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Keeping Your Word, Mercy and Justice


This column should not be read by young children.

It represents a parent's confession: My own.

I have come to realize that a lot of society's problems are the result of unruly, misbehaved and undisciplined children. Good kids and bad kids need guidance desperately and too often we, the adults, have abdicated our responsibilities.

I have tried as a parent to be clear, consistent and fair in the way I dispense discipline to my children.

And yet, I know there are times when I am none of those things. I have been too harsh or too lenient; too judgmental or too forgiving. Striking the perfect balance is such a difficult job, and I have made mistakes.

Realizing the pressure I face with my two kids, I cannot begin to fathom the enormous responsibility that confronts school officials regularly.

They, in essence, are guardians to 38,000 students -- our kids -- on a daily basis. They don't often get the credit they deserve, and sometimes they do make mistakes.

Recently, I've been torn between praising school officials for trying to be consistent and condemning them for being too rigid regarding five students at Wilde Lake High who were caught with alcohol on a class trip to France. A sixth later admitted to drinking alcohol on the trip, too. They violated system policy by drinking, even though they signed pledges promising they would not.

The particulars are too numerous to mention, but the students allege that they drank no more than half a glass of wine on one occasion in the presense of adult chaperones sitting at an adjacent table. There was another incident involving a carafe of wine in a hotel room.

When they returned home, each was suspended for five days and banned from participating in extracurricular activities for the remainder of this school year and the first quarter of next year.

Not surprisingly, many of the Wilde Lake parents involved have been quite vocal about how unfair they feel the school system is being toward their children. They plan to appeal the punishment in the state Board of Education.

To their credit, none is saying that their child shouldn't receive some punishment. But the loss of extracurricular activities, they say, is too stiff a penalty and will cause lasting and undeserved hardship.

To make matters worse, they have already missed this year's prom, which school officials mistakenly told them they could not attend and then informed them otherwise -- after the prom had been held.

The most profound situation involves one Giordano Fillipponi, a 17-year-old junior and star soccer player.

Giordano is in jeopardy of losing his chance at a scholarship his parents say he needs to attend college because he will not be allowed to play in his senior year. Not playing means that college scouts may not get the chance to recruit him.

This does seem a tragedy, although all of the affected students -- each one accomplished in his or her own way -- will suffer one way or another. One student has already lost the opportunity to be on the school's "It's Academic" team.

My hope is that the school board will show some compassion for these students and restore their privileges to participate in extracurricular activities next year. I wish they could do this without undermining the system's "zero-tolerance" policy toward drug and alcohol usage during school-sponsored events.

Unfortunately, that isn't a possibility. The policy is flawed, but to make allowances now in the face of a particular situation would be worse. It would send the wrong message to students, not only about drugs, but about the importance of keeping one's word and taking responsibility for one's actions. It would say to other students that the schools and parents aren't really serious about this, so go ahead.

Worst of all, it would say that if you're a "good" kid, you can get away with bad things. Still, this policy has victimized Giordano Fillipponi and the others because it leaves no discretion to school officials in the way it is implemented.

Such strictures are what we get when society stops trusting parents and teachers to make the right decisions on discipline. We don't trust judges either, hence mandatory sentencing. The truth is we don't trust ourselves. We want rules that leave no wiggle room for mitigating circumstances. That's a cruel lesson for a child. I want my children to understand that sometimes the world isn't fair and we all must accept the consequences of our actions.

But I also want them to know the meaning of the word "mercy."

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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