For this article, let's just put aside the police actions and legal proceedings that took place against Erin Cox. And for the time being, let's not discuss the involvement of the North Andover, Massachusetts high school as well. Instead, let's look at this situation from the beginning and break it down to its basics--back when it was just a case of two people's involvement, and when both parties had the power to change their course of action outside of the law, but they did not.
Back at the start, when PERSONAL ACCOUNTABILITY was thrown out the window, and a friend got thrown under the bus.
HYPOTHETICAL #1: Friend A engages in an illegal activity. Knowing that an illegal activity is taking place, and not wanting their parents to find out, Friend A calls Friend B and says, "You have a car. Be a friend, come and pick me up." Friend B arrives just in time to be arrested by association, all because of Friend A's involvement in said illegal activity.
Okay. Now, imagine if the above scenario had been like this: a low-income black teenager in Chicago shoplifts at a local store, and calls her friend to give her a ride from that location. That friend knows that she was there shoplifting, but goes to pick her up, anyway. They are arrested together in the car.
Where is the public sympathy and protest for the "victims" in that scenario? There is none. Absolutely none. Racial insults would reign supreme in the comments section of such a news story. Clearly, these two hypothetical African-American Chicagoan engaged in something that was against the law, and they both deserved to be punished for that. No, more than that. Because of their economic status, the color of their skin and the reputation of the city in which they live, that kind of behavior is damned near to be expected, isn't it? Why, of course it is.
Now let's look at the case of Erin Cox. A white, privileged teenager in Massachusetts is engaged in underage drinking, and calls her friend Erin to give her a ride home from an illegal party. Erin knows she was there drinking, knows that the party had other underage youths were in attendance, but she goes to pick her up, anyway... and is arrested at that location.
It begs the question: at what point in our society do we deem it okay to sanction underage drinking, and see it as any less of a crime and any less damaging to teenagers than something like shoplifting?
All right, then. In the Case of Hypothetical #1, we have to admit, even grudgingly: their behavior at that early point was not a "friendship" issue--it was about failing to take responsibility and putting yourself or someone else in a position that they should not be in.
HYPOTHETICAL #2: Society's code is that friends help friends whenever they can. Friend A puts their trust in Friend B to step up when asked, and Friend B trusts Friend A's judgment in whatever situation requires their assistance. Therefore, even though Friend A is engaged in an illegal activity, Friend B is there to help you out no matter what the circumstance.
So that's all well and good, right? You help out where nobody else can. Hey, everybody knows that! Well... no. Because this is where it breaks down, and it breaks down hard. And this also where people don't see the dividing line.
Let's go back to our imaginary black teens in Chicago. Friend B has arrived to get Friend A away from the threat of arrest for shoplifting. Friend B does not want to see Friend A go to jail for stealing something that she shouldn't have, and is there to protect her friend and keep her safe. What makes that right, that Friend B will drive off with Friend A and her stolen goods all in the name of "friendship"?
Is that friendship? Really?
Here's the wake-up call, folks: Real friends do NOT hurt you. Real friends do NOT put your life or your comfort or well-being in danger. Real friends do NOT put their own selfish (as in, non-emergency and self-serving) needs first. And real friends do not, either naively or in a demanding way, automatically expect your compliance to their every wish.
But Erin's friend did just that. "I'm going to a party. I'm getting drunk, and my parents can't know, but because you're my friend and you have a car, you HAVE to come and pick me up." Maybe she didn't say in that way, but that WAS the overall message and the end result in this case. The burden to look after her intoxicated friend and to keep her safe was laid on the clean, sober and respectable shoulders of Erin Cox, who then found herself wrapped up in her friend's inappropriate situation.
Think of it like this--you're enjoying a quiet meal with a loved one at an expensive restaurant. You're wearing an expensive outfit. After you get a phone call interrupting your meal, you go and pick up your friend from some dive bar after they get thrown out. When you arrive, your friend loops one over your shoulder... and promptly vomits down the front of your clothes. That's essentially what happened here. Erin's so-called friend "vomited" her problems on someone who had nothing to do with them. All under the guise of friendship.
Peer pressure and the code of true friendship was laid against the backdrop of an illegal activity. This does not make the "she was just being a friend!" argument valid. Rather, it puts the blame for all of this squarely where it belongs--on the "friend" who initiated all of this action to begin with.
We should not see a couple of shoplifters escaping from justice as being undeserved of punishment any more than we should see Erin and her intoxicated friend as being worthy of eluding the police. And yet we do, don't we? "Harmless teenage fun" is what drinking is often dismissed as. Reality:
Underage drinking risks include:
- Death – 5,000 people under age 21 die each year from alcohol-related car crashes, homicides, suicides, alcohol poisoning, and other injuries such as falls, burns, and drowning.
- Serious injuries – More than 190,000 people under age 21 visited an emergency room for alcohol-related injuries in 2008 alone.
- Impaired judgment – Drinking can cause kids to make poor decisions, which can then result in risky behavior like drinking and driving, sexual activity, or violence.
- Increased risk for physical and sexual assault – Youth who drink are more likely to carry out or be the victim of a physical or sexual assault.
- Brain development problems – Research shows that brain development continues well into a person’s twenties. Alcohol can affect this development, and contribute to a range of problems.
The big argument, of course, is this: Was the school wrong to suspend and punish Erin for her involvement?
Here are the questions that the media has not answered: Did Erin miss days of class because of what happened? Did she miss volleyball practice? Were any honors or extracurricular classes affected by her arrest and court case? If so, then I'm sorry, but in those instances, her out-of-school activities did impact on the school environment. In which case, yes, she deserved to be subject to the school's "zero-tolerance" policy. As a student leader in any field, if you're missing class and failing to uphold your responsibilities in the school environment, then you are setting a bad example, you are being a bad influence, and the poison that you bring to those innocent or naive about such things must be stopped before it "poisons the well," so to speak.
But if nothing happened school-wise--if she showed up to all her classes and met all her obligations--then Erin's high school stepped over the line and tried to take control where it had no jurisdiction. In that case, they were very much in the wrong to take such harsh disciplinary actions. To anyone with common sense, this should be quite clear. And if this is the case, then I hope that Erin and her parent succeed in their legal actions.
Anyway. The bottom line in this whole argument is that this is an example where personal accountability stumbled and fell.
The drunk friend failed herself and everyone else in her life. She considered underage drinking to be a worthwhile waste of her time. She deceived her parents and went against the life lessons that they tried to instill in her. She joined other underage students engaged in the illegal activity. And to top it off, she looped an innocent friend into getting her out of a situation that she should have never been in to begin with.
Erin is not entirely without fault, of course, for acquiescing to "help out" in a situation that she, too, should have never put herself in. And her act was on of enabling more than friendship.
Anyone who knows someone that has a drinking or drug or emotional problem, knows what enabling is. Clearly, Erin ENABLED that friend in the deceit of her parents, and in the effort to avoid trouble that she knew she would get into if discovered. And I do hope that Erin (indeed, anyone else who is willing to dismiss the law to "help" a friend out of similar trouble--will pause in the future and ask themselves, "What am I getting *MYSELF* into?" and not, "What kind of trouble am I getting my friend out of?"