What a Pane!
She calls him the Anne Frank of the trailer park. When she drives him home from school, her son has to duck down in the seat. When he's in the yard, he has to watch over his shoulder for the park manager.
He's not a thief. Or a drug dealer. Or a gangbanger. He's a typical thirteen-year-old kid: blond bangs, Nike swoosh on his T-shirt, basketball sneakers.
"I have to hide him," she says. "Can you believe that? We have to keep him on a very low profile. And it was an accident!"
This is Liz talking. She's 39, mother of two, owner of a cleaning business, occasional poet. She's lived in the trailer park with her third husband for fourteen months now, doing what she can to get by, trying her best to raise Paul and his eleven-year-old sister, Roxanne.
At the moment, Liz sits at her kitchen table sipping a glass of ice water, cigarette between her fingers. Paul slumps beside her, frowning, fidgeting, mortified at the thought of mother-induced public humiliation.
He swipes her glass and takes a drink.
She glares at him.
They have the same blue eyes, full lips and Coppertone tan.
Before she gets started, she wants to make something clear: She could get in serious trouble by telling this story. She could get evicted from the park. And her son could get blackballed worse than he already has been. So she doesn't want their real names used. Or the name of the trailer park. Just say it's somewhere in Adams County.
"I'm afraid," she says. "I am."
The scare started one Sunday afternoon in late March, when Paul was throwing rocks on a hill overlooking the park. He shouldn't have been doing it--he knows better--but he wanted to test his arm, being the baseball season and all. A couple of girls were there, too--his girlfriend and his best friend. Maybe he was showing off.
"Noooo. I wasn't showing off," he says. "I was just throwing rocks."
See? Typical thirteen-year-old. Anyway, one of the rocks he threw overshot the field and hit a trailer.
"I wasn't aiming for it," he says. "I didn't even hear the window break."
Still, he and the girls ran away.
"Noooo. We didn't run. We walked. We just walked. I didn't even know I was in trouble. I didn't even hear it break."
Okay. They walked. And while they walked, a police car and the park manager pulled up and blocked their path.
"What's this about?" Paul asked.
"You tell me," the officer said, ordering him to empty his pockets, place his hands on the car and wait while he questioned one of the girls.
Then he cuffed him.
The officer actually handcuffed him.
Now, as Liz says, Paul is a typical thirteen-year-old. He might have a hard time controlling his impulses (he has attention deficit disorder), and maybe his grades aren't what they should be, but he hardly gets into trouble at all (that she knows of, anyway), other than driving her crazy with that mouth of his.
Anyway, the officer was going to haul him to the substation, but Paul asked to see his mother, so the officer took him home. He was terrified.
"I wasn't terrified! I wasn't terrified at all!"
"Okay, tough guy," says Liz. "He's grown up a lot in the past few weeks."
"Will you please leave the room? You're embarrassing me."
As you can see, Paul's no angel, but he's no delinquent, either. Oh, he gets disciplined, all right. No TV and no phone. Confined to his room. She'd like to swat him sometimes, like her parents swatted her, but at 5-7 and 170 pounds, he's too big to hit. But most of the time he stays in line.
So the officer and the park manager showed up with Paul in handcuffs. Liz told her son to come clean. He knows the difference between right and wrong. He knows better than to lie.
"If you broke that window, you tell the truth," she said. "If you broke it, write it down." That's what the officer wanted.
Paul wrote it down.
"I didn't break it on purpose," he says. "I know I shouldn't have been throwing rocks, but I didn't do it on purpose. It was an accident."
That night, Liz drove Paul to the woman's trailer and made him apologize. The woman didn't seem upset. She said she didn't want to press charges. She only wanted her window replaced. So Liz made arrangements and replaced the window within 48 hours. Paul was grounded for two weeks.
But it didn't end there.
The park manager told Liz she and her family had thirty days to leave. That's park policy. Apparently, a few years earlier, the park had serious problems with gangs. So last fall it adopted a zero-tolerance crime policy--it's in the lease--and began working closely with authorities. The lease is iron-clad, and Liz had agreed to the terms. First offense or not, her family must go.
Liz pleaded with the manager. Could they stay if Paul moved in with his biological father (who lives in Golden) and just visited occasionally? Yes, the manager said, but Paul had to be out in three days.
"We were in jeopardy of losing everything," she says. "My trailer is old. It costs $5,000 to move. I don't have the money. I could have lost it all."
Two weeks later Liz received a letter from the Adams County District Attorney's Office. Paul could be prosecuted for criminal mischief, it said. The window incident could wind up on his permanent record.
Liz was shocked. Afraid.
"I didn't want any trouble," she says. "All I want is for him to finish school."
The DA's office gave her a choice: For $50, Paul could enroll in a juvenile diversion program, where he would receive counseling and possibly perform community service and pay restitution. If he completed the program satisfactorily, charges would be dropped.
Liz called the DA and scheduled an appointment. But later that night, caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic, she reconsidered.
"Why should I drive through rush hour three times a week for what amounted to an accident?" she asks now. "Why should I expose him to hardened criminals and legitimate juvenile delinquents? Never in my whole life did I see a thirteen-year-old handcuffed and prosecuted for accidentally breaking a window. That's a bunch of hoo-haw."
Where she's from, Bay City, Michigan, the window incident would never have become the window incident. Her son would have apologized, replaced the glass, served a two-week grounding and that would be that.
Not in the age of zero tolerance.
"It's really frightening that people can't handle situations like that without going to extremes," Liz says. "It would be one thing if he had a record of stealing cars, selling drugs or assaulting someone, but he doesn't. It's getting out of hand."
Consider: Six months ago a sixth-grade girl was waiting at the trailer-park bus stop when she began swatting an eighth-grade boy with a stick. The boy got mad and swatted her back. The girl's mother complained (the girl had a welt on her leg), and the boy was evicted.
Last winter, while kids were waiting for the bus, one of them lit an empty jumbo pack of Wrigley's gum on fire. It was cold and they wanted to get warm (they're kids, right?). Several minutes later, four officers arrived with three fire engines and two ambulances.
Elsewhere in Colorado: A ten-year-old Longmont girl was expelled from school earlier this year for accidentally taking her mother's paring knife to school. A six-year-old Colorado Springs boy was suspended last year for distributing an "unknown substance" that turned out to be organic lemon drops. An eight-year-old was suspended for giving a girl a vitamin C tablet.
How about twelve Graland sixth-graders suspended from the pricey private school for writing "vulgar remarks" such as "have a kick-ass summer" in their yearbooks?
"It enrages me to see it all around me," Liz says. "They shouldn't tie up the judicial system with this nonsense."
Look. She knows the trailer park has a legitimate problem, and she wants to clean up crime, too. And she also knows some parents need to rein in their kids. But the punishment should fit the crime.
"Sure, there's a lot more delinquency today," Liz says. "I see it happening all around. Kids are out of control. But it seems like we've lost the ability to discern individual situations. Bringing a paring knife to school is different than bringing a switchblade. A lemon drop is not a drug. They're treating everyone like they're guilty until proven innocent."
Think back to when you were thirteen, she says. Teenagers do dumb things. They make dumb mistakes. When she was a teen, she ran away from home. She had to learn a few lessons the hard way. For some kids, that's part of growing up.
"I had friends who used to throw tomatoes and eggs at houses," Liz says. "I've heard men say they used to push over outhouses. It's not right, but it's normal for boys of that age. They'd get cuffed on the head and that would be that. Today we'd be hauled away with criminal records. Today normal boyish and girlish behavior is considered outrageous. Nobody wants boys to be boys and girls to be girls. They want them to sit in their chairs and be perfectly still. They want them to be compliant."
But being compliant isn't something they taught in Bay City, Michigan.
"I'll take this to trial," she says. "My son is in no way affiliated with gangs. He's just a typical thirteen-year-old boy. I don't think accidentally breaking a window leads to becoming a criminal. My old friends are all doctors, lawyers and engineers now. If you can lose your home and your son can have a criminal record for accidentally breaking a window, that's almost fascist."
But Bob Grant, Adams County district attorney, says there's nothing fascist about it. If her son committed a crime, even a misdemeanor, and there's enough evidence to prosecute, attorneys will prosecute. The days of old-time street justice, where a beat cop took a window-breaker behind the garage and gave him a swat, are long gone. If that happened now, cops would get sued.
Besides, he says, the juvenile diversion program isn't intended to collar every rambunctious boy in Adams County. It's simply a way for authorities to reach youths before they become delinquents. Sure, not every case warrants official intervention, but many do: Not all kids have parents keeping them in line. Grant stands by the record. Since the program was established in 1978, it has a 7 percent recidivism rate, he says.
"Early intervention is generally a plus," Grant says. "But if she and her son want to go to court, that's her choice."
At a recent hearing, Paul pleaded guilty to criminal mischief and was placed on probation. If he behaves, the charge will disappear from his record.
In the meantime, he's keeping a low profile, staying with his father and occasionally visiting his mother at the park--and Liz is thinking about leaving. As soon as she can afford to, she wants to leave Colorado, perhaps for Bay City, Michigan, where boys still can be boys.
"Colorado is getting weird," she says. "Where's the common sense?
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