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Black girl faces pain of high school and more

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Joel McNally
October 27, 2008

Only the most cruel and hard-hearted who no longer remember the pain of high school would want to arrest and prosecute a 15-year-old black girl who reported being racially harassed at West Bend East High School.


But right-wing talk shows were out-shouting each other last week, demanding that a racially isolated and unhappy young girl be criminally charged and even incarcerated for her complaints.


The West Bend Police Department and Washington County district attorney were only too happy to pile on.


West Bend police arrested the girl at her home after the police chief said a department investigation found no evidence to support the girlís complaints. And the Washington County district attorney charged the girl with obstructing an officer, alleging she lied to investigating officers. The misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail.


How does the personal misery of a 15-year-old high school girl escalate into a criminal case?


We have begun criminalizing childhood. Itís the result of schools abandoning their responsibility to address conflicts among students within their own buildings. Problems once addressed by a trip to the principalís office now are routinely transferred the criminal justice system.


The girlís family moved to West Bend this year from Milwaukee. A new student in the predominately white school, the girl told school officials she was repeatedly the target of racial slurs and physical jostling in the hallways, including being pushed down a stairway. Once, she said, eggs were dropped on her in a stairwell.


School officials reportedly had the girl followed in the hallways and said they did not witness any misbehavior toward her. Police said they reviewed tapes from surveillance cameras in the school and did not see anything to confirm what she said, including the alleged egging.


West Bend Police Chief Ken Meuler claimed his officers spent ďhundreds of hoursĒ on the investigation, which sounds like a school childís exaggeration itself.


Of course, who knows how many hours the West Bend C.S.I. unit spent scraping for traces of egg DNA in that stairwell?


Letís put the truth of the girlís specific allegations aside, just for a moment. Letís talk about a few things we all know to be true from our own high school experiences.


It can be one of the most emotional and painful times in our lives. Everything is amplified and exaggerated. Our loves. Our heartbreaks. At an age when every slight is magnified, real cruelty and bullying also can be some of the most vicious we will ever experience.


At the time in life when everything is still possible, many young people canít imagine ever getting over the emotional torment of the moment. At its most extreme, that has led to teenage suicide and even mass murder.


Now imagine at that painful age a young African-American girl transferred into a predominantly white world where she has no friends. It is possible the girl may have exaggerated or even fabricated some of the incidents she described to get out of a lonely, racially isolated school situation.


Itís just as possible she is telling the truth as she sees it. No one is naive enough to believe itís completely outside the realm of possibility that some students in a predominantly white school might do things to make an African-American outsider feel uncomfortable.


Schools should deal with complaints of racial conflict among students in far more positive ways than just calling the cops. Conflicts between students require intervention by psychologists, counselors and other social workers trained in mediation and communication.


A whole lot of cruel and unacceptable behavior takes place in schools without ever being brought to the attention of authorities so problems can be resolved as teachable moments with positive outcomes.


So how likely is it for another African-American to ever again complain about racial treatment in West Bend after a young girl who does so is arrested and prosecuted?


When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. An emotionally distraught 15-year-old girl in West Bend just got hammered.


Joel McNally is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail address is jmcnally@wi.rr.com.

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