Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"You Just Haven't Been Caught Yet"

Every once in a while I come upon a statement in the press that expresses an idea—especially a bad idea—so perfectly that I feel I must comment on it. Such a statement came up in an article in today’s New York Times, in a story regarding how a middle-school student came to be strip-searched for drugs.

Ms. Savana Redding was 13 years old and an eighth grader in 2003, “in between nerdy and preppy,” as she now describes her younger self. One of her fellow students had been caught with prescription-strength ibuprofen (basically, double-strength Advil), without a prescription. That student—a kid on the outs with Ms. Redding, apparently—said she had been given the pills by Ms. Redding. On the strength of this accusation (as the article states), Mr. Kerry Wilson, the assistant principal, ordered Ms. Peggy Schwallier, the school nurse, and Ms. Helen Romero, a secretary at the school, to strip-search Ms. Redding—which allegedly they did, right down to the skivvies, and then some. No pills were discovered in the search. Ms. Redding has sued the school district, and the case has now reached the United States Supreme Court.

This strip-searching incident was wrong on so many levels. I could fill a very long post detailing the failings of the school officials in this case. However, what attracted my attention in particular was the way the school district responded to one aspect of Ms. Redding’s complaint. As Adam Liptak noted in his Times article:

Ms. Redding said school officials should have taken her background into account before searching her.

“They didn’t even look at my records,” she said. “They didn’t even know I was a good kid.”

The school district does not contest that Ms. Redding had no disciplinary record, but says that is irrelevant.

“Her assertion should not be misread to infer that she never broke school rules,” the district said of Ms. Redding in a brief, “only that she was never caught.” (Liptak, 2009, p. A19, emphasis added)

Well, this is surely news to me. A clean record is not to be taken as implying good conduct, then? It only means that one has never been caught?

This logical principle is utterly dazzling in its moral and even legal implications. One marvels at the things one could assert if one applied this simple principle to people in general—say, to some officials at the Safford [Arizona] Unified School District, and their attorneys:

  • The assistant principal in this case, Mr. Kerry Wilson, would probably say that he has a spotless record regarding accusations of child abuse. However, according to the above-mentioned ‘it-just-means-you’ve-never-been-caught’ logical principle, the lack of a record of child abuse allegations does not mean that Mr. Wilson never abused a child. Rather, this lack only means that he was never caught.

  • Mr. Wilson’s upstairs boss, the superintendent of schools, Mr. Mark R. Tregaskes, would probably claim that he has a perfect record of innocence regarding accusations of ritual human sacrifice. However, according to the ‘never been caught’ principle, this record does not mean that he never murdered a child, only that he was never caught.

  • The two allegedly strip-searching employees, the nurse Ms. Peggy Schwallier, and the secretary Ms. Helen Romero, would likely claim that there have never been any accusations against them regarding child pornography. However, according to the ‘never been caught’ principle, a clean record in this department does not mean that they don’t view child pornography, only that they have never been caught.

  • The lawyers for the school district, who wrote the brief stating the groundbreaking ‘never been caught’ principle, would probably be the first to tell you that they have never been arrested for selling crack to fourth-graders. Yet, according to that very principle, the lack of an arrest record does not mean that they didn’t deal drugs, only that they have never been caught—at least, not yet!

For the record, I emphasize that I am not saying that Mr. Wilson ever abused a child; I am not saying that Mr. Tregaskes ever ritually sacrificed anyone; I am not saying that Ms. Schwallier or Ms. Romero have ever viewed child pornography; I am not saying that the school district’s lawyers have ever sold crack, to fourth-graders or anyone else. (And, believe me, I would have named these lawyers if only their names had appeared in the newspaper article.) What I am saying is the following:

First, I am trying to encourage better thinking. The whole logic to this position—the idea that the presence of a good record only implies that one hasn’t been caught yet—is essentially immoral. It replaces the presumption of innocence with, at the least, the innuendo of guilt. Sure, a good record actually does not definitively prove that one is innocent. However, this is so obvious as to go without saying. When one says that a clean record only means that a person “was never caught,” this carries at least the implication that this person is actually guilty—a vile implication, at best. Perhaps now Mr. Wilson, Mr. Tregaskes, Ms. Schwallier, Ms. Romero, and the school district’s attorneys can better feel what it is like to be the target of that sort of implication.

There really is a lot at stake here. This line of logic has surfaced from time to time in our society, with nasty consequences.

In the 1980s, as American society became more aware of the actual size of the problem of child sexual abuse, this line of logic emerged and tainted the entire debate on this issue. I read then, and I heard people state the idea, that the fact that a given man had never been accused of child abuse did not mean that he had not committed this crime, it just established that ‘he hadn’t been caught.’ This was an insult to all men, to be sure. Beyond that, and perhaps worse, this bad logic tainted the entire movement to deal with the problem of child abuse—a truly horrific problem. Bad logic taints the best of motives and the best of causes, because it gives the impression that the entire cause is shot through with bad thinking. Thus, bad logic like the ‘never been caught’ principle must be exposed for the trashy thinking that it is.

Second, I want to encourage better legal practice. We are worse as a society when we allow our representatives, such as our attorneys, to use immoral lines of logic to defend a position. Yes, I am familiar with the idea that a defendant is entitled to the best possible defense. I would suggest, though, that the most vicious defense, the most aggressive defense, the ‘take no prisoners’ defense that uses all lines of logic, moral or not—none of these is what I would call the best defense. Memo to the Safford Unified School District: If this defense is the best that your attorneys could come up with, then you should have offered to settle this case a long, long time ago.

A final note: The article reports that Ms. Redding is now at Eastern Arizona College, studying psychology and planning to become a counselor. I don’t know if this blog post will ever reach you, Ms. Savana Redding, but if it does, allow me to mention that I am an elected Fellow of the American Psychological Association, I hold a doctorate in Counseling Psychology (NYU, 2000), and if you ever need to discuss your future educational or career plans, just drop me an e-mail: koltkorivera@yahoo.com . Hang in there.


Liptak, A. (2009, March 24). Strip-search of young girl tests limit of school policy. The New York Times [Late Edition], pp. A1, A19.


  1. I'm still chuckling at your elbowing their logic. Brilliant.

    Loving your blog. Thanks!

  2. Jessica, Thank you for your kind words. Do consider becoming an official Follower of the blog. And, by all means, post when you disagree, or don't like something, as well.


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