You've seen the videos and heard the awful tales: High school football players beating or sexually assaulting younger teammates. Cheerleaders pelting new recruits with garbage and feces. Vulnerable students across the country humiliated by their heartless peers.
The caught-on-tape sensationalism of the recent hazing "epidemic" may make for titillating TV. But American high schoolers are getting a bad rap. For every teen-age act of barbarism broadcast over the past month on network and cable news, I have spotted countless acts of youthful compassion and humanity that get passed over by ratings-driven producers.
In Houston, the students of Cy-Fair High School appointed Shannon Jones their homecoming queen. Like many crown-wearers, she is a popular athlete and passionate football fan. The 19-year-old senior also happens to have Down syndrome. Houston Chronicle reporter Jeannie Kever told the story last week of how Shannon's sister Lindsey, also a Cy-Fair High School senior, rallied the student body to elect Shannon queen. It had been Shannon's longtime dream. The victory, Kever wrote, was a testament to Shannon's "own personality, her sister's love and changing public attitudes" about students with mental retardation. "(W)hen Shannon was crowned homecoming queen on the 50-yard line at Pridgeon Stadium," Kever reported, "the crowd roared in approval and her parents blinked back tears."
In Tempe, Ariz., Poco Carton was elected homecoming king last month "in a landslide vote," according to the Arizona Republic's David Cieslak. The 22-year-old special-needs student with Down syndrome was known for his enthusiastic participation in the school choir and in dance classes. Cieslak wrote that Poco captured the hearts of his fellow students "with his positive attitude and unwavering kindness." Classmates gave him a graduation send-off "complete with all the pomp and circumstance fit for royalty." Reflecting on his school years and the future ahead, Poco said: "I'm going to follow my dreams. I say thank you to everybody. I'm just really happy."
In Albuquerque, N.M., the students of Eldorado High School chose Tim Harris as this year's homecoming king. A popular student who has Down syndrome, Tim is "a class favorite because of his easygoing personality," noted Albuquerque Tribune reporter Sue Vorenberg. Tim's mother, Jeannie Harris, said classmates have staunchly supported him since grade school. "The school needs to be very proud," she said. "The acceptance and love these kids have for him, it's amazing."
In Canby, Oregon, 18-year-old student Janelle Bailey, who also has Down syndrome, was chosen as one of Canby High School's five senior homecoming princesses. The Oregonian's Tom Quinn reported last month that student leaders led a word-of-mouth campaign to elect Janelle to the court. "Classmates say her election as princess recognizes Bailey's many contributions to the high school, notably her endlessly cheery attitude and sociability," Quinn wrote. Luke Sommer, Canby's student body president, lobbied for several years to get Bailey chosen as a princess. "Every girl wants to be on the court, and she's deserving . . . genuine, nice, caring." Claire Gaeng, head of Canby's special-needs program, added: "Janelle is obviously a person with special needs, but this senior class is just a wonderful group of students. They are kind and considerate people who have always been friendly to her."
In Kirkland, Wash., 19-year-old Matt Louden went to the Juanita High School homecoming dance with not one date -- but with eight. He's a jock who can bench-press 230 pounds, a lip-sync fanatic, and a special-needs student with Down syndrome whose indefatigable optimism has charmed students since grade school. Seattle Times reporter Cara Solomon wrote that Matt's mom tried to get him to play in the backyard as a toddler, convinced it would be safer.
But "(h)e insisted on the front yard, where the rest of the kids were playing. 'And he's been trying to teach me that ever since. It's like, 'Mom, life's not in the back yard. Life's in the front yard.' "
The high school stories of Shannon, Poco, Tim, Janelle, Matt and their caring classmates offer desperately needed uplift in a popular culture that wallows in degradation as infotainment. Wouldn't it be nice if once, just once, TV programmers focused on the better angels of our nature instead of the bullies and beasts?
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