Kids are watching: We need to stop society from falling apart

November 3, 2021 6:30 am

Getty Images Royalty Free | Sean Justice

The video on my 14-year-old daughter’s cell phone played in an endless loop: kids protesting outside Madison East High School, outraged by allegations of a sexual assault at a party after Homecoming this year, and by the school administration’s failure to muster a response. As the students in the crowd got more and more worked up, one of them pointed at the principal. The crowd parted, exposing him as he stood in the middle of the sidewalk. A student confronted him, screaming curse words: “F— you Mr. Leavy!” The principal stood mute, expression hidden by his mask, absorbing the attack.

What was my daughter, a freshman, to make of this? Brand new to high school, excited to finally have in-person classes with her peers, she is full of school spirit. She came to the protest to support her friends, some of whom told their own tales of sexual abuse at home. It was a lot to take in. 

The principal, who was also brand new to the school, and to town, had responded awkwardly when students demanded the alleged assaulter be expelled from school. The allegation had not been proven, he said, the assault didn’t happen on school property, and the school could not expel a student before he was charged. More comments that appeared to show insensitivity to victims of assault and to equate rape with consensual sex. It sounded like victim-blaming to the students, who were infuriated.

The principal sent out a half-hearted apology and claimed he was “proud” of the students who protested. The district sent out its own apology. No one seemed to have the principal’s back. And none of the emails we received as parents reassured us that the administration had a handle on things.

That video clip of the student screaming obscenities and the principal just standing there pretty much summed up the whole disaster — things were spinning out of control. 

So it wasn’t exactly a surprise when we got the next email from the district, informing us of the “leadership change” at East High School. The principal had “accepted another administrative position” in the district with the cringe-worthy title “Director of Secondary Multi-Tiered Support and Scheduling.” 

“That’s really a job?” my daughter asked. 

What is the lesson in all of this? The adults, scrambling to appease the students without taking any particular action on their demands, look weak. The problems the students raise are serious — some are horrifying — and no one seems to be able to help. The upshot appears to be that things are falling apart and the grownups can’t handle it.


The drama at East High School is particularly disturbing because it unfolded against a backdrop of what increasingly looks like general societal collapse.

Irate citizens have been packing school board meetings around the state, targeting school board members who support COVID-19 safety measures and anti-racist curriculum, making threats that are scary enough to force some people to quit, while others fight to stay in office against recall campaigns.

Worse, the harassment and intimidation of ordinary citizens who serve on their local school boards is being funded and stirred up by heavyweight donors and high-profile Republican officials at both the state and national levels.

Anarchy and rage are all the rage this year. Truth and reasonableness are out of style.

Part of the explanation for that is political — with the rise of the GOP’s aggressive, know-nothing politics under former President Donald Trump. There is no doubt that Trumpism has infected our state Republican caucus, as evidenced last week, when the Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, oozing contempt for his Democratic colleagues and half of Wisconsin voters, held a public hearing on the new, gerrymandered GOP map and claimed that Democrats only win statewide when they cheat. 

Vos knows perfectly well that the plethora of fraud “investigations” the Republicans are running — including the recent, ridiculous charges by the Racine County Sheriff’s Office that state elections officials engaged in “illegal activity” in 2020, are meritless. But that doesn’t matter. What matters to them is stirring people up. 

This is not just a Republican problem. Faith in institutions of all kinds — from the administration of the local high school to the state and federal government — has cratered. Without a social compact that includes civility, honesty, and decency, we are spiraling. The problem is getting worse and worse the more the social media machine gins up outrage, appealing to people’s basest instincts and drowning out reasonable, thoughtful discussion and facts.

The anarchy at East really brings home what a messed up world we are creating for our children. And how much they need caring, compassionate, strong adults who are both good listeners and good leaders. 

Real leadership is in short supply these days. I caught a glimpse of it in the Capitol last week, where a determined citizen’s movement to restore democracy and create fair, nonpartisan maps turned out in force. It was impressive to see the hundreds of Wisconsinites who showed up to resist gerrymandering and hyperpartisanship, and to hear the 8-plus hours of citizen and expert testimony — 100% of which opposed the Republicans’ new gerrymandered maps. But legislative leaders appeared to be tuning it out while taunting Democrats. As Calena Roberts, Wisconsin state field director of the SEIU, put it “The insults, the rudeness, acting like little toddlers. … I already feel we are at a disadvantage when we’re sitting in this space.”

We can’t expect our kids to develop the habits of thoughtful debate or the civil give-and-take required of a functional democracy if adults can’t model those traits. Their future, and ours, depends on whether we can get our act together.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.