The Prison in Which We Put Our Children: In Memory of Sladjana Vidovic and Her Fellow Victims

In my first month of college, I was in my dormitory grill waiting in line to buy a burger. An enormous lineman from the football team strolled in, cut directly to the front of the line and said “Hey, free food!” and began grabbing the order of the person who was then paying at the register. I am not a small person, but this football player was as large relative to me as the biggest kid in 12th grade is to a pre-pubescent 9th grader in the same high school. I was afraid of him and said nothing to defend either everyone waiting in line or the person whose meal was being stolen.

And then the guy next to me in line, a slightly built upperclassman, said, “Stop cutting line, get in the back and wait your turn!” I tensed up immediately, expecting the lineman to throttle him or smash his face. Instead the far-from-gentle giant looked up, paused for a moment, and then meekly put down the food he had grabbed and walked away.

In shock, I said to the courageous fellow, “What would you have done if he’d beat you up?” He responded, blandly, “Called the police and had him arrested.”

When I heard these words a pane of glass shattered in my consciousness. I was suddenly freed of the unstated, unquestioned world view I had carried in my head all through adolescence: Bigger kids take what they want and hurt who they want and get away with it.

Even though I was never personally bullied as a teenager, realizing that the brutal rules that applied only 4 months earlier were no longer in force was a palpable relief. Even that is too mild a turn of phrase. It was a joy, the joy of becoming an adult with basic rights and protections.

Sadly, it is a joy that Sladjana Vidovic and three other bullied teens who have committed suicide at a single Ohio school will never know. American adults allow our nation’s children to live under a set of rules that we would never tolerate for ourselves. If Sladjana had been an adult and been tormented as she was at school by co-workers or neighbors or strangers on the street, she would have had many routes of legal redress and active support from the adults around her.

But because we do not give our young those protections, they drop out of school, or become depressed, or retreat into drugs and alcohol, or take their own lives. The only place we tolerate such a grossly unjust situation among adults is in prison, and that’s where our acceptance of bullying has effectively put countless children in this country.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

16 thoughts on “The Prison in Which We Put Our Children: In Memory of Sladjana Vidovic and Her Fellow Victims”

  1. This is a loose use of the term "we". The schools in my county (Arlington VA) pay a great deal of attention to incipient bullying and manage to keep the level down to a far lower level than I suffered as a kid. It takes effort – the natural state of children seems to be 'red of tooth and claw' – but schools which put an effort into it can make a huge difference.

  2. Dave:

    It is an intentional, expansive use of the word we to reflect the common good and shared social responsibility. "We" owe basic protections and rights even to kids who aren't lucky enough to live in as good a school district as you and I do.

  3. Dave –

    What is considered "natural" in the United States is considered shocking and deranged in other countries. Try asking Frenchmen, Germans – or Canadians – about bullying in schools. Or rape in prisons.

    In Goleman's book on Anger & Negative Emotions, the Dalai Lama expresses shock at the lack of gentleness among American children. My own limited experience with African children and university students in West and Central Africa suggests that it is not just industrialized social democracies that produce humane schools. We (Merkans) are outliers.

    Speaking of the similarities between schools and prisons in America, I've often thought it begins with architecture. American schools look like a cross between power plants (utilities) and prisons.

  4. Brings back unpleasant childhood memories, of a bully who had a positive talent for punching you just a moment before a teacher walked around the corner, so you'd be caught defending yourself, and get the blame. And teachers who claimed that the bullies really WANTED a fight, so fighting back would encourage them. Of being herded out into an unmonitored playground no matter how many protests you made that you were going to be beaten up.

    Finally one day the bully caught me away from the school, I beat him to a pulp without teacher interference, and was never bullied again. So much for the teachers' theory… Seems they really just wanted to beat on defenseless victims.

    Unless I'm mistaken, minors ARE able to sic the police on their tormentors. It's simply that nobody has told them this.

  5. Keith, I agree with everything you say in this post, but I have one request.

    Please sensitize yourself to the coupling of drugs "and" alcohol. Saying "drugs and alcohol" in simply incorrect because it implies that alcohol doesn't really fit with "drugs".

    Better than "drugs and alcohol" would be "drugs including alcohol", "alcohol and other drugs" or "alcohol or other drugs".

    I agree with the use of both terms together because, unfortunately, some people still tend to think of alcohol as somehow other than a drug.

    Just a little peeve. Big peeve actually. Thanks for considering it.

  6. Sweet Jesus. What an unutterably sad story. It isn't enough–it isn't anywhere near enough that this school may be forced to account for its depraved indifference.

  7. Steve,

    Alcohol is another drug, but it's a privileged drug. Every known human society has figured out how to make solutions of simple-enough sugars and ferment them into an alcoholic beverage. In the steppes of Central Asia the Mongols fermented mare's milk… in Egypt it was a barley wort, in Europe and the Middle East it was grape juice. The list goes on. Making alcohol isn't rocket science, although making palatable beer or wine or distilled derivatives is a little tougher. Alcohol is privileged by its age, much as aspirin is. Colleagues in the pharmaceutical industry have noted that aspirin wouldn't be sold OTC, except for the fact that it is grandfathered into OTC status. Alcohol would likely be tightly regulated if it were brought forward today — but it's the closest thing we've had to a universal drug and it's privileged by that reality.

    That said, I'm sympathetic to your plea — we should say something like "alcohol and other drugs", but changing language is difficult even when you want to change it.

  8. 'Colleagues in the pharmaceutical industry have noted that aspirin wouldn’t be sold OTC, except for the fact that it is grandfathered into OTC status."

    Yeah, thank God we didn't discover coffee and tea after the FDA was created, they'd probably be controlled substances.

  9. The school in the linked story, Mentor High School, was my wife's high school. She graduated from there in 1988, and her impressions of her school always led me to believe that it wasn't as this story portrays it. She spent her entire high school life as a rather quiet born-again Christian — rarely the most popular group of kids in school — but she had friends from all different cliques and spectra. Maybe it was really different then, maybe she just got around better, who knows? It is said to read about, though. My cousin still has a son at Mentor, he's in the band, but he's also on the wrestling team. I can guarantee nobody bullies him.

  10. I'm intrigued by Michael C's assertions about other countries and wondering if anyone could point me toward a source of evidence to support or undermine them.

  11. How do these "colleagues in the pharmaceutical industry" explain the approval of ibuprofen for OTC sale in 1984, or the approval of naproxen in 1994, even though these drugs are in general not any safer or more effective than aspirin? If you're going to make an argument from authority, perhaps you should make it less obvious that your authorities are idiots who let ideology blind them to actual fact.

  12. When I was in college (UC San Diego) in the mid 1980s, a man heretofore unknown to me punched me in the face in a crowded hallway in front of 30-50 witnesses, breaking my glasses and causing a black eye. One witness knew who he was and accompanied me to the campus police station to make a report. The police did not arrest him but merely cited him and ordered him to appear in court. He did not. A bench warrant was issued for his arrest for failure to appear. The police did not arrest him. He was not expelled from school despite having done things like this before. His mother sent me a check to pay for my broken glasses. That was the end of the story. I still assume that anyone who wants to beat me up for any reason, or for no reason, can do so with impunity, and I behave accordingly, avoiding conflict whenever possible. I'm currently 45 years old.

  13. I vividly recall in junior high school thinking that adults did not need to go through what I did, and fervently awaiting the time when bigger people couldn't smash me in the mouth or kick me with virtual impunity. I knew that adults didn't do that to each other, in part because most of them matured and in part because there were actual consequences.

    I also remember thinking that girls had it so good because they could go through junior high without fear of being beaten.

    Society has a high tolerance for young males smashing in the faces of other young males. It never made sense to me at the time, and it doesn't know either.

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