Monday, January 31, 2011

The Case In Copley

As if local school districts, but especially Akron and Copley-Fairlawn, haven't had enough time in the spotlight. Now comes a student fight that carries a far bigger message than just a couple kids deciding to duke it out.

Late last Friday, well after the end of the school day, there was a fight at Copley High School.

To portray this honestly, it wasn't a fight. That implies both sides got their licks in.

This was an old-fashioned beat down.

The incident involved a group of students -- black and white -- and was caught on video, which is apparently the thing to do in this age of mobile communications. Welcome to A Clockwork Copley.

In this particular incident, a student used a word most consider so vile and horribly offensive that we don't even use it -- we call it by it's initial, the "N" word.

There's even a publisher looking to make "Huckleberry Finn" politically correct for this day and age by removing the N word, part of one of the main character's name. Some schools in America don't even want to teach one of America's greatest writers because of "that word" in his works.

The website BanTheNWord makes a very persuasive case why it should be eliminated from the language; their homepage banner provides a rundown of the ethnically offensive words that drive other people crazy. They aren't the N word, though. That's just my opinion, one who's ethnic slurs are included in the list but recognize they just don't hold a candle to N.

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By most accounts, the word was used not in anger or in racist overtone but as a greeting of juvenile camaraderie. It is easy to see how that happens with young people regardless of race or ethnicity -- music objectifying women, thug life and gangsta culture frequently use this word. What makes this case worth reporting, and worth debating, is whether a white person can or should use that word in the same context someone of color can.

This isn't a new debate; Richard Pryor called out the N word (a YouTube refresher course) in social commentary masked as comedy. Chris Rock does the same, as do many comics today, but Pryor's point was he didn't want to use the word anymore. Jesse Jackson found himself in a firestorm when an off-the-mic comment using the word went viral in 2008. This blood-and-spirit-sucking word has almost been de-fanged by those who use it routinely, as one would use a secret phrase to be a member of the club.

But Friday night, the battle lines were drawn. Mobile device at the ready, a group of students apparently decided the line had been crossed and payment had to be extracted.

This isn't to excuse the beating victim from his words, which as he knows all too well now carry consequences. In this particular case, the consequence is a suspension (we're officials won't confirm) along with a busted nose and concussion.

Whether the victim had something coming may not be in dispute, but the severity of the beating delivered with the hoots and hollers of support (from other students using the N word) also carries consequences. In this particular case, the consequence is an assault charge and a suspension (we're officials won't confirm) longer than that of the beating victim.

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Anyone who's spent a day in high school, and that includes some of the most exclusive in our area, knows there are fights. White kids take on white kids; black kids take on black kids; black and white kids take on each other. It's not just testosterone-juiced young men, either; some teachers have told me the worst fights come with young women throwing fists of fury.

But this one feels different.

The video, posted on YouTube and then removed, shows a group of students confronting the beating victim. It isn't a stretch to offer the opinion the only reason the cell phone camera was rolling was because the group knew what was coming down. This wasn't the usual schoolyard tussle; it was planned and premeditated.

The first punch wasn't thrown by the student charged with assault. Police say they can't prove that swing connected. But it sparked the next punch, and the one after that, and the one after that, and the more than dozen more blows that followed. Along with a kick to the midsection. What may have started out as a lesson in language went out of control. Mob mentality took over.

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There are several questions school officials must deal with in the aftermath of this episode, and not just the no-brainer not to fight on school property:
  • No adult is seen in the 1:45 clip; is it standard practice at 4:40 p.m. on a Friday afternoon to leave school unattended to groups of students to do as they please?
  • The beating victim was treated and released from a local medical clinic for a fractured nose and concussion -- on Saturday. Where was the appropriate supervision in the school to call police and an ambulance on being presented a student with a bloody face, or is it just standard policy to send kids home with a broken nose?
  • The student administering the beating and the student receiving the beating both were disciplined by the school for their conduct, but what about the student who shot the video? Is it standard operating procedure to treat his actions as merely an observer, when clearly he came to chronicle the beat down? Doesn't that make him part of the plan?
  • Finally, if one student is disciplined for using a word so vile we dare not speak it's name, then why are the other students clearly using that same word in the heat of a beating not subject to the same discipline?
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Justice, especially in today's racially-charged atmosphere, carries many such questions. A standard of rules that cover one and covers all is easier said than done when it is widely accepted the same rules don't apply to everyone. Unfortunately, every time society excuses another act of incivility and muddy standards it sends a message to the next round.

Time was, a high school fight was just a high school fight. It usually wound up with the combatants walking off shoulder-to-shoulder, even buddies if not just uneasy participants in showtime for their bored friends. But this one feels like more than that, especially after the last two weeks of needed debate in Akron and Copley-Fairlawn Schools on equal justice and whether the standards of right and wrong still apply.

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