Who Owns the Children with Guns?

Can a school tell parents what their kids can do outside of school?  On private property?

Conservatives say no.  But they seem to say no for very different reasons.

Conservative intellectuals argue that the state must not overreach.  The average conservative-in-the-street, however, seems to cling to ancient notions that children are not persons.  At least that’s the message we hear in one story from Virginia Beach.

This is a story that has attracted its share of media attention.  According to NBC News, a school district suspended three middle-schoolers for shooting other students with toy pellet guns.  The students were not at school with the toy guns, but rather waiting for the school bus.

Virginia Beach School Board Chairman Daniel D. Edwards defended the decision.  “This is not an example of a public educator overreaching,” Edwards insisted in a public statement.

Conservative commentator Charles E. Cooke demurs.  In the pages of The National Review, Cooke blasts the school decision as a typical and terrifying example of “tyranny.”  School, Cooke insists, has no role in punishing students for something that occurred outside of school, on private property.  “In free societies,” Cooke argues,

schools are not designed to serve as a mandatory means by which the Bismarckian state may seek to shape the young, but instead to act merely as a service to which parents can choose to send their kids for basic education if they so wish.

Cooke’s essay illustrates this key tenet of conservative thinking, a central reason why today’s conservatives are so keen on educational issues.  Many American conservatives these days yearn for a smaller government.  School is one of the most commonly encountered faces of government.  As a result, school becomes the target of conservative ire.  Even more complicated, schooling for the young is mandatory.  Along with taxes, schooling is one of the most common ways government tells Americans directly what they must do.

This story also dishes up a very different example of the complicated ways Americans tend to think of children and schooling.  According to WAVY.com, one of the parents of the children involved insisted that her child was her property, at least until he got on the bus.  “My son is my private property,” Solangel Caraballo told the local TV station.  “He does not become the school’s property until he goes to the bus stop, gets on the bus, and goes to school.”

Caraballo’s outrage doesn’t come from the same intellectual tradition as that of Cooke’s.  Cooke worries about an overreaching state.  Caraballo, on the other hand, is perfectly willing to have the state assert ownership of her child, but only once the kid gets on the bus.  Until then, the kid is private property, wholly owned by his parents.

What are we to make of this kind of thinking?  If children are private property, what does that mean about their rights?  If they are not property, how can they be kept from voting (not until age 18 in the USA), or driving (not until @ 16), or drinking alcohol (not until 21)?  If they are not property, how can they legally be forced to attend school if they don’t wish to?  What sort of legal twilight zone do children inhabit, not fully legal persons, yet something different from a washing machine or a pair of pants?

Most important, how common is this kind of thinking?  How many Americans continue the ancient tradition of thinking of their children as their property?  Of thinking of their children as property at all, property that they can transfer to the control of the school?