Warren Goldstein: Why It's OK to Rat On Other Students

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Warren Goldstein is chairman of the history department at the University of Hartford. He is the author of William Sloane Coffin Jr.: A Holy Impatience (Yale University Press, 2004).]

... Look: I'm a dyed-in-the-wool civil libertarian who has publicly condemned the USA Patriot Act, the FBI, and the trumped-up "war on terror," and I've given half-a-dozen speeches (one the night of September 11, 2001) defending civil liberties in time of war. But I'm suggesting that we adopt campus versions of New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority slogan: If You See Something, Say Something.

Some years ago, in the bucolic little college town in Massachusetts where my wife and I raised our three children, some middle-schoolers boarded a school bus carrying a couple of pipe bombs in a shoebox. The wonder, of course, is that those sensitive devices survived the bumpy New England ride. But they did, and when the young engineers showed their handiwork to fellow students, someone reported the bombs to the assistant principal, who retrieved them (what was he thinking?), dismissed school, and called the bomb squad.

Within hours my kids knew the identities of the four students who had made the bombs, and I soon learned the names from them -- not from the school, which showed itself exceptionally attentive to the rights of the boys who had threatened the lives of dozens, if not hundreds, of their fellow students. We never got a report, never had an investigative piece in the local newspaper, only learned in the most distant sort of way that first, the students had been disciplined, and then, that they were back at school. No apology from anyone. After all, they were just juveniles. (This was before the massacre at Columbine High School.)

I ruined dinner parties with rants about my neighbors' equanimity in the face of near disaster. It turns out that a group of kids had known for weeks, even months, that the bomb makers were practicing in their backyards. Didn't their parents have some responsibility for knowing what their children were up to? But the highly educated people in our college town did not want to talk about it. Now, I hope, we can begin a long-overdue public discussion about how we encourage and defend our students' civil liberties -- while doing a lot more to enhance their safety.

To start, we need to confront the problem that nearly all our students, like our children, believe that "ratting out" a friend or fellow student is a far worse offense than shutting up and allowing a couple of pipe bombs to ride to school on a bumpy school bus. I tried to talk to my kids' friends about that, as I did to my own students at the time. I was whistling into a nor'easter. There are more descriptive metaphors....

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