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Do The Ends Justify The Means?

There was a documentary film made several decades ago, in 1978, called “Scared Straight,” where several juvenile delinquents from ages 15-19 are taken to a prison to talk with hardened criminals behind bars supposedly to frighten the children into being model citizens and not breaking the law themselves. The prisoners yell and scream at them and afterwards all of the young participants claimed they did not wish to end up behind bars. As a result, the “experiment” was essentially considered a success, winning several awards, and it even spawned two sequels. But the technique had no basis in psychology whatsoever, not even pop psychology. The idea was the brainchild of a filmmaker, Arnold Shapiro, and the point, as Wikipedia puts it, was to “focus on whatever theatrical value could be obtained by filming a group of hulking inmates scaring relatively young teenagers.” Despite having no basis in science, many people, perhaps even a great majority, believed the technique to be effective and having some basis in the psychiatry of rehabilitating convicted criminals.

In the intervening years, several states actually used the technique, creating their own “Scared Straight” programs. But the actual results seen by such programs have been called into question. The strongest denunciation came in 2003, when a meta-study of seven “Scared Straight” programs done at the University of Pennsylvania concluded that such “programs not only failed to deter crime, but actually led to more offending behavior.” The study was published in the Campbell Collaboration Reviews of Intervention and Policy Evaluations and is available online as a pdf.

So why mention a thirty-year old film? Because in the 1995, a program known as “Every 15 Minutes” debuted, which used a similar technique to scare teenagers into experiencing the feelings and emotions of discovering that someone they actually know was killed in a drunk driving accident, with the intent supposedly to scare them into not driving after drinking. According to Wikipedia, it was first created in Canada and Chico, California, was the first place it was used in the U.S. Our own California Highway Patrol endorses and puts on the show, and in fact it’s funded by the California Office of Traffic Safety, meaning my tax dollars (and yours if you’re a fellow Californian) are used. They must have missed the memo about its lack of efficacy. Even the name itself is pure propaganda, a reference to a statistic that every fifteen minutes someone dies in a drunk driving accident. But in 1995, when the program was first performed, NHTSA statistics showed the rate to be one death every 30.4 minutes, and that rate has remained nearly constant ever since. In fact, the official website for the program continues to cite this faulty, more alarmist statistic. But truth or reasonableness is rarely the neo-prohibtionist’s stock in trade. Despite the fact that the basis for the program has been shown to not only be ineffective, but even make things worse, the “Every 15 Minutes” program is alive and well.

On May 26, El Camino High in Oceanside, California (near San Diego) put on the program. According to the report in the San Diego Union-Tribune, “[m]any juniors and seniors were driven to tears — a few to near hysterics — May 26 when a uniformed police officer arrived in several classrooms to notify them that a fellow student had been killed in a drunken-driving accident. The officer read a brief eulogy, placed a rose on the deceased student’s seat, then left the class members to process their thoughts and emotions for the next hour.”

The CHP Officer who presents the program, believes that “it is worth the price.” Officer Eric Newbury elaborates:

“When someone says to me, ‘Oh, my God, you’re traumatizing my children,’ I’m telling them, ‘No, what I’m doing is waking them up. If you don’t do your job as a parent … the only thing I can do is either arrest them and take them to jail or scrape them off the ground and tell you, ‘I’m so sorry.'”

First of all, just by running this program, Newbury has already presumed that every parent has not done their job in raising their children. By taking a scattershot approach and subjecting all the children at a particular school to this ordeal, he’s already declared every parent unfit. With the “Scared Straight” kids, they chose young people who already had long rap sheets. They were kids who were actually at risk for becoming career criminals. So at least they were the very people for whom this program was targeted. But the “Every 15 Minutes” program is essentially done indiscriminately to every student at a school, whether the parent had been effective in raising a particular child or not. So I find it that more than a little insulting and not really in the purview of his job. I know he probably means well, but I don’t believe it is the job of the police force to determine my effectiveness as a parent, especially unbidden.

But Newbury’s not done yet:

‘I want them to be an emotional wreck. I don’t want them to have to live through this for real.”

But guess what? If the very idea of this program is for them to be an “emotional wreck” for their own good, they go to great pains to make it believable and seem real. That’s the whole point. So every kid who believes it — and that appears to be most — is actually living “through this for real.” It’s nothing less than the tort claim of “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” The fact that it’s purportedly for a good cause, I find no excuse whatsoever, especially when it’s shown that the technique doesn’t even work long term anyway. So really he’s scaring kids for no reason at all.

See Wikipedia’s entry:

Studies that have tracked students before and after the Every 15 Minutes program have shown that the program may have a favorable short-term effect on students’ stated attitudes but no effect on actual behavior. This has led to charges that the Every 15 Minutes program is similar to the controversial DARE anti-drug program in that it produces the appearance of addressing the problem but does not produce the desired change in behavior.

If they inflicted this on my kids, I’d be apoplectic. And apparently I’m not the only one. In a follow up story in the North County Times, not everyone thought it was as “worth it” as the CHP. In the earlier report, it was said some student’s reaction were “near hysterics,” but the later piece goes further, saying “some became hysterical,” a small difference, perhaps, but an important distinction. The hoax [their characterization] was allowed to go on for a few hours! Afterwards, many of the kids were angry and felt things went too far. I don’t blame them.

From the North County Times‘ article:

At assemblies where speakers talked about the dangers of drunken driving, some students held posters that read: “Death is real. Don’t play with our emotions.”

Michelle de Gracia, 16, was in physics class when an officer announced that her missing classmate David, a popular basketball player, died instantly after being rear-ended by a drunken driver.

She felt nauseated but was too frozen to cry.

“They got the shock they wanted,” she said.

Some of her classmates were hysterical, prompting the teacher to tell them immediately the death was staged.

“People started yelling at the teacher,” she said. “It was pretty hectic.”

It is simply irresponsible to treat human beings in this manner, no matter how well-meaning the intent. No wonder young people don’t trust authority. So many institutions lie to kids (and adults) every single day to promote an agenda or maintain a status quo that it’s a wonder they believe anything at all. What makes this so horrible, in my opinion, is twofold. First, that my tax dollars are being spent on such quackery, and second, that something shown to be so ineffective (and possibly counter-productive) is so firmly believed to work. That neo-prohibitionists feel no compunction whatsoever about putting our kids through such an ordeal “for their own good” may be the scariest thing to come out of all this. I don’t know how to deal with people who would so non-nonchalantly abuse and emotionally harm children, the very people they claim to be trying to protect. It makes me wonder what else they’re capable of and what else they’ll do “for our own good.”

P.S. — thanks to Rick and Tomme for sending me the two articles.

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