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Jay Evensen: Harvard's rejection of Florida student shows pitfalls of maturation in the modern world

FILE - In this April 26, 2019 file photo, Kyle Kashuv, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., speaks at the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action Leadership Forum in Indianapolis. On Monday
FILE - In this April 26, 2019 file photo, Kyle Kashuv, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., speaks at the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action Leadership Forum in Indianapolis. On Monday, June 17, 2019, Kashuv said that Harvard University revoked his acceptance over racist comments he made online and in text messages about two years ago. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)
Michael Conroy

SALT LAKE CITY — When I was a mere lad of 13, I went on a trip with my junior high jazz band to California. We spent a day at Disneyland.

I remember being mildly irritated as I sat in the bus late that night, long after the park had closed, waiting for some of our band members to return so we could go to the hotel.

Turns out they had been arrested for shoplifting and were detained by park police until their parents could be notified and certain arrangements made.

I knew about none of this that night, nor for the next 40 or so years, until it came up in a casual conversation during a brief reunion with the band director.

Imagine how different that night might have been if social media was around in 1972.

Our band director had exercised discretion. That’s a word slipping out of vogue these days, but it once was an important tool adults used to keep many youthful indiscretions where they belonged, in a lockbox while lessons were taught.

Today, someone probably would have captured a video of the kids being nabbed. The kids themselves might have been tempted to take selfies of their brief incarceration, or at least to brag about it in a post or tweet.

And then it might have followed them forever, through college applications and into job interviews, affecting chances for promotions or potential political careers.

Kyle Kashuv should have exercised discretion when he was 16. He used a Google Doc study guide as a chat platform, along with several other students. The chat turned ugly, and Kashuv wrote vulgar racial slurs multiple times, directed at African Americans and Jews, in particular.

Not long after, he survived the tragic shooting at his school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Like other classmates, he then became an activist. But unlike many others, he advocated from a conservative point of view, resisting calls for greater gun control.

Earlier this year, he was accepted at Harvard. But then a fellow student posted his earlier racist rants as a screenshot on Twitter. Despite Kashuv’s apologies and insistence that “I am no longer the same person,” Harvard rescinded his acceptance.

This now has become fodder in the nation’s endless war between liberals and conservatives. Of course politics played a role in what happened. Kashuv’s views rankled many people, including some of his fellow students. And yes, this also is about the inability to forgive or accept apologies.

But at its heart, it is about the maturation process, which can be painfully slow and often requires patience from everyone involved. Minor juvenile court records are hidden from the public for this reason. Yet mistakes similar to the ones you and I may have made decades ago in relative obscurity are today published indelibly on a web that is, indeed, worldwide.

Kashuv’s example is not so unusual. Here in Utah, teenage girls at Weber High School filmed themselves two years ago chanting gibberish that, when played backwards, as they subsequently did in an Instagram post, became a vulgar racist term. They faced discipline and public humiliation. But the video, with their clearly identifiable faces, still can be found easily on the internet.

You may think, as many have expressed, that this is proper justice. I will admit there is credence to that view. In my day, discretion often meant no one really confronted offenses. Racism in the shadows is just as ugly as it is on the web, only it goes unchallenged by public reaction. We can’t take for granted that life eventually will teach the right lessons.

But who among us in the adult world would like to be judged by the way we were at 16? How are people supposed to prove they have changed?

A careerbuilder survey last year found that 70 percent of employers use social media sites to research job candidates, and 57 percent have found things that caused them to reject an applicant. A soul can be much easier to scrub than the web.

The ultimate solution is to teach teenagers to be careful about what they post. But an immature mind won’t readily heed warnings any more than it might let go of stereotypes and prejudices.

If only we could find a discrete way to drive home important lessons, like the ones my fellow students learned at Disneyland all those years ago, without generating a trail of evidence that follows them forever like ticking time bombs. Alas, in the 21st century this may be impossible.