He’s a ‘Good Kid’

 

This is the kind of crime all the experts – myself included – hope never happens.  Unfortunately, it does, although rarely.  In the desert town of Palmdale, California (population of around 125,000, about 50 miles north of Los Angeles), the unthinkable happened.  A 13-year-old boy who had just lost a Pony League baseball game stood in line at the concession stand.  His team had just lost to one of the worst teams in the league, which is not a totally uncommon occurrence.  A 15-year-old acquaintance teased him about the loss, saying something like “How could you lose to such a lousy team?”

            In a momentary fit of rage, the 13-year-old walked away from the line, grabbed his aluminum bat and struck the 15-year-old twice, once in the knee and then in the head.  The 15-year-old died soon thereafter.

            Those who witnessed the event were understandably horrified and traumatized.  Those on the scene, including the victim’s parents, almost immediately began to make comments to reporters and law enforcement personnel to the effect that the offender was a “good kid.”  A Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff remarked that “There is no indication that he has ever been in trouble.  This is a total surprise for everybody…They all say he’s a good kid.”  The mother of the victim released a statement, read at a vigil that night, urging neighbors not to view the suspect as “a monster.”  Both families knew one another (the victim was a close friend of the offender’s brother).

            An investigator for the prosecution said that “Everybody’s devastated.  It’s a no-win situation for everybody.”  The parent of another baseball player said that while the offender should be punished in some way, her heart ached for the offender’s family.  She stated that “Two families are hurting equally, just in different ways.  A lot of kids have passed through that baseball field.  This is where our kids have become friends.  This is where our kids grew up.  This has really hit home for all of us in Palmdale.”

            From witness accounts, it appears that the offender did not realize the gravity of the situation until after the fact.  One of the coaches said he saw the offender standing against a fence with his parents.  “He looked scared.  He was in shock.”  Others described him as being in a daze.  

            As I read about this incident I thought about all of the things I have written about the subject of crime and delinquency, especially offenses committed by the very young.  I have tried to come up with some sort of explanation that makes sense.  I spent two entire class periods (one graduate and one undergraduate) discussing this case with students and while many gave their opinions, no real answers were forthcoming.  I told them I thought the lesson here was that there were in fact no easy answers. 

Unfortunately, such ambiguity does not fit well into the current political climate.  People want easy answers.  Sound bytes are needed.  No shades of gray are wanted for these kinds of questions. 

            Shades of gray and ambiguity are what we will get.  I keep thinking that this case may show the public that there are in fact no easy answers, that mere punishment will not do the job, and that no “justice” (however defined) can be achieved.  A young boy just “snapped” and went crazy.  How many of us have “snapped” and acted crazy?  Fortunately no one was killed or seriously injured when we did it.  But it could have happened.  A simple push or shove and the victim could have easily fallen and hit his head against a sharp object and died.  A wrong move, a fatal drive in a car after a “few too many” or a momentary fit of anger at a sporting event or a party.  There but for the grace of God go us.

            Some are quick to blame – parents are at fault for not raising their kids right, too much competition, adult sports heroes setting bad examples (e.g., NBA players charging into the stands attacking fans, a major league baseball player throwing a chair into the stands), too much violence by adults in general, the sanitization of violence in our culture.  The list could go on and on.  But a 13-year-old dying as a result of a rather ordinary argument at the ballpark?  No way.  Thousands of baseball games are played during the course of a year and no one gets killed.  Competition is everywhere, as is violence.  But most never carry it to this kind of extreme.

            Some may think of it as a traumatic event, like a natural disaster, where no one is really blamed.  That’s pretty close to what I have been thinking, along with a couple of students who said something to that effect.  This is not enough, however.  We need something more.  We need to look deeper.  There have to be some lessons here; about us, about life, about children.

            My thoughts go back to the comment by so many at the scene: “He’s a good kid.”  All of those on the field have probably been thought of in this way.  This is the lesson I think we should learn.

            In the past couple of decades we have seen thousands of young offenders demonized by the media and the public, with many calling for “getting tough” on these “superpredators,” as if they were less than human.  Typically, the kids on the receiving end of such efforts have been “not our kids” and “not in our neighborhood.

            Whenever one of these kids “snaps” he is labeled a “bad kid.”  We search for “signs” in his early life that would help “explain” this behavior and lo and behold we find them – in his genes, his family background (“look at his father and you’ll find the answer” or “with a mother like that is it any wonder?”), his neighborhood (“these people take no pride in how the houses look”), his friends (“birds of a feather flock together”), his community (“no one cares”). 

            When it happens in a “good community” he’s a “good kid who did something bad.” 

            I must add one more variable to this picture: race.  The original stories I consulted (including the Los Angeles Times) failed to report the race of the suspect.  The race of the victim was known, as there was a picture of him in the paper.  Only later was it revealed (http://www.nbc4.tv/sports/4374738/detail.html) that the suspect is black. One of the coaches was quoted as saying that “racism had nothing to do with it. This is a behavior problem not a racial problem.”  I wonder how long this attitude will remain.

            As I write this (April 21, 2005), the case is still pending.  I will update this with another commentary when the final judgement is rendered by the juvenile court.

           

            Is there a lesson to be learned from this case? For me it is this: they are all “good kids” who “did something bad.”  More importantly, they are us. 

            Don’t misinterpret this, for I am not trying to apologize for his behavior and I don’t believe they should merely let him go.  There must be consequences.  However, the consequences must be shared by all of us.  The perpetrator will have to live with this one moment of rage for the rest of his life.  He will never be the same.  But none of us should ever be the same.  Something positive has to come from this.  We need to change the way we see young offenders. 

They are “good kids who did something bad.”