of nine black church parishioners by a young white supremacist. Only after the needless shooting deaths of two central Iowa police officers at the hands of a man who idolized the “Southern Cross” did King remove it. And, even then, he was belligerent, saying no criticism forced his hand.

These are our elected officials; the people we’ve chosen to set government policies and serve as role models for our youths. They supposedly are the best we have to offer. So, please, save me from the insufferable shock and awe reactions to impressionable teens modeling the behaviors we’ve promoted.

Can I believe it? I work in news and follow politics. The kids have nothing on the adults.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Sept. 24, 2017. Photo credit: Sarah Conard/Reuters