From Parkland to Waffle House

Society ‘dropped the ball’ on Nikolas Cruz and Travis Reinking. A hero picked it up.

After the shooting in Nashville, April 22.
After the shooting in Nashville, April 22. PHOTO: MARK HUMPHREY/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The death toll at a Nashville Waffle House stopped at four because James Shaw pushed back.

Mr. Shaw ran toward shooter Travis Reinking out of an instinct for self-protection. “I acted in a blink of a second,” he says. “It was like: ‘Do it now. Go now.’ I just took off.”

He says he’s no hero, but men have been awarded the Medal of Honor for acting on the same blink-of-an-eye instinct. Mr. Shaw is not only a hero, but an object lesson in what America once took for granted but no longer does.

Over a long time, going back decades, the opposite instinct became the norm in the United States when confronted with threats.

The threats could be large, like school shootings and terrorism, or they could be small, daily assaults on the most basic civilized orderings of everyday life. Such as 14-year-old girls using four-letter words.

We used to push back instinctively. Then, we routinely began to step aside.

The new instinct—don’t do it—happened for all sorts of reasons: You’ll get in trouble with the lawyers. Somebody else is supposed to take care of these things. There must be a better way to understand this problem. Eventually, the simple answer of a James Shaw—“Do it now!”—just died.

 

That may be changing. There is evidence that people in positions of social authority are rediscovering the value of pushback.

On the same day the Waffle House shooting happened, The Wall Street Journal published a story with the headline “Schools Take Zero-Tolerance Approach to Threats After Parkland Shooting.”

 It reported that school officials around the country “are warning parents and students in memos, community meetings and school assemblies that language perceived as threatening, even done in jest, could land younger students in juvenile detention centers and older ones in jail with criminal records.”

You read that right. Forget the chat in the school counselor’s office. Your next talk will be with the folks at the precinct house. The squad car is waiting at the schoolhouse door.

A return to the 1940s? We could do worse. And you know that we have when the only solution left is turning schools into armed sentry posts.

A prosecutor in Macomb County, Mich., said: “If you threaten a school, you are going to be charged.” Beyond common sense, the reason is astonishing: Since the February Parkland shooting, 54 students in Michigan have been charged for making threats against schools.

Up to now, apparently, you could shoot your mouth off like this—threatening classmates or the entire school—and get off with what in our times has become the one-size-fits-all excuse: “What’s your problem? I was kidding.

Amy Klinger of the Educator’s School Safety Network told the Journal, “There are kids being arrested today that would have not gotten arrested for the same thing in January. We have come to some sort of place where people realize you can‘t say that stuff.”

After decades of social mayhem, we have indeed come to some sort of place. Better late than never.

Pushback is a social virtue. Its utility is a society’s self-preservation. Pushback from people in positions of authority—school principals, university presidents, the cops, parents—has always been the ballast against disorder in a free society.

If you stepped over a line—and a general consensus once existed on where those lines were—a small personal price was paid, if only in embarrassment for one’s parents. (Please, no false analogies to Maoist social-media shaming.)

That consensus fell apart. In the 1980s, sophisticates laughed at First Lady Nancy Reagan’s antidrug slogan, “Just say no.” She was defending a broader social attitude. She lost.

Similarly in schools, the opponents of pushback theory discovered a remarkable weapon: the Supreme Court. Proponents of standing aside turned decades of school disciplinary tradition into constitutional issues. They won.

In a series of decisions, the justices made the disciplinary authority of principals legally complicated. Fearful of triggering expensive litigation, school authorities pulled back. The environment for learning degraded and remains so to this day in both good and poor public schools.

In 2007 the Supreme Court recognized what had happened, and ruled in the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case (Morse v. Frederick) that principals could tell a student advocating illegal drug use near the school to shut up. In his concurrence, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, “Students will test the limits of acceptable behavior in myriad ways better known to schoolteachers than to judges.” So we learned.

The phrase used to explain killers Travis Reinking and Nikolas Cruz is that authorities “dropped the ball.” This week, James Shaw picked up the ball inside a Waffle House. It’s time for the people in charge of our institutions to start doing the same thing.

Write henninger@wsj.com.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/from-parkland-to-waffle-house-1524696345?mod=djemMER

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