There are three players in the school to conviction pipeline: the school. The police. The judge. When one of the three demonstrates some element of objectivity and reasonableness, issues that arise with regard to students’ conduct manage to get handled without absurd consequences. But when the trinity defers to each other, absurdity ensues, as it did at South Fayette High School.
The underlying story, only touched upon here and the full details of which are provided at the above link, was that a student with an intellectual disability was being bullied in class, and the school failed to address it. He decided to record a day in class for his mother, after which he brought to his principal, Scott Milburn. The principal heard the audio recording and required him to delete it, then called in the police.
Principal Scott Milburn called South Fayette Township police Lieutenant Robert Kurta to the school to interrogate her son in the presence of Associate Principal Aaron Skrbin and Dean of Students Joseph Silhanek. The defendant testified before Judge McGraw-Desmet that he was forced to play the audio for the group and then delete it. Love says by the time she arrived at the school, her son was surrounded by school officials and the police officer and was visibly distraught. She says Principal Milburn advised her that her son was “facing felony wiretapping charges” because he made a recording in a place with an expectation of privacy, and that Officer Kurta agreed.
That a principal and police lieutenant demonstrate a dubious grasp of law and use pseudo-legal language to scare a parent and student is nothing unusual. People generally accept as “common sense” that those in official positions of power must know what they’re talking about, because the reality that authority is placed in the hands of clueless buffoons is too hard to accept. So the principal made stuff up, and the cop, who does so professionally, nods his head in agreement.
At that moment, it was certainly within Lt. Kurta’s ability to pull the principal aside and tell him, “hey, you scared the crap out of the kid, which should do the job. You realize that this isn’t a crime of any sort, and so I’m just going to back away slowly, not embarrass you for bringing me here to waste my time, and you can go back to doing whatever it is you do in this big building. Have a nice day.” But he didn’t.
Kurta said, “After I left the school, I wasn’t sure what charge to file so I contacted the district attorney’s office. This would fall under a wiretapping violation, which is a felony.” He later answered as to why he thought the disorderly conduct charge applied to this case by saying, “Because his (the student’s) actions — he engaged in actions which served no legitimate purpose.” He then read the statute as, “Creates a hazardous or physically offensive condition by acts which serve no legitimate purpose.”
There appears to be no thought whatsoever given to the notion that he not “charge” the student at all. He was the hammer, so the student had to be a nail. Since the recording had been erased at the direction of Principal Milburn, there was no evidence of wiretapping, and Kurta was constrained to charge only disorderly conduct, as there had to be a charge.
At this point, one can be deeply saddened, yet totally credulous, at the pairing of principal and police officer, the direction of the two remaining inexplicably dedicated to the prosecution of the student who was bullied. Why Milburn felt compelled to go down this road is an unknown. Kurta makes somewhat more sense, as the principal sought police intervention to put an end to the student’s one-shot crime wave, and Kurta followed orders. Disappointing from an adult with a seeming capacity for thought, but understandable.
But surely the next party to the trinity, the Judge, would exercise that minimal degree of thought necessary to realize that this was totally, completely, utterly absurd? Not when she’s party to the trinity.
On Wednesday, March 19, the student, whose name we have agreed to not include in this story, was found guilty of disorderly conduct by District Judge Maureen McGraw-Desmet.
Before the defendant was able to give a statement, McGraw said, “Normally, if there is — I certainly have a big problem with any kind of bullying at school. But normally, you know, I would expect a parent would let the school know about it, because it’s not tolerated. I know that, and that you guys [school administrators] would handle that, you know. To go to this extreme, you know, it was the only alternative or something like that, but you weren’t made aware of that and that was kind of what I was curious about. Because it’s not tolerated, but you need to go through — let the school handle it. And I know from experience with South Fayette School that, you know, it always is. And if there is a problem and it continues, then it is usually brought in front of me.” (emphasis added)
Ignoring grammar, syntax, word usage and minimal comprehensibility. all of which deflect from the more important pieces of this judge’s point.
If the school sent you here, you deserve to be here.
If the school said you committed a crime, then you committed a crime.
I know the school, and if what you say about bullying was true, the school would have fixed it.
But the school sent you here, so you are guilty. Because I know the school can’t be wrong.
While this may not be a unique reaction, whether with school officials or police, it is decidedly flagrant. Where a judge’s function is so fundamentally undermined from the outset, that an accuser is so virtuous that it cannot be wrong, the prejudice can neither be ignored nor excused. The die was cast by dint of the school having “brought [the student] in front of” the judge.
In a comment to the story, a former South Fayette student praises the virtues of Dean of Students Joseph Silhanek:
I am a graduate of South Fayette and I can give hours of praise for the kindness, knowledge, professionalism, and dedication of Mr. Silhanek. I cannot imagine that he would ever tolerate a bully and be so blind to the actual problem.
This is a very common reaction, where someone who thinks well of a person involved in such absurdity will vouch for their virtue. It happens here regularly, and is generally offered to contend that whatever happened couldn’t be the fault of the virtuous person, because they are, well, virtuous.
There are two reasons why this line of reasoning fails. First, people are not so one-dimensional that they are horrible in every instance, to every person, under every circumstances. The cop who beats a man one day may have saved a kitten in a tree the day before.
Second, when we like someone, had a good experience with someone, we attribute positive qualities to that person. And indeed, they may deserve the attribution. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t also engaged in conduct that is worthy of condemnation. Humans are complex, wonderful and foolish creatures. And for whatever virtues the trinity may have displayed otherwise, they were unholy here. And for that, they deserve condemnation.
H/T Carlos Miller, Photography is not a crime.