From the new Tri-Flex schedule to the stricter tardiness and attendance policy, students at St. Albans High School have incurred many changes this school year. Not only has the number of classes (and homework) increased, but students also have been expected to miss less school. With 10 unexcused absences in any class, a student will not be able to attend prom and, if a senior, not walk at graduation. Obviously, truancy has been of huge importance to this year's administration.
Earlier this semester, Kanawha County Magistrate Ward Harshbarger came to speak to the student body about truancy. Typically, students love guest speakers; they are inspiring, funny and, if nothing else, tickets out of class. However, Harshbarger's talk rubbed many students the wrong way.
Senior Shauna McQuerrey felt that although the issue of truancy was addressed, it was in an almost threatening way. "He didn't take the subject seriously enough to convey it to a room full of high school students," she said.
However, that wasn't the part of the speech that stuck in most students' minds. After a few moments discussing the consequences of truancy, Harshbarger brought up another topic that certainly caught many people off guard: sexting.
Sexting is a term coined by the media that refers to sending, receiving or forwarding sexually suggestive photos or messages through text message and email. What did this have to do with truancy?
"Absolutely nothing," McQuerrey said. "It came out of nowhere. I felt awkward and offended. The nature of the subject was not school appropriate, especially coming from a stranger. For an elected official to act in that matter, it was very shameful."
Harshbarger spent the majority of the assembly, which was approximately an hour long, telling teens they would be labeled as sexual offenders for the rest of their lives if they sexted. He spoke in very profane, inappropriate language; students recalled him cursing and using slang comparable to that found on "The Jerry Springer Show."
At the end of the assembly, the magistrate made the huge mistake of opening the microphone to questions from the student body. In a room of 1,200 teenagers with sex as the subject matter, Harshbarger set himself up for a challenge. Questions such as "What if we send someone else pictures and they like it?" and "If you are over the age of 18, is it still illegal to sext?" were asked and were answered very distastefully.
"If you want to put your junk out there, go right on ahead!" is one of many comments Harshbarger made to the teenage students that morning. Freshman Justice Hudson recalls that the magistrate could have addressed the subject with a much lighter touch.
"I felt embarrassed," Hudson said. "He talked down to us. I felt like I wasted my time; I didn't get any respect [from him]."
Many students walked out of the auditorium disturbed, but only a few were driven to take action. Some, including sophomore Cameron Lightener, wrote letters to the court concerning Harshbarger's assembly. Although he admitted to laughing, Lightener strongly believes that comedy was not the right way to get the message across.
"I felt compelled to write a letter to speak for the students about his inappropriate behavior," Lightener said. "You have to stand for something, or you'll fall for anything."
Lightener certainly made a difference: his comments were printed in the Charleston Daily Mail and shortly afterwards, Harshbarger was removed from his position as the county's juvenile referee, which included his truancy duties. (Chief Circuit Judge Louis "Duke" Bloom said Harshbarger's removal was not related to the assembly.) Although Lightner's letter was the only one that got through to the public, he spoke for much of the student body.Part of Harshbarger's job was to interact with students, and in this case, he did so in an unprofessional manner. If nothing else, Harshbarger has learned an important lesson: talking down to minors, no matter how immature they may be, never ends well. If you desire the respect of others, you must respect them first.