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jacob_meadowsA week ago tonight, my 17-year-old cousin Jacob Meadows, a high school student in Ashland, Missouri, died by his own hand as the end result of an unfortunate chain of circumstances that were touched off by an ill-conceived cell phone text message.

What happened, as I understand it from a letter from Jacob’s father, my uncle John Meadows, is this: On the evening of Monday, September 9th, too keyed up to go to sleep, Jacob was chatting by cell phone text with a high school friend, and inspired perhaps by all the to-do about the September 11th anniversary on the horizon, the two of them decided to prank a third friend, another high school student. So Jacob wrote a spooky message and texted it to their pranking victim. Here it is (source: Boone County Journal):

“You do not realize how long I’ve been hunting you, (REDACTED) You do not know me, but I know you. I am neither friend nor foe. But I am here to deliver you a warning. A warning that, if heeded, could save your life…

I have been a shady stranger to most people; shifting around locations and towns – hitch hiking when necessary. I have been under the radar of the United States Government for many, many long years. I am a ghost. I am a shadow on the wall. And let me tell you – life should not be this way. For anyone.

But I was put here for a reason. And that reason, is to warn you of a horrible disaster that will happen in your Ashland high school around 2:35 PM. There is no option if you want to live. Stay at home. Pretend you are sick.

Survive.”

Looking at the message in the cold light of day, it seems ludicrously over the top, a juvenile exercise in high-schooler purple prose that no one ought to take seriously. (Though, then again, I am probably biased by the situation. Would I have taken it seriously if it ended up anonymously on my phone? I don’t know.) But it didn’t seem that way to the student, who didn’t have Jacob’s cell phone number in his contacts and so didn’t get caller ID to tell him where the message came from. So he did take it seriously, and informed the police.

Soon after he did that, however, the prank victim became aware who was actually behind the message and quickly texted Jacob back that he knew it was just a joke, and to show the police the messages saying so in the hope that he wouldn’t get into any trouble. The police came out about 11 p.m. and investigated, talked to the prank victim over the phone, and determined that it was, in fact, just a prank and not a serious threat. Jacob was scolded sternly by both the police and his father, and then they left, telling John, “OK, he’s all yours for whatever punishment you think is right.”

Unfortunately, in the meantime, someone had passed the text on to the authorities at the school. The text then became an official “threat” and they had to take action. They declared the school closed the next day so they could call in the bomb-sniffing dogs—and they demanded the police arrest Jacob. So back they went at 1 a.m.

By John’s account, the police made it clear that they knew it was just a joke, but they had to go “by the book” and arrest Jacob for it. They were in the middle of explaining to his parents how they could bail him out when Jacob slipped into the room next door where his father kept a .22 pistol for use on varmints. He took the gun and shot himself through the heart, and the hospital was unable to revive him.

From all reports, Jacob was usually exuberant, happy, and cheerful. Indeed, the prank was conceived in just that spirit of youthful exuberance, not out of any sense of malice. He seemed to be acting calmly and rationally right up until the moment he went in the other room. Why did he kill himself?We’ll never know for sure; we can only guess.

I do know Jacob suffered from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), though he kept it well under control and wasn’t any kind of a problem at school. I’m told that he harbored hopes of going into the military after high school, and might have been afraid that a criminal record coming out of this would have led to rejection. Furthermore, he must have felt a deep sense of shame at having disappointed his father. And when the police come to arrest you at 1 in the morning, and you’re roused from a sound sleep and told you’ll have to go with them, even many adults would have a hard time thinking clearly. All this must have led to a moment of total brain-stopping panic and depression, to the point where he saw only one way out.

(One of the saddest parts is that, if Jacob hadn’t shot himself, I expect he would probably have been let off with a misdemeanor when all this blew over in a few days, and since he was still a juvenile it probably wouldn’t have gone on his permanent record anyway.)

In the aftermath, as Jacob’s family and friends ask ourselves why, and the police promise to run their own investigation, it is easy to want to place blame, but blaming won’t bring him back—and it’s really hard to find a truly guilty party. We could most easily blame the school authorities for overreacting, and insisting on an arrest after the police had already investigated and determined Jacob was no threat. The boy must be arrested. Zero Tolerance uber alles! But looking at it from the other side, in this post-Columbine, post-9/11, post-Boston Marathon era, it is entirely understandable for them to feel as if you have to take every threat seriously—because how are they going to look if they pooh-pooh a single threat and someone comes and shoots up their school? Much as we might want to say our world shouldn’t be that way, it is that way. I suspect that, if put in the same situation, more people than not would probably say to arrest him “just to be on the safe side” while they sort things out.

We could say that John Meadows should not have kept a loaded gun within easy reach—but Jacob was a trusted member of the family and had never shown any sign that he might ever want to kill himself. I have no doubt that John taught Jacob proper gun safety and respect for firearms early on, because that’s the tradition in our family. Once those lessons were driven home the gun would have been handy in case a varmint (or home intruder) needed to be taken care of when John wasn’t around.

And I’m certainly not going to blame Jacob himself. I remember my own teenage days. Everything bad always seemed like it was going to ruin my life forever. I didn’t have the necessary experience (or freedom from thought-clouding hormones) to judge long-term consequences properly. Few teenagers do—this has been understood at least all the way back to Shakespeare’s day. Just look at Romeo & Juliet. People call it “the greatest love story ever told,” but if you cut through all the poetry, it’s a story about two teenagers who kill themselves in a moment of passion over a stupid crush and a stupider misunderstanding, because they just don’t know any better. If I were Jacob’s age, in his shoes…I don’t know. I just don’t know.

And that failure to judge long-term consequences is also at the heart of the root cause of the whole thing. People of my generation, who were adults when 9/11 happened and have watched how our country has changed (often for the worse) since then, know that you just don’t joke about things like that, any more than you’d go on Twitter and say you wanted to kill the President. The authorities take those things very seriously. But Jacob wasn’t thinking about any larger consequences beyond wanting to throw a temporary scare into his buddy. (Perhaps before Columbine, or at least before 9/11, the reaction might not have been so sudden and severe. But then, in those days you wouldn’t have had high schoolers able to send text messages in the first place.)

The ubiquity of mobile messaging technology might also be a factor. Well, it was certainly a factor in that it was the vector for the message that set off the chain of events, but the impersonal nature of text messaging could have contributed to the ease of Jacob composing and sending it, and to the fright the message caused. Back in my day, the only kids who had cell phones were on TV, like Zack Morris on Saved By the Bell, and those were immense things the size of a brick. Text messaging hadn’t even been invented yet. But now, we almost all have the miraculous ability to send a text message to anyone else with a cell phone in a matter of seconds, even if they’re nowhere near a computer. But the darker side to this power is that it’s easier than ever to write and send a message before you’ve had the time to think it through. This is true for adults, and especially so for kids

Many kids have cell phones these days, and the ones who don’t often have iPod Touches and apps that mimic cell phones for Wi-Fi texting or voice calling. And the ones who don’t have those have computers, or access to computers if they don’t have their own. And it’s easier to say stupid or nasty things when you’re not seeing the other person’s face and they don’t know who you are. And by the same token, it’s easier to be scared by an anonymous message you get.

I didn’t know Jacob very well. In fact, I think the last time I remember being in the same room with him was Christmas of 2008, when he would have been 12. I haven’t seen him much since then. (I did exchange brief messages with him on a Facebook video back in July, but that was the only contact I’d had with him in years.) Reading about how he got along at school in all the articles that have come out since his death, I wish, now, that I had. I would have liked to know him better. Now, I never will. My heart goes out to my uncle and aunt, and cousins, and all the rest of the family. This is a terrible tragedy, a terrible case of wasted potential, and the loss of a loved one that will leave an empty hole in all our lives.

I only hope that something good comes out of it. Let it be a warning to other parents, aunts and uncles, teachers—there’s nothing special about Jacob’s case. Jacob was a usually-well-behaved young man who made a foolish mistake, and ultimately a far more terrible one that ended his life. He was not a juvenile delinquent or a problem child. You all could be just a few mistakes (your kids’ and the authorities’) away from the same kind of thing happening to you. John Meadows puts it best:

“Listen to your children,” he said. “Listen to your children’s friends, because sometimes your children’s friends will clue you in on some stuff that your son or daughter won’t tell you. Sit down with them and see what the situation is. But get it across to them that you love them, and that you’ll do whatever it takes to help them out.”

Talk to your children (or your nieces and nephews, your godchildren, your students, etc.) about these things now, and try to head it off before the authorities become involved. You could save a life.

 
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