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Failure to Call 911 Doesn’t Add Up

You may have read the good news recently about California students: They showed more improvement in math than at any time in the last 10 years. That was front-page news, and rightly so -- young people who can’t add and subtract are asking for trouble down the road. So is our society.

In the wake of that good news, however, something less heartening showed up in another story, played a bit farther back in the paper, almost out of the public eye. It served as a reminder that contributing to society involves more than learning your multiplication tables.

The story was about the killing of a high school student. One of the ancillary elements of the story was that a group of high school students, totally unconnected to the killing, came upon the body about 8 in the morning. But instead of telling someone in authority about it right away, they waited several hours -- apparently because they were running late for school or were planning to skip classes altogether and feared repercussions.

Stacked up next to a homicide, failing to report it is small potatoes.

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But stacked up next to improvement in arithmetic, failing to report a killing isn’t such a small thing. It should tell us -- parents and teachers and everyone else in the village -- that some of our children are missing some key data. Such as, when you see a dead body, it’s your duty to tell someone about it.

That’s as basic as 2 plus 2 equals 4.

Today’s sermon isn’t meant to be preachy. For starters, I was a high school kid once and did a lot of dopey things. Nor is it even meant as a blanket indictment of high school kids. Many -- maybe even the overwhelming majority of them -- would have done the right thing last week. But we have to wonder: If one group of kids could fail to report a body, how many others would have done the same?

Rather, we have to concede there probably are plenty of others in our midst.

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The spur-of-the-moment answer the kids gave was that they didn’t want to get in trouble for not being in school. I can see that explaining a delay of 20 minutes or so. Then, someone in the group -- anyone -- should have piped up and said, “Hey, this is a dead body that’s been set on fire. Shouldn’t we tell somebody about it?”

The students may have been horrified at what they saw, but they weren’t 9 years old. I’d venture to say all of them have seen cop shows on TV. They knew that homicide investigations need to get going, and the sooner the better. Their decision to rank a homicide beneath hooky on the scale of importance is unsettling.

What’s the punishment these days for playing hooky -- a severe beating? Bamboo shoots under the fingernails?

A symposium of social scientists could probably explain why they delayed. Maybe they’ve seen too much murder on TV to get worked up about it. Maybe they’re so anti-authority that the notion of calling the cops was last-resort stuff.

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No, I’m afraid the only explanation that makes sense is the one they gave: They didn’t want to get in trouble for being somewhere they shouldn’t have been. I’d probably have done the same thing at that age -- if the crime I’d come upon were petty vandalism.

But homicide?

They didn’t need to know the gory details to know you dial 911. Earth to kids: You can do that anonymously.

Enough already. Too much, you’re saying.

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I’m merely saying that while it’s great that our fourth- and eighth-graders have picked up the pace in arithmetic, all the news from the schoolhouse isn’t terrific. Somewhere between math class and high school graduation, we need to make sure our kids know there’s more to life than test scores.

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at dana.parsons@latimes.com or at The Times’ Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.


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