Instrumental or “predatory” aggression is not an outgrowth of poorly managed or chronic anger. Rather, it’s passionless yet purposeful and deliberate terror.
By now many have heard about the three teenage boys in Largo, Florida who savagely beat a classmate on their school bus to within an inch of his life while the bus driver frantically called for help and the other students anxiously looked on. The incident was recorded on the bus surveillance camera, and the video of the beating went viral on YouTube. The attackers were eventually arrested, arraigned, and pleaded guilty to second-degree assault. One of the attackers told the judge that he was “angry” because he felt he had been “disrespected” after the victim told a teacher the teens tried to sell him marijuana. The father of one of the other attackers tried to assure the judge and the public that his son is really a “good kid” who is definitely “sorry” for his lapse in judgment but just happened to get “mixed up with the wrong crowd.” The judge subsequently sentenced all three of the teens to supervised probation, some hours of community service, and also to mandatory attendance at “anger management” classes. While one can certainly understand the difficulty many judges face when trying to adequately dispose cases involving juveniles, the evidence suggests that this case is an example of misguided justice at best.
I was happy to see Gordon Shippey’s insightful and informative article “On Justice and Therapy”. Gordon lays out quite nicely the challenge many mental health professionals face when trying to proactively intervene in the dysfunctional lives of individuals who have come into contact with the justice system. And while he didn’t get too deeply into the debate about whether therapeutic efforts toward “rehabilitation” are a better course of action than “punitive justice” measures, he eloquently laid out the vital role therapy can sometimes play in helping turn a troubled person’s life around and thus protect all of us from future crime.
Most likely, some of the issues he raised were in the mind of the Florida judge faced with the dilemma of just what to do with the teens who had come before his court. He rightly cautioned them that had prosecutors charged them as adults, both their charges and their mandatory minimum legal consequences would have been markedly different. But I think he made an all too common error when he ordered them, most likely by default, to attend the only existing and seemingly appropriate rehabilitation program available: an anger management class. When you think about it critically, sentencing the thugs who beat a teenage classmate to near death as a way of sending him and all the other would-be “rats” a clear message about what happens to “snitches” to anger management is like insisting that a person with a Parkinson’s tremor who drops a fork at the dinner table attend etiquette classes. That’s because instrumental or “predatory” aggression is not an outgrowth of poorly managed or chronic anger. (For more on this see the discussion on various types of aggression in the article “When Passive-Aggression isn’t Very Passive” and the coverage of predatory aggression given in my book Character Disturbance.) Rather, it’s passionless yet purposeful and deliberate terror. And you don’t see this type of aggression displayed by basically good folks who just happen to fall in with the wrong group of friends or who impulsively and unexpectedly explode once or twice because they felt attacked in some way. You find it among the kinds of folks who already have such serious character problems that they’re at risk for chronic social dysfunction, which is why the three juvenile offenders and their classmates were attending their specially-crafted “Dropout Prevention School” in the first place. It’s particularly sad to think that at least one student at that special school might have been actually trying to straighten up and play by the rules when he courageously reported to his teacher that he’d been approached with drugs. Too bad that impaired characters who ardently pit themselves against “the system” play by a very different set of rules. And the very first rule among such thugs is that you never “rat out” a wrongdoer to authorities, and if you do, you’re going to pay a heavy price. It’s sadder still when the policies of both the school and the judicial system allow “lessons” like this to be taught with impunity. In such an atmosphere even the most malleable of the dysfunctional minds in that environment can be expected to doubt the wisdom of contemplating real change.
It’s clear some intervention is needed in the lives of the three Florida teens. And fortunately there are likely some elements of the anger management program to which they’ve been referred that actually might provide them some appropriate structure and guidance (e.g., such programs typically include components that confront risk-enhancing thinking patterns and poor behavioral response “triggers”). But the intervention these three teens most likely need extends well beyond what’s available in traditional anger management programs. And as history has shown us, mere punitive legal measures will likely not help all that much either.
So what’s a school or a judge to do?
The special school the teens attended will certainly have to re-assess their policies for protecting the children under their care and for dealing with those students who snub their noses at the opportunity the state has afforded them to turn their lives around. The school will also have to carefully scrutinize how even the best of their policies are implemented and enforced. And the juvenile justice system will need to get much more serious about addressing the appalling lack of appropriate correctional programs for wayward youth moving steadily down the road of severe social dsyfunction.
The three Florida teens might possibly have done us all a favor through the truly tragic “lesson” they sought to teach a “snitch.” There are actually many lessons we could potentially learn from this case about punishment, rehabilitation, and especially, the character of our system of justice. But whether we will ever truly learn those lessons is quite another matter. On that, the jury is likely to be out for quite some time.
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