An extremely bad idea

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Last month, law enforcement and school officials in Oceanside, Calif., collaborated in a cruel deception of students at El Camino High School.

We certainly hope that other law enforcement agencies and school systems in the country do not repeat this well-intentioned but misguided program.

California Highway Patrol officers visited 20 classrooms to announce that several students had been killed in a drunk driving accident. The plan was to reveal that the report was a hoax at an assembly held at the conclusion of the school day.

At least one teacher revealed the truth early to students who became hysterical. Most of the students became aware of the hoax prior to the assembly.

In subsequent days, officials continued to defend the deception as needed to shock students out of complacency about drunk driving, while many students protested the incident as cruel and dishonest, some displaying posters that stated, "Death is real. Don't play with our emotions."

There are rare cases when it is necessary for officials to use deception. When a psychopath is brandishing a gun, he should be told what he wants to hear. Deception of criminals is needed to conduct undercover operations.

However, law enforcement and school faculty telling high school students that classmates have died is not among the short list of necessary lies. It is quite simply a betrayal of trust.

The consequences for such betrayal go beyond the short-term emotional pain that students suffered. When people in authority lie to kids, any lie for any reason, it creates skepticism toward any future statements by those in authority.

This effect is partially mitigated by the fact that the officials did not intend to maintain the lie beyond the end of the school day, but only partially.

A more serious effect of the deception is the poor example it sets as far as ethical behavior. Time and again, we learn about people in high positions of business or government failing to exhibit an understanding of ethics.

These cases do not always result from acts of greed or self-interest. People acting with what they believe to be the best of intentions can go to prison for fraud or perjury.

Human nature being what it is, people are predisposed to rationalize whatever action will achieve whatever goal they deem worthy. It is imperative that people in authority impress upon young people through words and example that honesty has a high priority in our value system.

We don't mean to exaggerate the significance of the incident in California. Those kids with any common sense will likely continue to heed warnings from authority figures. Also, those kids who are habitually reckless will likely continue that behavior despite the shocking hoax.

Adults should not lie to kids simply because it is wrong to lie to kids.