Forced public apologies are ineffective and breach juvenile privacy

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By Warren Parkin

“I have suffered the consequences;” “I apologize for what I did to the school;” and “I’m sorry for what I did.” These three phrases are quoted from the forced apologies given by three teenage girls a couple of weeks ago in front of more than 600 students during lunchtime at Bronson Middle High School. In June, the girls vandalized the campus, writing on walls with permanent marker the last day of school.

This was a court ordered school interruption and performance. Perhaps the judge thought that public humiliation would be helpful, that paying for the cost of repainting walls and performing community service was not enough. If shaming the girls was the intent, the immediate student reaction seems to question this idea.

How did the student body react to the apologies? With enthusiastic and noisy acclaim.

The girls were greeted like rock stars after each apology, treated to laughter, joking, thunderous applause, catcalls and overall pandemonium. You see the mixed message here. One receives notoriety and acclaim instead of shame. It’s almost an endorsement of vandalism.

It’s risky to publicly parade transgressions in this day and age with so many students carrying cell phones that can record sound and take video. The students along with their apologies and the student body reaction could easily be broadcast on the Web. All it takes is a quick download and the click of a button for the identities of the juveniles to be broadcast all over the world. A click of a button: and the student body’s raucous reactions, as well as the yelling adults trying to subdue the audience, are accessible to anyone, anywhere.

It used to be that juvenile records were kept confidential. That is, knowledge of the identity of juveniles was safeguarded. This stemmed from the idea that public embarrassment of a minor was an ineffective way to motivate change. It’s true that official juvenile court records are kept inaccessible here in Levy County. (I know because recently, I talked to some very guarded and uncomfortable individuals at the courthouse who refused to give me the records and wanted to know how I had found out details of a juvenile justice case.)

But when an adolescent is forced to confess transgressions in public, the very intent of the law regarding confidentiality is abrogated. Who needs to access juvenile court records when the Jerry Springer show is brought to the lunchroom for hundreds to see? Now that more than 600 students and dozens of school personnel have seen these girls apologize, the entire community knows their identities. Nothing discrete is going on here.

I happen to have firsthand personal experience with the juvenile justice system. I was with a group of 10 teenagers that vandalized a car. Even though I didn’t deface the car myself or mean to encourage the act, by being there, I endorsed it and received the same punishment as the others who actively vandalized.

I was held by police, received an order to appear in court with my parents and was fined a substantial amount to help pay for a new paint job and court costs. I was also ordered to write a private letter of apology. I was embarrassed, ashamed, and careful afterwards. I knew that my indiscretion would be kept private, not made public, a permanent part of my record, if I abided by the decision of the court. It was fair.

If I had been forced to stand in public and apologize, my life may very well have turned out very differently. I probably would have developed a highly jaundiced view of the law. Knowing me, I would have apologized in a very satirical way. And that was before video capable cell phones, the Web and Youtube. If I had received thunderous approbation from more than 600 fellow students, I may have more actively pursued poor choices in an effort to garner popularity and notoriety.

The court ordered public apologies at Bronson Middle High School were totally inappropriate and backfired in the short term. Time will tell if they backfire in the long term. Public shaming went out with the passing of the Industrial Age. Today, public confession is seen as fodder for talk shows and reality TV. It’s no wonder that the apologies were met with cheers. This is one instance where judicial interventionism into the educational tradition of site-based control was completely mistaken.

Contrary to the pronouncements of the School Resource Officer, who told students that this would be the punishment they would receive if they vandalized the school, parading students in front of an audience should never happen again. I’m all for restitution. But when it comes to making private matters public, in the case of juvenile justice, discretion is best.