Something vile and horrific happened in a courtroom in Ohio last week, and as I’ve reflected upon the event, I’ve been disturbed by the thought that we have become a nation of compliant sheep that no longer produces citizens capable of standing up to injustice.
At a sentencing hearing for school shooter T.J. Lane, who gunned down six high school students, killing three and paralyzing one from the chest down, Judge David Fuhry gave Lane three life sentences in prison, to be served consecutively.
In what should have been a day of closure and justice for the families of the victims and the community of Chardon that suffered so much in the wake of the school shooting last year, a courtroom full of people stood by and allowed T.J. Lane to victimize the families in a base, contemptible way that likely added exponentially to the heavy burden the families already bear.
The courtroom for Lane’s sentencing hearing on Tuesday was packed with families of the victims, students, teachers, and members of the media. As the hearing began, Lane slipped off the button-down shirt he was wearing, revealing a t-shirt onto which he had written “KILLER” with a marker. A collective gasp filled the courtroom. As the families of the victims gave their statements, Lane smiled and leered at the families, almost seeming to enjoy the moment.
After the sentence was read, Lane had the opportunity to make a statement. At that point, he said something so horrific that I’m not even going to write it here, simply to spare you if you haven’t already heard it. (You can read it and watch the video here.) Trust me, you will have to bleach your soul once you hear it. It should be added to The Book of Things That Shall Never Be Repeated. Then Lane flipped the families the middle finger as a parting shot and said, “F*** all of you!” As a mother, I had a visceral — almost physical — reaction. I almost vomited, thinking about the pain his contemptible words caused the families and how they’ll never be able to scrub them from their minds.
People called talk-radio programs that day to vent their anger. Along with vicious prison-retribution wishes, caller after caller said they would have been arrested had they been in the courtroom. They wouldn’t have stood by while Lane visually and verbally tortured the parents.
WTAM host Bob Frantz said: “I would have been shot dead today. I would have leapt tables to get to that kid.”
Everyone stood by and let it happen.
WTAM host Mike Trivisonno interviewed several of the main characters in the courtroom drama. Asked what would have happened if he had told Lane to put his shirt back on, Sheriff Dan McClelland said, “I don’t know that.” He continued: “It is the judge’s courtroom.”
After the hearing, the judge issued a statement saying he had not seen the t-shirt.
Geauga County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz said he assumed the judge had seen it. At the end of the hearing, Flaiz asked the court to enter into the record the fact that Lane was wearing the shirt and that he had gestured toward the family with his middle finger (for the sake of the court transcript).
Flaiz later said:
I probably, in retrospect, should have done a better job of pointing it out. Again, when he pulled that stunt, what’s going through my mind is he’s just digging himself in deeper here. And I know that he’s going to have appellate counsel that are going to want to challenge his life sentences.
Defense attorney Ian Friedman said:
May no one ever have to sit in a courtroom again and experience what we experienced today. There’s only so much any of us could do in the courtroom. No one in their right mind would want that to happen. And if there’s anything any of us could have done — and I know the sheriff’s a decent guy — Sheriff McClellandd and his entire group, if they could have done something, they would. If there’s something we could have done we would have. But this young man acted on his own.
And yet, he danced around the question when Trivisonno asked if he told his client to put his shirt back on.
Veteran reporter Paul Orlousky from 19 Action News, who was in the press room during the hearing, said:
Somebody should have slipped a note to the the bailiff or something. Something needed to happen. This shouldn’t have been allowed to continue. … I’ve seen people kicked out of the courtroom for shorts, for wearing a hat, for inappropriate t-shirt — come back when you’re dressed appropriately. Much like Sheriff McClellan said, the judge is in his kingdom, or her kingdom, when they’re on that bench and you can do what you want.
(In fact, wearing a t-shirt is a violation of Geauga County courtroom rules.)
I am perhaps willing to cut the lawyers some slack for being lawyerly and not wanting to give this guy any infinitesimal chance at an appeal. But what about everyone else in the courtroom? There are certain moments in time where decent people need to stand up. I am just stunned that there was not one person in that courtroom who was willing to speak up and say: “This. Must. Stop!”
Images of the packed courtroom show how many people were in close proximity to Lane. They all merely stood by, allowing the attack on the families to continue. That hearing screamed for a Rep. Joe Wilson “You lie!” moment.
I’d like to suggest that 100 years ago someone (or several someones) would have “leapt the table” to defend the honor of those families and those slain teenagers. They’d have at least risked being removed from the courtroom to make sure those families and everyone in the room knew exactly how offensive the “KILLER” shirt was. But I fear a century of progressive policy — in particular, progressive education — has turned us into a nation of obedient zombies, unable to question authority and unwilling to stand up in the face of injustice.
John Taylor Gatto, a “radical” education reformer who spent 26 years as a public school teacher in Manhattan — three times as the New York City “Teacher of the Year” — wrote:
[S]lowly I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior.
[T]he structure of schooling is held together by a Byzantine tapestry of reward and threat, of carrots and sticks. Working for official favor, grades, or other trinkets of subordination; these have no connection with education — they are the paraphernalia of servitude, not freedom.
Consider the control exerted upon students by school authority figures. Students are told when they must arrive and when they may leave according to state compulsory attendance laws. They’re told when they may sit, stand, move about, use the restroom, eat (and even what they may eat), speak, and socialize. Worse, many modern schools have the feel of prisons, complete with metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs, and guards roaming the hallways. Is it any wonder that when students graduate after spending 13 years in this environment, they have little desire, let alone any skills, for questioning authority?
Ayn Rand, who also had some “radical” views on education, wrote a book called The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, with a chapter titled “The Comprachicos.” She began with an excerpt of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, describing “Comprachicos” — a Spanish word meaning “child-buyer.” The Comprachicos were 17th century nomads who bought and sold children and turned them into freaks used to amuse the public. They placed young children in oddly shaped pots and as the children grew, they formed to the shapes of the pots. Rand uses the practice of the Comprachicos to describe compulsory education:
The students’ development is arrested, their minds are set to respond to slogans, as animals respond to to a trainer’s whistle, their brains are embalmed in the syrup of altruism as an automatic substitute for self-esteem. … They would obey anyone, they need a master, they need to be told what to do. They are ready now to be used as cannon fodder — to attack, to bomb, to burn, to murder, to fight in the streets and die in the gutters. They are a trained pack of miserably impotent freaks, ready to be unleashed against anyone.
While we’re not quite at the point of potted Bonsai children, we see paraded across the news nearly every day reports of American adults who grew up in the stifling, obedience-demanding factory-model schools. Otherwise intelligent, successful Americans bow to the most outrageous demands of government officials and school personnel. A school disciplines a child for wielding an assault Pop-Tart in school and parents cheer protective school officials. The state of Massachusetts mandates that boys who identify as girls must be allowed to use the girls’ locker rooms and restrooms. Parents who disagree are told it is imperative in order to “foster understanding of gender identity,” and parents silently comply, subjecting children as young as five to a confusing social experiment. A nanny governor tells adult citizens (in the most illiberal liberal city in the country) how much salt, fat, and soda they may purchase, and there are no marches in the streets. The government forces religious employers to violate their beliefs by making them pay for contraceptives, and half the country yawns.
A twisted murderer strips off his shirt in court to flaunt his “KILLER” t-shirt, and though everyone gasps and everyone understands at that moment the cruelty being inflicted upon the families, not one person simply speaks up and says: “Put your shirt back on, young man.” Was everyone waiting for someone else to step up and do something — waiting for the adult in the room? Was it fear of the judge? Respect for the court? Yes, they would have broken the rules of court decorum and yes, there may have been consequences, but if ever there was a moment for a small act of civil disobedience for the sake of justice, this was it.
The vast majority of Americans were educated in the progressive school model, and it’s worth some introspection to consider how that experience now influences our response to the world around us. Those of us who have encountered the schools through our children and don’t think twice about calling much younger teachers “Miss” or Mr.” and have felt intimidated at parent-teacher conferences may begin to understand the extent of the authoritarian influence our school experience exerts on our adult psyches.
I’m no card-carrying libertarian. I support reasonable restraints on behavior in civil society and appreciate and respect the rule of law. We have raised and “radically” educated two sons who respect authority and are polite, law-abiding citizens. But we have also raised them with a Reaganesque “trust but verify” attitude toward authority. And I hope that means they understand that at times it is appropriate to stand up for the defenseless when the authorities won’t — to do what they know is right even in the face of ridicule, scorn, or legal action.
Would you have the courage to stand up in a courtroom and say, “Put your shirt on, young man,” or would you be counted among the obedient?
If you’re not sure what you (or your children) would do, it might be time to question the near-universally accepted education paradigms and consider a radical makeover.