The dangers of ‘mob think’

First of all, let’s stop calling it a hazing.

I know hazing when I see it; I was even on the receiving end once, as an initiation rite to a junior high school boy’s club. I think we had to wear dresses and bow to the upperclassmen.

Mortifying, yes. But nowhere near the torture inflicted on some high school juniors, all girls, from the Chicago suburbs last month by a group of 31 seniors. Nobody hit me over the head with a bucket, for one thing. Nobody punched me, kicked me or slapped me. And for darn sure, nobody mashed coffee grounds, mud, fish parts, vomit, pig guts or feces into my face while a group of adults hoisted cups of beer and cheered them on.

Sorry, but that’s not a hazing. That’s an assault, and a heinous one at that. Five girls wound up in the hospital, in fact. Several reportedly had concussions and one, a broken ankle.

Captured on video and splashed around the world, this episode has become the latest flash point in the ongoing debate over whether we have failed to, with apologies to Crosby, Stills & Nash, teach the children well.

The evidence from Illinois suggests that we have failed, indeed. Fifteen students have been charged with battery. Last week, the school board voted unanimously to expel all 28 girls and three boys. If they perform community service and undergo counseling, they’ll get their diplomas. But they won’t be allowed to walk across the stage or even attend graduation.

Seems fair to me. Apparently, it seems fair to the judiciary, too. The courts have turned back several efforts from students seeking to enjoin the schools from expelling them.

Score one for the courts. Still, it’s hard to find unalloyed satisfaction in any of this when you consider just what it is we’re dealing with here: a mob attack by children upon children while alcohol-lubricated adults watch and cheer, but do not interfere. For half an hour.

It’s a sobering reminder of the dangers of mob think. Proof that, when cloaked in the anonymity of the pack, it is dangerously easy to lose individual identity and personal moral boundaries, to become capable of primal cruelties our better selves would find unthinkable. Apparently, nobody ever explained that to these youths.

But evidence of our failure to “teach the children” is found not just in the crime, but in the apparent unwillingness of some students and parents to shoulder responsibility for it. As in the mother, arguing for her daughter’s reinstatement, who dismissed the attack as something that just “got out of hand.”

It was more, and the inability to see that speaks to a tendency that seems sadly common these days. Call it a general failure to understand — and teach — that actions have consequences.

So many parents spend so much time circumventing that fact, shielding children from the outcome of their misbehavior — particularly where the schools are concerned. I’m talking about the parents who demand that their child receive a grade higher than he or she has earned. And the folks in Kansas who harassed a teacher into quitting because she dared to penalize their children for cheating.

At this rate, I’ll probably keel over in shock if ever a parent stands up and says simply, “My child did it, and we’re prepared to accept any punishment that is proportionate to the crime.” It has become far more common to hire lawyers, badger authorities and deny, deny, deny.

But if the objective of parenting is to send a good person out into the world, then parents who do such things are doing their children no favors. Because a good person does not skate through life unaccountable and irresponsible. To the contrary, a good person stands up, owns up, takes the weight, and grows from the experience.

Thirty-one children now have ample time on their hands to consider this and other truths. It may prove the best thing that has ever happened to them. Yes, they are banned from school.

But I like to think they’re learning lessons nonetheless.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.