Toying With Children’s Emotions About Death

When I first read this post by Dallas criminal defense lawyer Robert Guest, it evoked a huge shrug.  Since I’m not a DWI lawyer, the word MADD alone doesn’t cause me to have convulsions.  But the heart of the matter, as explained in Radley Balko’s Agitator post, struck me as not being such a terrible idea.

Many juniors and seniors were driven to tears – a few to near hysterics – May 26 when a uniformed police officer arrived in several classrooms to notify them that a fellow student had been killed in a drunken-driving accident.

The officer read a brief eulogy, placed a rose on the deceased student’s seat, then left the class members to process their thoughts and emotions for the next hour.

The program, titled “Every 15 Minutes,” was designed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Its title refers to the frequency in which a person somewhere in the country dies in an alcohol-related traffic accident.

This described a dramatization, as no one was in fact killed, crafted to make a point, that in a moment of stupidity, a young life could be lost.  I know the “every 15 minutes” claim to be utterly false, but being the parent of an 18 year old, I also know their sense of invulnerability and obliviousness to threat until after the unthinkable happens.  Teenagers live in a cocoon that bad things will never happen to them, no matter what risks they take.  As a parent, it scares me.

But after reading further, after thinking further, I realized my error.  My first reaction, that there was no downside to teaching a critical lesson.  Would I encourage, even accept, teenage drinking and driving?  Certainly not.  So what’s wrong with smacking a kid with an understanding of tragedy to make sure the point is clear?

This was a well orchestrated charade.  It was intended to have the impact of making half a high school believe a friend had died, and it did.  Teenagers have a fragile understanding of life and death to begin with.  That’s part of the problem in trying to teach kids about serious consequences.  But this was planned for maximum impact.  And it served its purpose.

This MADD plan brought teenagers to the brink of hysteria and emotional despair, and then pushed them over the edge.  It went too far.  The police, who executed the scheme, traumatized these students in the name of safety.  In the name of protecting them from harm, they caused harm. 


Though the deception left some teens temporarily confused and angry, if it makes even one student think twice before getting behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated, it is worth the price, said California Highway Patrol Officer Eric Newbury, who orchestrates the program at local high schools.

Too simplistic.  I don’t fault the officer for wanting to save a student from making a tragic mistake.  But to cause them immediate, intentional emotional trauma is not worth the price.  Moreover, who made it this police officer’s call to decide what price should be paid by another parent’s child?

There is a civil cause of action called “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”  The reason why this exists is because it is deemed wrong to do this, to deliberately cause psychological harm to another person.  This scheme deliberately harmed children, and it was meant to do so in the name of a greater good.  But the choice of whether a child should be harmed in the name of a good deemed sufficiently greater does not belong to the cops or to a groups of mothers with a dedicated agenda that places their issue above everyone else’s.

The lesson from Robert is how overly dedicated single-interest groups such as MADD, superficially doing something that we can all agree upon, become so myopic as to ignore the harm they cause in furtherance of their agenda.  I appreciate being taught that lesson. 

The lesson about the police and the officials of a public school, all employees of our government, forcing children to be unwilling participants in this scheme, is different.  Both are endowed with substantial power, particularly over children, under the belief that they will exercise this power with sound discretion and in the best interest of the children. 

It is becoming increasingly apparent that one of the gravest threats to the welfare of children are the cops and school officials themselves, whether by usurping the right of a parent to determine how far to go in providing guidance to their child, and manipulating young minds to adhere to their vision of morality upon pain of death.

No doubt the police officers, the school administrators, the mothers of MADD, all believe their choice to be correct and worthy.  I don’t care what they believe.  Raising my child is not a democracy, and they don’t get a vote.  I will not defer to the lowest common denominator when it comes to making decisions about my child.

12 thoughts on “Toying With Children’s Emotions About Death

  1. Michael

    Under Texas law, to prove IIED one has to prove both severe emotional distress AND outrageous conduct on the part of the cops. I don’t see the second element making it past summary judgment any time soon, and even if it did, the Supreme Board of Insurance Adjusters, er, Supreme Court, would hold as a matter of law that there was no outrageous conduct.

    Too bad, because it would be nice if some courts could stand up to Mothers Against Telling Truth.

  2. SHG

    Yet another reason for the rest of the United States to be thankful that it isn’t Texas.

  3. Michael

    Not to splash water on your dig against Texas, but its IIED cause of action follows the Second Restatement of Torts; doesn’t New York’s?

  4. SHG

    I’m a criminal defense lawyer.  I leave the quandaries of the elements of civil actions to others.

    But lying to children about the death of a friend strikes me as pretty outrageous conduct.  Perhaps not in Texas, but then it’s hard to figure out what constitutes outrageous conduct in Texas these days.

  5. Allen

    Now, I’m just a lowly law student in the West, but it seems to me that telling someone that a personal friend has died is a pretty classic case of IIED. Add to this the fact that these people are emotionally unstable (read: teens), and that the reason the officer pulled this stunt was because he knew they were vulnerable, and it adds up to outrageous conduct. The average member of society would be furious if a cop did this to them at work. The fact that these are teens makes the conduct more outrageous, not less.

  6. OBQuiet

    So having an authority figure lie about a tragedy is not outrageous? Perhaps we could also have doctors call up families of smokers and tell then that their mother has just died of cancer in the hope that they will encourage then to stop?

    Maybe it would be OK to call military families and tell them loved ones have died so that they will start objecting to the war?

    I know if this had happened to my daughter, I would be outraged. Doesn’t that make it outrageous by definition?

  7. Jim

    We can’t do this to terrorists because it is inhumane torture but we can rationalize doing it to the kids “for the good of the children.” Liberals never cease to amaze me.

  8. SHG

    Not clear how you got “liberals” out of this.  This is MADD and the cops.  That’s the other side of the street.

  9. Kathleen

    It’s hard to conceive of anyone doing this who loves and wants to protect children and teenagers, not terrozing them. The law enforcement agenda explains it or at least most of it.

  10. Jim

    You don’t see the school involved in this? You think MADD is a conservative organization? There aren’t liberal cops?
    Interesting!

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