27 October 2015

Kids and Crime

by Barb Goffman
When I was in sixth grade, word spread through my elementary school that some fifth graders were going to put Spanish fly in their teacher's coffee. I didn't know what Spanish fly was, but it sounded bad. Dangerous. I waited to see what would happen and ... nothing happened. Did the students chicken out? Did someone threaten to rat them out so they called off the plan? Did someone actually rat them out but this information was kept quiet? Did they call off the plan themselves because they realized it was a bad idea? Or had it been a big rumor with no truth to it at all? I don't know. But it's certainly true that kids who may not have the capacity to fully understand the consequences of their actions can enjoy playing pranks, and they can get angry and want revenge. Teachers often are a prime target.

A review of news reports on Google bears this out. A small sample:
  • A thirteen-year-old student was charged with allegedly sneaking a sleeping pill into his teacher's coffee after she chastised him for disrupting class.
  • A middle-school student was accused of putting several of his asthma pills into his teacher's coffee.
  • An eighth-grade teacher was sickened after two students slipped a prescription sedative into her lemonade, police said.
The articles go on, including ones involving elementary school students even younger than the kids involved with the Spanish fly rumor from my elementary school. It was these types of stories that prompted my newest short story, "The Wrong Girl," about a group of elementary school girls who seek revenge on a mean teacher. Addressing this topic was cathartic for me because what happened to the girl in the story happened to me, except I never tried to get revenge.

What causes some kids to try to hurt others? Do they not truly understand the consequences of their actions? Or do they understand but lack sufficient empathy? I don't know, but it's a topic I like to explore in my fiction. I've had several short stories published involving children and teenagers. You can find a few of them in my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even (Wildside Press, 2013). My newest story, "The Wrong Girl," is my first attempt at flash fiction. It's in a new anthology called Flash and Bang, which was published on October 8th by Untreed Reads Publishing.

This new anthology is the first one featuring members of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Every story involves a flash or a bang. The publisher chose nineteen stories, including one from fellow SleuthSayer John Floyd called "Rosie's Choice."

I hope you'll check the book out and let me know what you think of my take on kids and crime. (The anthology is available as a trade paperback and as an e-book, so with a couple of clicks, you could read it right away.) In the meanwhile, as we head toward Halloween this weekend, when children are encouraged to beg for candy or else they'll supposedly play a trick on you, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on children and crime. At what age do children come to truly understand the consequences of their actions? And at what age should they be held accountable?


  1. I see we share a publisher in Wildside Press.

  2. Children usually know there are consequences for their actions - otherwise 3 year olds wouldn't lie about what they did or where they were. What takes years, decades (and sometimes a few lifetimes) is to develop the sense that other people are actually human beings, with thoughts/feelings/bodies that can be hurt and damaged. And then they have to develop the awareness that it's WRONG to hurt/damage other people, even if you can. Some people never do (we call them sociopaths).

    (BTW, there are a lot of newspaper reports in the "good old days" of the 19th and early 20th centuries of students actually killing a teacher: beating them to death, knifing them, or shutting them out in the wintertime to freeze to death.)

  3. Barb, I always think so much that happens in the world can be explained this way:
    Studies show that 4 out of a 100 people are sociopaths (incapable of feeling empathy.)
    That's 1 out of 25. So on average, one in every classroom (as a college teacher, I can attest to this.)
    If you have stared into the cold, reptilian eyes of a sociopath when they are trying to manipulate you, you will never forget it.
    Will look for that book!

  4. Melodie just officially scared me.

    Barb, it took me a couple of hours and lengthy conversations with Amazon, but I finally got the book ordered. I see our friend Herschel Cozine leads with a story of his own! Congratulations Barb, Herschel, and John.

  5. Barb, I have been meaning to tell you that I really enjoyed your flash story, especially the last line: three words that gives the story a perfect ending. Good job!

  6. The moral of the story to me seems to be, if you are a teacher don't take a drink into your classroom. Yikes!

  7. They know right from wrong by any age or they wouldn't be doing what they did. I had some terribly abusive teachers who humiliated me more than once but it never occurred to me to get revenge.

  8. This is why I used covered cups for beverages (essential to have in order to keep instructing for six classes a day), though in my case it was relatively innocuous, clay from ceramics class . . . and no ill effects.
    A rumor circulated our high school that plans were being made to bring latex items into my classroom (allergy meant students took birthday balloons to another teacher's room for safekeeping, and I provided non-latex erasers for exams). I could have taken it to admin. but anticipated a lack of concern and action, so instead I told each of my classes what had been reported to me and asked them to be alert on my behalf, just as I would be for them. First, the horrified looks of most of my students warmed my heart -- they do care. Then, no more rumors and no trouble either. If there had been a plan, it was squelched.
    Sounds like a story I need to read.

  9. Thanks, everybody, for dropping by. And thanks, Eve, for your comment. I think the key partly is teaching empathy, partly helping kids develop a moral code about what is right and wrong, and partly helping kids learn to stand up for what's right. In my story, I have one girl who tries to dissuade her friends from doing the wrong thing, but she's ultimately too weak to stop them. I think that's probably typical for that age. Standing up to a bully/mean girl can take strength of character that a child needs time to develop.

    Melodie, you didn't just scare Leigh, you scared me, too. But I'm intrigued, too.

    Leigh, I hope you like the book. I'm sorry you had trouble ordering it from Amazon. I should have said earlier that the book can be purchased straight from the publisher, and it's marked down 30 percent through the end of the month. http://store.untreedreads.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=1786

    Herschel, thank you so much for your kind words, and congratulations to you on getting into the anthology. You're much better at rhymes than I am.

    Sherry, that's good advice, though a motivated evil doer could always find another way to get at his or her intended target. So I guess the best advice is to always watch your back, as well as your drink.

    Tonette, I'm sorry you had some bad teachers. But I'm glad you didn't end up in any of the newspaper articles I read.

    And Mary, I like how you used guilt and shock to make any potential evil doers reconsider their actions. If you have the time, read my story. I make use of an allergy, too.

  10. Hey Barb -- Great post! Thanks for mentioning the anthology--I'm honored to have been included with you, Herschel, and the others.

    Sure was good to see you again, at B'con. Looking forward to next year in N.O.

  11. Hi, John. Thanks for stopping by. It's always a pleasure to share pages with you,, and was so nice to see you in Raligh.

    I hope to make it to N.O. next year. Fingers crossed.

  12. Brilliant. Wrong Girl is both a subtle and sledgehammer story. I love it.

    Now I'm off to read Herschel's and John's stories.

  13. Any chance you're a teacher? I like how you use a janitor to tell the tale.

  14. Leigh, thank you. Your and Herschel's comments about my story have made my day. I hope you enjoy the rest of the book too.

    And sf, no, I'm not a teacher. I appreciate that you'd think I am. It means I got the story details right. I'm actually a freelance editor, and I try to write whenever I can. I'm glad you liked my telling this story from the janitor's point of view.

  15. So nice to see Barb with her name in lights! She and I have worked together quite a bit over the last four or five years and I adore everything she does. Many thanks to everyone for their support of FLASH AND BANG. There are really some incredibly talented authors in it, many of whom have commented here. I couldn't ask for a finer group of people to publish.

    Jay Hartman
    Untreed Reads Publishing

    1. Right back at you, Jay. I've really enjoyed working with you and the Untreed team over the past few years.


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