The curse of being `gifted’

`CHRIS” is 11. He has just finished several year 10 subjects and written a 26,000-word novella. Next year he will study VCE English literature.

You’d think he’d be a catch for any school; don’t they love having smart kids who boost their academic results? Not if catering for them requires too much effort, they don’t. And gifted students like Chris can be hard yakka.

Chris isn’t even “in” school. Plodding along with other children years behind his mental age made him miserable, so for the past three years he has studied at home with his mother. Their suburban house is walking distance from two schools, but he is learning under the distance education system set up for rural kids.

“Gifted” is a curse of a label. It makes a child sound blessed, endowed with nature’s riches. It makes him sound like he needs no help.

“Gifted” is the kind of label that might confuse even a Labor government oriented towards equity. To the uninformed, it seems hard to justify special resources for children with high IQs when there are slow learners needing help just to learn to read and write. It seems like robbing the poor to give to the rich.

Alarmed parents recently wrote to the Education Minister, Mary Delahunty, following rumors that the gifted education section of her department faced the razor. This week they learnt that its already minuscule staff of four had been reduced to three.

Worse had been feared, and the gifted section has not been singled out for cuts. The department is reorganising to put more resources directly into schools. But it is worrying that a spokesman for the minister this week guaranteed only that there would be no cuts to gifted programs in schools next year.

Is their long-term future guaranteed? Does the department understand that gifted children are also special-needs children? Their classroom needs are as far from the norm as those of the learning disabled.

If they don’t get what they need, we lose them. In Australia, home of the decapitated tall poppy, gifted children have almost the same high-school dropout rate as slow learners and, as adults, twice the average incidence of depression and a correspondingly high risk of suicide.

A 1986 Senate select committee found gifted children were among the most educationally deprived students in Australia. Given that none of the committee’s recommendations was acted upon, they probably still are. (Victoria spends only $500,000 on gifted education out of a total schools budget of $4 billion, even though up to 5 per cent of children are gifted.)

Standard classrooms drive these children bananas. They need only one exposure to new ideas or information that normal children must repeat half a dozen times to master. Repetition is purgatory to the gifted child, who becomes bored and frustrated and turns off learning. Too many are diagnosed as gifted only when they’re sent off to a psychologist for behavioral problems.

They need to work at a higher level than children the same age and at a faster rate. Most of all, they need to work with students like themselves: children who get their jokes, spar with them academically and tolerate their idiosyncrasies.

Many dumb themselves down or become the class clown in an attempt to win acceptance in a country that values sporting excellence, but derides its intellectual counterpart.

“In Australia, the kid who’s going over the high jump higher than any other child in her class is applauded and cheered by the others,” says Dr Miraca Gross, professor of gifted education at the University of New South Wales. “But the kid in the classroom who uses a wide vocabulary and comes out with unusual ideas often will get negative feedback, so the child will bring her vocabulary down to the point where she’s not mocked.”

Teachers are sometimes no better, she says: “Many are afraid of the idea that there might be kids in their class who know more than they do about some things. But piano teachers and sports coaches would never fear a child being more able than themselves.”

In Victoria, about 20,000 children have been identified as gifted and at least 20,000 more are estimated to exist. Girls, migrants and underprivileged kids are least likely to have found the help they need. Australian studies show that when teachers without special training were asked to identify their gifted students, more than 70 per cent of those they picked were boys and more than 90per cent came from the Anglo middle-class.

Some Victorian state schools are setting up gifted programs, but these are few and usually limited in nature. NSW, which has set up “opportunity schools”, is way ahead.

The gifted education section educates teachers (many of whom learnt little or nothing of giftedness in their initial training) and initiates programs for students. Its work should be expanded, not cut.

Gifted education is not elitist. “From each according to his ability” really does depend on “To each according to his needs”.

First published in The Age.

Indonesia’s voice of dissent has some good news

GOENAWAN Mohamad’s mother did not raise him to be one of Indonesia’s most prominent dissidents. Perhaps the ghost of his father did.

Mohamad makes a silent shooting gesture to describe how his father died. “He was a political activist. He and my mother were exiled to West Irian in the ’20s, before I was born. They were left wing. Then they brought him home to Java, with my mother. Maybe he cooperated with the Dutch (colonial regime) for a while; I don’t know.

“But after the Japanese were defeated in World War II, the Dutch tried to return. I’m not sure exactly what he did; maybe a lot of meetings. One day they came to fetch him and executed him without trial.”

Mohamad was five. He has few memories and no photographs of his father. His family lost all their mementoes when they fled to the mountains with other guerrillas, leaving the Dutch to seize and burn their homes.

After what had happened to the family, he says, his mother did not want to instil political activism in her six children. “But education was the first priority. My father told my mother, `If anything happens to me, you should bury your jewellery so you can use it for the children’s education.”‘

She did just that, helping mould a son who became an analytic and relentless critic of government repression. For more than 25 years Mohamad was managing editor of Tempo magazine, Indonesia’s equivalent of Time and one of the few publications to report fearlessly on the nation’s politics.

In 1994, President Suharto banned Tempo for its uncompromising coverage of an expensive Government defence bungle, sparking worldwide protests. Mohamad fought hard against the ban – late last year, in the era of Reformasi, the magazine was relaunched – and has written widely on Indonesian identity, democracy and freedom. His book of essays, Sidelines: Writings from Tempo, was published in Australia in 1994.

He left Tempo last year to devote himself to the Institute for the Study of the Free Flow of Information, a body he created to circumvent government censorship. He was in Melbourne this week to deliver the Asialink 1999 Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Walkley Asia Media Lecture.

How was he drawn to journalism? “Well, I always wanted to be a writer, and writing doesn’t pay, really.” He gives a conspiratorial chuckle. “Journalism is a good combination, and in my case it brought a lot of money, when I was the editor.”

It also brought surveillance of his house, tapping of his phones and, during two separate bans on Tempo, loss of his job and income. “When we were banned for the first time, I told my friends that working in this kind of job you had to be prepared for the worst. That’s why you have to marry spouses who have jobs.”
He laughs again, amused by the pragmatic requirements of a life of subversion. He and others have maintained their covert networks despite the recent freeing up of media. Publications no longer need a government licence and the Department of Information has been disbanded, but Mohamad does not trust to the future.

“When you have gone through this long period of repression, you never take freedom for granted. That’s why we still have the underground.”

After Tempo was banned, one group of journalists used the Internet to set up Tempo Online – “We had to stay visible; we had to demonstrate to the Government that we defied them” – while Mohamad founded ISAI using principles established by Palestinians under Israeli rule.

“We created forum meetings in several places in Indonesia. We trained students to improve their political communication skills, gave awards to the best student newspaper. We created underground publications, books, magazines and even a news agency on the Internet. The Government focused on Tempo Online, but other channels were being created without the Government’s knowledge.

“The number of people with access to phone lines and computers was and is very small. But this forum we created, the student groups, they downloaded material and printed it and distributed it. Sometimes they sold it to finance the movement. Indonesia now has a more organised underground and information network than ever.”

Media freedom depends on democracy, and Mohamad is wary because Indonesia’s democracy is still fragile. “It faces many problems. First, the so-called national disintegration (the unrest in places such as Aceh and the Moluccas, chafing under the rule of central government). I think the break-up is inevitable because the present government and the past government have done too little, too late. Second, the weakness of the democratic traditions like political parties, local governments and labor unions.”

These make attempts to establish a democratic regime “like reinventing Indonesia”, he says. “It’s like issuing a new edition of the country. So now that we have a government that’s popularly elected, it’s rather amateurish and dangerously erratic. The President travels so much; he says the Australian Government is being childish.” He shakes his head.

Australians are often accused of misunderstanding Asia. Mohamad himself once accused the Australian media of regarding the Indonesian Government’s aversion to them as an inverted compliment. He said Australians were not willing to take the time to learn what Indonesia was like. Now he takes a softer, more reflective line on cross-cultural confusion.

“Nobody can claim that he or she can understand Indonesia, not even Indonesians. And newspapers are not only the creation of journalists; they are also the creation of the reader. In poetry and fiction you don’t have to really worry about what the readers are aware of; in journalism you have to. Every time you want to write, even if you are smart and very knowledgeable about the country, you have to think about your reader in Australia or Ireland or Brazil.

“It’s not just culture. It’s geography, it’s history, it’s the limit of the human capacity to know. What do Indonesians know about Malaysia or Australia? Nothing. So why should we blame others for not understanding us?”

Mohamad’s life journey, like his father’s, has been interwoven with the historic ebb and flow of forces in his nation. As a public figure who has vigorously championed free speech, he is much admired. Is he a hero?

He is instantly dismissive. “I believe `hero’ is a false identity. What matters is not being a hero; what matters in the human life is heroic deeds. Somebody who did heroic acts might also some day do stupid acts, indefensible things, and to proclaim someone a hero is to put him or her in a category where you forgive everything of them. So I believe in heroic acts, but not heroes.”

But he does admit to putting one man on a pedestal: “Mandela. He saved the 20th century from cynicism. The most valuable thing a person can do for his fellow human beings is to create hope, and to create hope is not to talk about the future but to indicate that mankind is worthwhile.”

He falls silent. A good journalist recognises when no more need be said.

First published in The Age.

When children kill

WHEN is a child not a child? Take the 13-year-old boy who stood on a bridge over the Eastern Freeway dropping rocks on to cars. The last rock, all 1.8 kilograms of it, struck the chest of a motorist with the force of sledgehammer. It ruptured his heart and killed him.
In America, that kind of offence loses a child his special status in law. “Adult crime, adult time,” is the catch-cry, and more than 40 states now automatically transfer juveniles charged with certain violent offences to the adult system, where they face life sentences.

In Victoria, children aged between 10 and 14 are automatically transferred to the Supreme Court when charged with murder or manslaughter. Juries make what they can of exchanges such as this one between police and the young rock-thrower, up for manslaughter:

“Whereabouts did you get the rocks from?”

“That little place where we were playing tiggy on our bikes.”

Adult crime, childish pastime. Should the boy be held responsible for the death he caused? What is the boundary of the age of innocence – or is the very concept an adult fantasy?

The question is becoming more urgent with cases such as that of Corey Davis, the six-year-old with an intellectual disability who drowned after a 10-year-old boy shoved him into a creek. The case triggered calls for Australian children to be held more culpable for their crimes.

The 10-year-old became the second-youngest child in Australia to be charged with a killing. He is even younger if judged by his mental age, which was said to be around seven. New South Wales police decided to charge the boy with manslaughter after he told them: “Yeah. I pushed him. So what?”

Last May, the NSW senior children’s magistrate, Stephen Scarlett, ruled that the case should not go to the Supreme Court because a conviction was unlikely, given the evidence provided by child witnesses. A jury would probably see Corey’s death as “an act of bullying that went horribly wrong”. The NSW Department of Public Prosecutions overruled Scarlett’s recommendation and decided the boy should stand trial.

Although he believed the boy should not face an adult hearing, Scarlett had questioned whether today’s children are too protected from culpability.

In NSW and Victoria, the law presumes that children older than 10 but younger than 14 are incapable of forming an intention to commit a crime. This is known as the doli incapax presumption. It can be overturned, or rebutted, in an individual case only if the prosecution manages to prove the child did understand the significance of his or her actions. The presumption developed in 18th-century English law to prevent the hanging or transportation of children.

Scarlett called for the doli incapax cut-off to be lowered to the 12th birthday. “Can it really be argued that a child of 13 does not understand that it is wrong to steal from a shop, or to attack someone with a knife or a gun? Does any child in high school not have an idea of the rules by which modern Australian society runs?”

Technology had made doli incapax dated, he argued. “It seems obvious that children in the final stages of the 20th century are better educated and more sophisticated than their counterparts 200 years ago. A child in Australia has access to television, radio and the Internet, and has a far greater understanding of the world than a 12-year-old in rural Britain in 1769.”

But children are not like computers; input does not necessarily translate into appropriate output. They must be taught how to process the information they receive. And for how long should they be buffered from adult consequences because of other aspects of their childish natures?

One of the two British boys who battered to death toddler James Bulger in 1993 was surprised when police told him they could prove he was at the scene. The boy did not understand that they were referring to forensic evidence. He asked them whether they had the power to bring James back to life and question him.

The director of the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre, Louis Schetzer, says: “I hardly think exposure to police shows on commercial television is necessarily an instrument by which children can be assumed to have a greater level of responsibility and knowledge of the context of their responsibilities and rights in the criminal justice system.

“Effectively, the principle of doli incapax allows that a young person has developing capacities and that there is no standardised model you could hold inflexibly to all 12 or 13-year-olds.”

He argues that children should not even be transferred to an adult court if they are under 14.

British lawmakers have leant more towards Scarlett’s view. They reversed the burden of proof regarding doli incapax, putting the onus on the defence to prove the child did not form the intent to commit the crime, following the Bulger murder. Two-year-old James was abducted from a shopping centre and killed by two 10-year-old boys.

Since then, in Norway, three boys aged six battered a five-year-old girl and left her to die; in France, three boys, one aged only 10, kicked a tramp to death; and in the US, two boys aged 10 and 11 dropped a five-year-old 14 storeys to his death for
refusing to hand over his lollies.

Public outrage at such atrocities has fuelled a push to find young people more culpable for their offending, says Terry Bartholomew, a lecturer in forensic psychology at Deakin University. “When society perceives a youth crime wave, the response is always to increase the state’s punitiveness. The majority of American states now transfer children who have committed homicide-related offences to the adult system. A private member’s bill in Queensland was recently submitted to try to reverse the presumption of doli incapax.”

Bartholomew has studied the 18 cases of juveniles charged with homicide-related offences in Victoria since 1990. They do not include this year’s three: a 15-year-old boy charged with killing a grandmother in her back yard; and two sisters, 13 and 15, charged with fatally stabbing a friend’s mother.

Bartholomew says the typical case involves a teenage boy disturbed during a burglary who panics and grabs a pair of scissors or a kitchen knife to fight his way out, with deadly consequences for the person confronting him.

He believes there are difficulties with transferring children to adult courts and sees contradictions in the way courts try to determine criminal responsibility by examining the offender’s background. “If Johnny comes from a good home, should he have known better? Is he more likely to be culpable than Jimmy, who comes from a broken home? … And where do you find a jury of their peers? The local high school?”

The manager of policy with Victoria’s office of public prosecutions, Bruce Gardner, says the age of qualification for jury duty has always been higher than the age of qualification for being an accused. He says the office assesses each juvenile case on its merits, and some do not proceed because it is assumed that doli incapax would apply.

A case would go to the Supreme Court only if it were thought appropriate because of the seriousness of the offence and the capacity of the child. “If it’s a serious case, they might get a technically more detailed and correct hearing in the Supreme Court than the Children’s Court. It might be more likely that they would be acquitted.”

Individual stages of intellectual and emotional development are not the only complex issues. Children now reach puberty earlier than in previous generations; they are taller and heavier as well as sexually developed at a younger age.

The barrister and psychologist Professor Don Thomson, of Charles Sturt University in NSW, says: “This issue looms large where you’ve got sex offences by 13-year-olds; because they’re sexually mature, when they commit rape or other sexual molestation, should you therefore invoke adult law?”

In Perth, 14-year-olds were among a group of six youths who recently appeared before the Children’s Court charged with pack rape.

Thomson says the trend is to treat juveniles more harshly and that this reflects a more punitive society. His research into views on sentencing has found that, while everyone surveyed said rehabilitation should be the main aim of the justice system, when asked to judge imaginary scenarios they wanted punishment to be severe.

“What people say and what they do are different,” Thomson says. “People focus on the consequences of the offence. They are not interested in mitigating factors, in looking at intent or whether a person shows remorse.

“This was reflected in the Lawrence Government in WA trying to introduce the most draconian laws in the British Commonwealth: curfews and making the penalties for juveniles more severe than for adults. In Western Australia and the Northern Territory, it’s reflected with three strikes and you’re in (jail), no matter what. And it’s reflected by the push for truth in sentencing.”

Thomson says research suggests that children must be at least 12 to have a proper understanding of consequences, but he believes many 14-year-olds have not developed this capacity. “That’s part of the reason why the age of adulthood is 18. We don’t allow children to enter into contracts because they don’t have a full appreciation of the consequences; we don’t allow them to marry, because they don’t appreciate the implications of that either.”

They also take a long time to develop control of their irrational impulses. “You can take children down to a road-safety place and they do all the road rules right. You send them off on their bicycles in the street and they violate everything they know. It’s the inability to integrate what they’ve learnt and apply it in a live system.”

The lawyer for the young rock-thrower appealed to that principle. He told the jury that “reasonable” teenagers – the imaginary yardstick by which the accused boy was to be judged – were capable of recklessness quite incomprehensible to adults; that “constantly you hear 13 and 14-year-olds who are quite reasonable asked this question by their parents: `How could you be so stupid?”‘ The rock-thrower and his friend (who had shared the activity with him but not the fatal throw) were acquitted.

But ambivalence remains about the appropriate response to children whose actions have monstrous consequences for others. In the Corey Davis case, the original magistrate thought charges should not be pursued, the public prosecutor thought they should, and the jury last week concluded that they could not convict the boy.

Internationally, there is neither consensus nor consistency. In Britain, James Bulger’s killers faced waves of punitive rage over their horrific crime. Their initial sentence was increased from eight years to 10. Then the Home Secretary intervened and tried to make it 15 (the House of Lords overruled him).

The boys were recently deemed by the European Commission of Human Rights to have been unfairly treated during their original trial. In a major turnaround, there are now calls to free them, the most notable coming from Britain’s chief inspector of prisons, General Sir David Ramsbotham.

Meanwhile, in the United States, a Michigan boy last month became the youngest American to be convicted of an adult charge of murder. Nathaniel Abraham now faces the possibility of life in jail. When he shot his victim, he was 11. He, too, has below-average intelligence but the jury decided he knew the gun was dangerous.

The mother of the slain man had no doubt about the verdict. “Justice has been served,” she said. But Nathaniel’s lawyer had no doubt about the verdict either. “He doesn’t understand it,” he said. “He literally never has.”

First published in The Age.