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Commentary: Where are parents of bullies?

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It is either significant or merely interesting that William Golding dedicated his classic, "Lord of the Flies," to his mother and father. It is precisely the absence of parents, or any adult actually, that enables the boys of the island to descend into savagery, and it is the sudden appearance of an adult at the end that restores what we would now call law and order. This tale, way before its time, was a precursor to South Hadley (Mass.) High School and the death by suicide of Phoebe Prince. It was the only way she could get off the island.

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After a lengthy investigation, the district attorney, Elizabeth D. Scheibel, had nine students arrested on criminal charges. At the same time, she alleged that while the kids had tormented Phoebe to the point where she hanged herself, teachers and administrators were somehow complicit because they knew -- or should have known -- that Phoebe was being bullied by a coterie of aspiring fascists. Phoebe was a newcomer from Ireland and thus, as anyone with the slightest novelist bent would know, the stranger with no champions, no defenders and, in her mind, no way out.

This appalling story, seemingly concocted for the "Today" show's heavy-eyed audience, has of course created quite a stir because it is about cruelty, which we do not understand, lack of empathy, which we find frightening, and conformity and coercion. But mostly it is about how little we know our kids, the little beasts who live among us and can sleep with a teddy bear by night and IM a 15-year-old colleen to her death by day. Who are these kids?

You will notice that in all the finger-pointing -- the kids, the teachers, the administrators -- not a digit is aimed at the parents. Their children are accused of hounding a classmate to death and the parents apparently knew nothing. Not only that, they are somehow not expected to know anything. The teachers are supposed to know what's going on. The principal. Maybe even the school nurse. But the parents? No. They're off the hook.

Not as far as I'm concerned. This tendency to blame teachers or administrators for all that happens in the schools is both unfair and unrealistic. Jaime Escalante, who died just recently, proved that a great teacher can make a great difference (he was the inspiration for the movie "Stand and Deliver"). And we know, too, the central importance of good principals. But parents, too, are important -- most important -- yet they, of course, cannot be fired. They have tenure.

Philadelphia has been the lucky host for a series of mini-riots. These are called "flash mobs" in which throngs of youths are assembled by text messages so that they can then run amok through downtown areas, looting and assaulting to their hearts' content. As could be expected, some people do not think that either the kids or their parents (if any) are responsible. They point instead to the lack of funding for sufficient youth violence prevention programs. Mine, as I recall, was a withering look from my father.

No district attorney is going to call a public meeting to berate parents for not knowing what their junior sadists are up to. That would be politically perilous and, besides, somehow teachers have a contractual obligation -- we pay 'em, don't we? -- to know what the kids are up to while the parents are busy. Mothers are moms, after all, and therefore sacrosanct. As for fathers -- well where the hell are they, anyway? We fail entire schools but never parents.

I am the emeritus parent of a former teenager and so I know the difficulties. Teenager is a synonym for crazy, and their world is too often nuts -- superficial, cruel, conformist, hedonistic and self-absorbed, convinced by virtue of their spending power of their importance and judgment. (I am exempting your own kid from this blanket indictment.) But however the criminal case turns out, the South Hadley Nine clearly needed some parenting -- some intercession or maybe, even probably, a parent to do what their child all the time wanted: force them to stop.

Golding's book is about evil. Kids can be mean. They want to belong. They mistake the strength of empathy for weakness. They need help. An invisible umbilical cord should connect them to a mature conscience. At South Hadley High School, the kids were running the island and the adults were missing. Where were the teachers? Where was the principal? But where, above all, were the parents?

Richard Cohen's e-mail address is rcohen@wctrib.com.

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