A Tragic Suicide
Sixteen-year-old Cory Walgren committed suicide on January 11, 2017. According to Michael Tarm, Associated Press legal affairs writer, his suicide occurred "three hours after a dean and an in-school police officer at Naperville High School, told the honor-roll student he might face a child pornography charge." He was being questioned about some consensual sexual activity he and his girlfriend had engaged in, and a video he had made of it.
We are told that anyone under 18 is a child, and that children can't consent to having sex. But when I use the term "consensual" I don't mean that he understood all of the possible consequences of engaging in sex with his girlfriend. Nobody of any age could have consensual sex with anybody if that were the standard. The human condition is that none of us can know the full consequences of anything we do. I just mean "mutually desired." Using this more common understanding of the term, obviously children can consent or not consent to sexual activities just as they can consent or not consent to eating liver. But what about that other problematic word: child? Our society has had a lot of difficulty determining whether teenagers are adults or children. After a somewhat confused discussion of the issue, we seem to have arrived at the following consensus:
Teenagers are adults when it comes to liabilities.
They are children when it comes to rights.
With regard to what he and his girl-friend did, Cory did not have adult rights. But he did have adult liabilities. He could be placed on the registry along with those who were 18 or over.
Why did Cory kill himself? And what can we do to prevent such tragic deaths in the future?
Cory committed a crime for which he faced the possibility of being punished by consequences that he believed were worse than death. At 16 years of age Cory was faced with the possibility of joining the ranks of the most hated social pariah in our society and facing a lifetime of never being accepted as a normal citizen with the respect and rights that ought to be a part of citizenship. It was not irrational to think that this might be a fate worse than death.
Most liberal-minded people would probably feel that making a video of his sexual activities with his girlfriend was poor judgment, but it was hardly a heinous crime. Few would think that a virtual death penalty would be an appropriate consequence for either his sexual activities or his making a video of them.
Were Society's Responses to Cory's Death Relevant?
Two responses to Cory's suicide were mentioned in the article. First, the local school board agreed to pay the Walgren family $125,000. That borders on the obscene. What does money have to with it? How is the $125,000 going to make it better?
Second, the Illinois state legislature passed a law. The article explains the new law this way: "As of August, a parent, guardian, family lawyer or designated advocate must be present before police can begin questioning students at school who are younger than 18 and suspected of crimes, unless they pose an imminent threat." Republican Stephanie Kiforuit explains the rational for this new legal requirement. "We need to recognize that the brains of young people are not fully developed and they need to be dealt with differently. ... What happened to Cory should never happen again."
Despite our current confidence that something or other in the brain (such as "immaturity") will explain everything, it was not the immaturity of Cory's brain that caused his death. He was seeing his reality clearly enough. And had his parents been there to comfort him, his reality would have been no more clear. Cory was being faced with a fate that many do find worse than death the possibility of being on the sex offender registry for life.
It is important to be clear on these points:
Lack of $125,000 wasn't what killed him.