How Could That Happen Here?

by michael on May 10, 2017

How Could That Happen Here?

The Tales of Two Schools

By Michael Sabbeth


We have seen the photos and TV coverage all too often: sobbing grieving classmates and parents holding hands, hugging, standing or sitting near cascades of flowers, stuffed teddy bears and cards and posters offering messages of solace and hope—you will never be forgotten—- love will triumph. The eyes of the hurting people radiate pain. Anguished glances and muffled words ask the question: How could this happen? The question pervades like a dark cloud: How could this avoidable tragedy happen to lovely decent people? How indeed?

Human behavior does have a quality of near infinite variation and each actor may well be unique. But, the human animal does act according to incentives and disincentives with predictable consistency. Much, if not the overwhelming percent, of human behavior can be explained by these two forces.

This article analyzes the comparative incentives and disincentives for moral behavior created by the authorities in two schools, a middle school in northern Colorado and a Denver elementary school. I began teaching this topic in April 2011 and have taught it to every class thereafter. Based on my students’ comments, it is my most powerful class.

The Butter Knife School

I anguish over how to teach lessons with clarity and force to influence courageous virtuous behavior. One effective method is to compare the behavior of two actors, switch the facts of each actor, and then speculate whether the outcomes would be similar. This fact-shifting strategy is useful, for example, to detect bias, prejudice or hypocrisy in media or with politicians.

I begin with a summary of the facts at the middle school in northern Colorado, which I refer to as the ‘butter knife’ school. At the beginning of a lunch break, a seventh-grade girl opened her lunchbox and realized she had mistakenly taken her mother’s lunchbox. Amidst the apple and a sandwich was a butter knife. The youngster knew the school had a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for bringing weapons to school and that a knife was considered a weapon. Should a reader be unfamiliar with ‘zero tolerance’ school policies, a Google search will yield as of today 3,490,000 references within 0.82 seconds, more than enough for a pleasant afternoon’s reading.

The young lady, an honor student, promptly approached her teacher, described her error and gave the knife to the teacher. The teacher, assessing the situation, hustled the youngster to the principal’s office and presented the student as a policy violator. The principal immediately suspended the student. I discuss this situation in detail in the Consequences chapter of my book.

A Pistol at a Denver Elementary School

A third-grade student, Lorenzo Hernandez, with some pals, was digging in dirt in the school yard of a Denver elementary school and unearthed what appeared to be a semi-automatic pistol. Lorenzo knew nothing about firearms; he didn’t know if the pistol was real, and if so, if it were loaded. The classmate, likes ants on a cupcake at a summer picnic, tried to handle the pistol and made demands to hold it or keep it. Some urged Lorenzo to give it away so they could sell it. Some challenged him to pull the trigger to see if it was loaded. Lorenzo rebuffed every entreaty.

Lorenzo took the pistol to the principal and explained how he found it. The principal took the pistol and proclaimed Lorenzo a hero. As explained in my Competence chapter, Lorenzo’s behavior was a statistical improbability; frankly, a miracle. He demonstrated a preternatural competence and transcendent moral will. Somehow this little fellow intuited that he must treat the firearm as if it were real and loaded and to bring the pistol to a (hopefully) responsible adult.

What If? Compare the Moral Incentives in the Two Schools

At this point in my classes I pose this question: “What do you think Lorenzo would have done if he was a student at the butter knife school and found the pistol after the seventh-grade girl was suspended?

Without exception, my students were enraged by the behavior of the teacher and principal at the butter knife school. Their answers were unequivocal, blunt and spoken with moral confidence.

They concluded Lorenzo would not likely have given the firearm to the butter knife principal. They figured the principal would throw him out of school, so Lorenzo “would just keep the pistol.” Some of my students opined that Lorenzo would be “stupid to turn in the pistol.” Some students astutely perceived the immorality of the linear syllogistic logic of the butter knife principal: a person with a weapon gets suspended; Lorenzo had a weapon; Lorenzo gets suspended. This is a mindless and profoundly abusive application of logic, but that was the reality at the school. Thus, one student said, “It wouldn’t even matter if the principal believed he found it. He still had it, so he’d get suspended anyway.”

Not giving the firearm to a responsible adult was an immediate consequence of the disincentives created by the butter knife school. The students would not risk being thrown out of school. People tend to be risk averse and do what is easy and perceived as safe, especially in the short term. But there is more: there are consequences to those consequences. The larger and more ominous picture, and this is the key for our purposes, is the likely actions that would result when the gun was retained by the children. Most students immediately grasped the brutal reality: “Kids would probably die.”

My students viewed the behavior of the butter knife principal as a rejection of honor and integrity and morality. They concluded that if the actors were irrational or immoral in the butter knife instance, a probability existed that they would be irrational or immoral in another similar instance, such as Lorenzo finding the gun. After all, the zero-tolerance policy is not a gift-wrapped package kicked into the principal’s office from a UPS truck. People trained in educating young children discussed it; agreed on its value and analyzed it.

We do know with unarguable certainty that the butter knife school staff did not value honor or truth. Innocence did not matter. Foreseeable consequences of such a policy did not matter. Their commitment to a rigid ideology led to an indifference to the consequences that could be inflicted by that ideology on real flesh-and-blood human beings. They valued an abstraction more than human life.

At the Denver elementary school, Lorenzo was motivated to act morally and intelligently in large measure, my students stated, because he trusted his principal. He did not fear he would become the victim of an injustice when he acted heroically and honorably. He expected to be treated respectfully and consistent with the facts, his innocence, the truth and mature concerns for safety. Thus, Lorenzo had incentives to act morally and courageously.

The lessons are stark. Unethical consequences encourage irresponsible behavior. This scenario explains not only how such tragedy could happen but why it would be likely to happen. There are few mysteries here. Ideas have consequences. Immoral policies yield ugly consequences. If we want to motivate moral behavior, we would do well to be guided by Thomas Sowell’s profound advice: “Always take an economic perspective, looking not at proclaimed goals as much as incentives that are created.”

We see with prismatic clarity how it happens: when trust does not exist, when virtue is rejected and the moral courage to stand up against the baser tendencies of the human animal is thwarted. When honor, trust and moral reasoning are nurtured and respected, the human animal tends to act virtuously. If Lorenzo had been subjected to the beliefs of the butter knife principal, his motivation to act morally would have been subverted. As a likely consequence, moms and dads would be attending funerals or perhaps visiting their child at the Craig Rehabilitation Hospital up the block from my home. They’d be crying, “How could this happen? Why would a child give the gun to other children? How could a child be so irresponsible?” Now you know.

Michael Sabbeth is the author of The Good, The Bad & The Difference: How to Talk with Children About Values. See

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