First Posted: 6/1/2011

For a Robeson County family, it was an imperfect storm of events that led a student into a high school auditorium where the murderer of his brother was dressed in street clothes, unshackled, and prepared to take the stage to tell students not to do as he had done.

There were too many people asleep at the wheel to have allowed for that to happen on April 5 at a county high school — and school officials have promised that protocol will be reviewed and the necessary steps taken to prevent a Round 2. Those who draft policy for the schools should begin with this understanding: If a convicted murderer returns to a school in the community where his victim lived, there is a better than average chance that someone in the audience doesn’t want to hear what the killer has to say.

In fact, we would go further, and suggest that students be advised in advance when such programs are offered, so they and their parents can make informed decisions on whether or not they should attend. It’s not a small matter to have to sit still while a murderer speaks.

All that said, let’s make a distinction between the baby and the bathwater.

The guest speaker that day, Stephen Mercer, was convicted in 2006 of second-degree murder and is currently serving an 11- to 14-year sentence at Robeson Correctional Center. He voluntarily participates in a program called Think Smart in which inmates, under the supervision of prison staff, speak to assemblies of young people, sharing their personal stories and underlining the point that actions have consequences. While we can’t bring forth any concrete evidence as proof, there is no doubt that the program has steered more than one student in danger of drifting down the wrong road back in a positive direction. And one saved young person would be plenty to make the program worthwhile.

Think Smart is in fact an ideal program for our county’s six high schools. It’s been said enough, but can’t be said too much: This county ranks high in the state in property and violent crime, and way too much of that is committed by young people. And even the adult criminals usually begin tracking in the wrong direction as impressionable young people who too easily are seduced by drugs, alcohol or friends with bad ideas.

Our school system should be aggressive in its attempts to take the gray out, and help young people understand that right and wrong is black and white. Programs like Think Smart can be a small piece of that difficult-to-assemble puzzle, so we say more of them, not less. In advance of that, school officials themselves need to … well … think smart.