During our community’s ongoing discussion about underage drinking and the occasional arrests that result, I recently noted that a high school teacher was asking her students to also sound off on the topic.
In response to a couple of my columns regarding the publication of the names of students cited as minors in possession of alcohol, Lakeside High School senior English teacher Kim Hinner assigned her students to write an essay about whether the paper should print those names and post them in our digital editions.
The verdict is in, and the kids are quite conflicted.
And some of them are pretty tough.
About half of the students from Hinner’s classes agreed to share their essays. She asked me to use only their initials when identifying them, partly because – purely by happenstance – a couple of the essays were written by students who a couple of weeks later were in the group cited for drinking at an after-prom party.
When I say the students are conflicted, what that means is that they still seem to either be forming an opinion, often in mid-sentence, or that they want to leave the door open to changing their minds.
Though a comfortable majority favor publishing the names, many as expected don’t. Or, they believe the names shouldn’t be forever posted in the newspaper’s electronic archives.
One of those students, who clearly didn’t know that within a couple of weeks of writing her essay that she would be charged at that party, worried that such long-term accessibility unfairly prolongs their punishment.
“I believe that this form of punishment is a good deterrent for this crime, but I do not believe that it should punish the child forever,” she writes.
Likewise, even many of the students who favor publishing the names seem squeamish about the permanent nature of Internet archives and like the idea of “sunsetting” the information, deleting it after an unspecified period. Or, they propose publishing the names in print but not on the Web site.
“Kids should not be held accountable for the rest of their lives for petty crimes they committed as young adults,” writes A.P.
“Don’t let the small things in life turn into something bigger than they are,” C.H. agrees.
Yet most of the students from my samples – which are handwritten on yellow legal-pad paper – seem pretty comfortable, even gleeful, at the idea of publishing the names of underage drinkers simply because it brings public shame.
“Humiliation is a very efficient pesticide for the weeds of a youthful society... (such as) underage drinking,” writes S.T.
Besides: “Refusing to punish the teenagers who are caught would merely punish the good teenagers who abstain from such illegal activities,” writes J.L.
“If someone under 21 thinks they are ‘old enough to drink,’ then they are ‘old enough to take responsibility for the consequences,” writes B.S. “Do not complain about the consequences when you’ve made the conscious decision to break the law.”
C.M. adds, “If having their name published in the paper interferes with something later in life, well, they should have thought of that before they broke the law.”
Several, including H.P. and D.F., shared a common theme: “The parties are all fun and games until someone gets caught.”
I’m not sure there’s any sort of consensus among the young writers, though overall they seem to understand that underage drinking isn’t a good idea – even if, obviously, it doesn’t stop some of them from drinking anyway.
The students do seem intently aware that our personal expectations of privacy increasingly are being challenged, particularly with the growth of social media. That fact makes one young woman’s opinion unintentionally funny when she says minors cited for drinking shouldn’t have their names published in the paper, but instead should be required to hold up a sign declaring their guilt while marching in front of a liquor store.
Considering the wide distribution the photos of such humiliated teens would get via Facebook as every person driving past snaps and posts a picture, such a punishment would be far worse than a mere listing in a hometown paper.
In any event, I’m interested in hearing what adults think of the topic – especially those who survived their own youthful indiscretions.
(Barry L. Paschal is publsher of The Columbia County News-Times. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 706-863-6165, extension 106. Follow at twitter.com/barrypaschal.)