Life is a crapshoot. Seriously. The single most important thing that happens to you is something over which you have absolutely no control.

Who are your parents?

Parenting is the story behind the story in one of the most important cases to come before the U.S. Supreme Court this term, Mahanoy School District v. B.L. On the surface, it’s about freedom of speech. More specifically, student speech. Can a high school student be punished for off-campus speech related to something that happened at school?

The facts are pretty simple. A 14-year-old girl didn’t make varsity cheerleader. Never mind that at 14, she was probably pretty lucky to be cheering for the junior varsity. But what did she do? What a lot of kids do these days. She took to the internet.

And said eff school, softball, cheerleading, everything!

When her online post was brought to the attention of the cheerleader coaches, they did what a lot of coaches would do. Suspended the girl from even junior varsity cheerleading for a year.

Now comes the interesting part. The girl’s parents didn’t ground the girl for her online rant. Didn’t punish her at all, according to the girl’s testimony. And as best I can tell, they didn’t apologize for their daughter’s misconduct.

“My parents were more concerned about how I was feeling,” the girl said.

Well, of course, they were. Isn’t that what matters most these days? Not what someone actually does but how he or she feels about things.

Her parents sued the school district.

Now, the last time I read the Constitution, no one has a right to be a cheerleader. But that didn’t seem to deter the lower courts in this case. Off-campus speech that does not threaten violence or harass others is completely beyond the reach of public schools, said the judges. The Supreme Court may or may not agree, but, as a constitutional lawyer and former Georgetown law professor, I support the speech rights of students but, as a former school superintendent, I support those individual rights only as long as they do not substantially disrupt the educational process. Maybe this F-word-laden post undermined the authority of the cheerleading coaches; maybe it didn’t, but the more intriguing question to me is about these parents. Do we really want to reinforce the notion that kids can talk about their teachers and coaches any way they choose? Is there no limit to what students can or should say on the internet?

There’s an alternative model of parenting I’d like to hold up, and it doesn’t take us back to those dark times when parents could get away with most anything when it came to disciplining a child. I saw this model in full display 20 years ago when I was serving as chairman of the Maryville school board.

We had a door in our high school gymnasium that was about 20 feet off the ground and could be opened to the outside for ventilation. One day, a group of teenage boys did what teenage boys do. They climbed up to the door and through it, hoping to take a peek. But one of the boys made the mistake of pulling the door shut behind them.

It locked.

Now comes the fun part. Instead of calling someone to come and let them out — which almost certainly would have gotten them into trouble for being where they weren’t supposed to be — they, again, did what teenage boys often do. They took matters into their own hands and shimmied down a downspout. Which worked amazingly well for them until the last boy — Phil Bell — started down.

He fell. And, yes, he was injured. With multiple broken bones.

Phil’s parents — Dr. Ken and Patti Bell — were terrific parents, but I had no idea how they might react to their own son’s injury. I called Dr. Bell to apologize and offer our school system’s assistance with the boy’s medical bills. Instead of threatening a lawsuit, here’s my 20-year-old paraphrase of what I remember hearing.

Thanks for calling, Buzz, but the knucklehead never should have climbed through that door in the first place. And, he certainly shouldn’t have gone down that downspout. Plus, we’ve got insurance.

I wanted to kiss him.

Two sets of parents. Two different approaches. One rushing in to defend their child at all costs even when the behavior is indefensible. The other holding their child accountable for his own misconduct despite the negligence of others.

If we are serious about wanting Americans to act like responsible, respectable adults instead of petulant children, perhaps it is time we look somewhere other than the courts. Hovering, helicopter parents aren’t doing anyone any favors. Least of all their own children.

My hope for America? Probably not more speech rights. We’re awash in those. My hope is for more parents like Ken and Patti Bell.

Buzz Thomas is a retired American Baptist Church minister, attorney, school superintendent and longtime Maryville resident and occasional columnist for The Daily Times.

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