Helicopter parents, race, and class: why the cops were called on two Native American teens on a college tour

Recently, a mother on a campus tour of Colorado State University called the police on two Native American teens because she found their behavior “odd” and their clothing disturbing. They were wearing heavy metal band t-shirts and didn’t answer her questions the way she liked.

The teens’ mother believes they were racially profiled. Would the caller have summoned the authorities if the kids were white? It’s a valid question. But I think there’s something else here at play as well: would she have called the cops if they had a parent with them?

One of the biggest problems with today’s “helicopter” parents is they work not only to control only their own children but everyone else’s as well. They are obsessed with supervising kids. For this kind of parent, seeing two young adults without parents must have seemed immediately like an abnormal, potentially dangerous situation.

Of course, the two young men are also of a different class than their privileged peers who were driven or flown to campus along with their relatively wealthy parents. The Native American teens had saved up their own money for the trip to CSU and drove seven hours in their family car to get there–all of which shows a good deal of motivation and self-reliance, exactly the characteristics you might want in prospective college students.

Many ambitious upper-middle-class American parents spend a huge amount of money and time making sure their kids are prepped for college. They push their children to go to the right schools, take the right classes, and join the right extracurricular activities. They pay for tutors, SAT-prep courses, special sport teams, music and language lessons. And they go with them to visit college campuses — sometimes several of them.

After all that investment, for these intense parents to then see two unaccompanied teens dressed in heavy metal t-shirts on the same campus tour as their carefully curated kid must have hit a nerve. 

I don’t know for sure the caller is a helicopter parent, but some signs are there: the fact both she and her husband were on the tour with their son, her overblown fear, and her need to control behavior. The Native American teens did not look, dress, or act in a way she felt was acceptable. Therefore, they were suspicious, and her first instinct? Call the cops.

Earlier this year, novelist May Cobb wrote about how someone called the cops because her kid’s hair was messy. (My blog post about it is here.)  Her son is autistic and didn’t like his hair combed. The police stop not only ruined the family’s day at the park but weighed heavily on a mother working so hard to help her kid adapt.

Having the police stop you, for whatever reason, is incredibly stressful, but yet many still think that any minor suspicion is enough. (View the video above and imagine for a moment this happening to you or your kid.)

This is the real danger—not just to parenting but to our society. We live in a country that supposedly cherishes freedom and bravery, not one drowning in control and fear like the former GDR where regular citizens would turn each other in to the police.

I wonder what the campus caller thought these two young men might do? In her call, the woman said “I’m probably being completely paranoid, but with everything that’s happened…” Did she think they were going to shoot up the campus? They don’t fit the profile of school shooters, who are overwhelmingly lone, white males. The two also weren’t carrying any weapons or even a backpack to conceal one. With so little evidence, the woman was still extremely afraid, telling the dispatcher that “…they, it actually made me feel, like, sick, and I’ve never felt like that.”

I wonder how she feels now, knowing what she did to those two young men. At the very least, I hope this incident makes her hesitate the next time she has an urge to call the cops. It should give all of us pause, especially those in America’s more privileged classes.

We should have more evidence before calling the cops—and the police should demand more before responding. A piece of clothing, a hair style, or, for goodness sake, someone’s skin color – is not enough to call the police — neither is the simple fact of a young person being out in the world on their own.

We should be encouraging young people to be independent, not criminalizing them for it. The police should not be used to terrorize regular people doing regular things, like taking a walk in the park or visiting a college campus.

Because if we start calling the police every time we see someone who is different, we’re going to need a lot more police. And we can no longer call this country the home of the free.

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