In the 1680s, Increase Mather put to paper the tract "Remarkable Providences," an essay describing the growing fear and hysteria in and near the town of Salem. Mather describes revelations of demonic possession, bizarre behavior, and other strange occurrences. By 1692, young women in Salem convinced town authorities to investigate their claims of forced diabolical service. No specific evidence of effective black magic ever appeared. But 20 innocent people were executed and hysteria tormented the town.
Fears of witches grew from a core of truth. Evil does exist in the world. Some people choose to do wrong and seduce others away from good lives. In modern times, the phrase "witch hunt" describes fear based persecution based on pure fantasy. More factually, however, witch hunts happen when fear of a real event pushes groups of people to respond harshly and without reason. The aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut has driven public school authorities into both archetypes from the Salem Witch Trials, the authorities relentlessly investigating any possible deviance and the hysterical young women shouting accusations. Two incidents just in the past week show that schools must regain a sense of perspective and reason.
On the Tony Katz Show last Saturday, actor Joseph C. Phillips (a Young America's Foundation speaker best known for a role on The Cosby Show) related abuse suffered by his son at the hands of his school. Phillips' son, a 15 year old, had worked, saved money, and purchased a BB gun. Proud of his work and its rewards, the young man showed a digital picture of the BB gun to his friends. A passing teacher saw the photo. That's where the hysteria kicked in. Phillips told Katz:
You see, Tony, and this is the reason I called you… I know there is
sensitivity now about children coming into the school, shooting up their
classmates. I get that. But at a certain point, people have to stand up
and say “Enough with the hysteria! Enough is enough!” We are not going
to sacrifice the dignity of our children, our own dignity… What they
(the school) did is not keeping anyone safe.
In a letter to the school principal, Phillips wrote:
It may come as a shock to Mr. DeLarme (the teacher who initiated all the problems), It may even be news to you, but
my son is not the only boy in Woodland Hills with a BB gun. There are
quite a few boys attending your school who not only own BB guns, but own
real guns as well. (Some of them play air soft with my son!) Their
fathers, mothers, and brothers also own guns and shoot regularly.
Owning a gun is NOT a sign of mental illness. Owning a BB gun is NOT
an indication of mental instability! Certainly, showing friends a
photograph of a gun is NOT a warning sign that a student is a potential
danger to his classmates! I object, in the strongest of terms, to my son
being treated as a potential danger and to his being threatened with
These teachers may not want to go anywhere between the California state line and the Northeast. In most parts of the U.S. it is very common for young boys and girls to get their first real firearm at the age of 12 or so.
An even stranger incident happened near Fort Myers, Florida. A football player in a dispute with a teammate on a school bus pulled a .22 RG-14 revolver and threatened to kill him. Thinking quickly, a nearby 16 year old tackled and disarmed the would be gunman.
A hero, right? Worthy of thanks from parents, administrators, and everyone else, right? Maybe the school gave him a medal?
Nope. He got a three day suspension for being part of a weapons incident.
The incredulous student asked a reporter from a local TV station, "How they going to suspend me for doing the right thing?"
So long as the hysteria lasts, students will be harassed for owning a BB gun, suspended for making finger gun gestures, given poor grades for writing papers on guns. This is not policy or rational response to a real concern, but hysteria.
Just like a real witch hunt, hysteria claims real victims. Bullying by faculty members and knee jerk responses do not make anyone more safe. Schoolteachers and administrators who are worried should educate themselves from legitimate sources on guns and gun violence. Information generally reduces hysteria and helps people to make reasonable decisions.
Students cannot respect schools that react and punish without thinking.