What were they thinking? Well, they're teens
What were they thinking? This is often the reaction when a community learns of acts of vandalism by teenagers. Causing damage to public facilities, desecrating places that people consider special or even sacred, or otherwise destroying the property of others seems just plain mean.
But as the adults, we also have to remember that the teen brain is not fully formed, the life experience to make sound decisions sometimes lacking, and the pressure to impress peers at times surpassing commonsense. Add it up and it leads to some truly stupid decisions and actions.
Two recent incidents of costly vandalism caused by teenagers brought out some of the best – and worst – of adult reactions.
The incidents in Stonington and East Lyme rallied community members around a cause and, thanks to both the diligent work of the respective towns’ police departments, and residents who helped by providing tips and information, teens in both cases quickly were charged.
However, the incidents also sparked a darker side among some residents. Folks took to social media and the comment forums in this newspaper’s online forums, hurling personal insults and calling for a form of vigilante justice reminiscent of Hester Prynne’s public humiliation Nathaniel Hawthorne novel “The Scarlet Letter.”
We should be better than this.
Certainly residents of both towns were justified in feeling upset about the incidents. In Stonington in late October, teens drove an SUV over a soccer field named in memory of local 9/11 victim Josh Piver. Police in that town charged two 17-year-old Stonington High School students in the incident that caused an estimated $3,000 worth of damage and much emotional angst because of its connection to 9/11.
In East Lyme, vandals also targeted a landmark beloved by the community. Early this month, the McCook Point Park band shell was found covered in spray-painted graffiti. Four youths, three 16-year-olds and a 15-year-old, were charged with causing the estimated $6,100 in damages.
This was illegal behavior and those who carried it out need to know that and accept the consequences of their actions. But those who called for severe punishments for the vandals were out of line. Comments in social media and in comments on the news stories, recommending jail time, forced physical labor, public shaming, shunning and humiliation for both the vandals and their parents went too far.
Perhaps this was just a cathartic exercise, a chance for people who were very upset to vent. It certainly shouldn’t be official policy, not unless we want to turn the clock back a couple of centuries.
Those who caused the vandalism will be held accountable via the juvenile justice system. Because they are minors, all names were withheld, an acknowledgment that there is a different standard in dealing with the criminal acts of young people.
Yet these are small towns. The identities of these teens are known to many, and with it the potential for them to be targeted with social media attacks. That won't help make them better adults.
Anyone who has been a teenager, or a parent who has raised teenagers, understands that they can at times make bad choices. They can do foolish things, sometimes in the process hurting themselves and others. None of this means they should be forever branded as hardened criminals, nor, for that matter, permanently cut off from social circles. It doesn’t mean their parents have failed and should be exposed to public shaming.
“They are kids who made a bad choice. Jail time does not fit the crime,” wrote one more thoughtful commenter on the Facebook Stonington Community Forum.
Few of us would want our communities to emulate Hawthorne’s Puritans who publicly shunned Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter.” With this in mind, we all would benefit from keeping overly emotional and hateful spewing in check.
He who never did a stupid thing as a teenager, let him cast the first nasty social media comment.
The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.
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