Anything less than the pursuit of adult criminal charges against the Mepham High School footballplayers charged with perpetrating brutal sexual assaults against three younger teammates would be atravesty of justice to the victims and would send a stark message nationwide.


While the recent priest abuse scandal has forced stunned parents to accept the painful truththat most sexual victimization happens between youth and those adults they trust, the facts of theMepham nightmare lend credence to the disturbing revelation that juvenile males commitapproximately 20 percent of all rapes and up to 50 percent of all child molestations in ourcountry.


The problem, locally and nationally, stems from a tradition of minimizing juvenile sexualassaults, producing inappropriate punishment and inadequate treatment. These cases were not seen asproblems in their own right. Instead, they were regarded as general reflections of antisocialbehavior such as juvenile delinquency, conduct disorder and substance abuse. This practiceoverlooks the tendency of juvenile sex offenders to progress from less to more serious offensesand, worse yet, denies justice for victims and their families who may suffer lifelong anddevastating emotional damage.


The juvenile justice system handles juveniles who violate criminal law. But those charged withmore serious crimes such as sex offenses can be transferred into the adult system for trial and, ifconvicted, can face more severe sentences. Traditionally, juvenile courts were expected to focusexclusively on the rehabilitation of juveniles because they are more able to rehabilitate thanadult offenders.


Although rehabilitation of juveniles is absolutely necessary, it must not eclipse the equallyimportant necessity of punishing juvenile sex offenders for damage wreaked on the victims, theirfamilies and society. Rehabilitation is fine for the perpetrator, but it is not enough for theaggrieved. The outrage that a Suffolk County mother felt after the teenager who raped and sodomizedher young daughter was released from a Long Island treatment facility after spending only 18 monthsthere was not soothed by do-gooders pushing his need for restoration over her need for justice.


It is shameful to see our system doling out further injustice to already traumatized victims andtheir families. Fortunately, rehabilitative concerns are finally beginning to be balanced withconcerns about accountability and deterrence.


Wayne County Prosecutor Mark Zimmer in Pennsylvania is doing just that. A hearing on this caseis set for Wednesday in Honesdale, Pa. If he has his way, the three charged Mepham players will beappropriately tried as adults. In Zimmer's state, juveniles tried and convicted as adults are notplaced with adult populations but instead serve sentences in special juvenile facilities foroffenders under the age of 22, where they receive treatment as well.


Although reforms in the juvenile and criminal justice systems may reduce recidivism, othersignificant changes to our education system will serve to protect our youth. Parents want to trustschool districts to make their children's safety their priority, when the reality is that costpressures and liability issues almost always drive the institutions' decisions.


For example, the South Country School District recently decided to allow a teacher it knew wasbeing investigated by law enforcement for charges of sodomy against a minor to go on an overnighttrip with minors because, according to Superintendent Michael LeFever, it can't take away anemployee's civil rights based solely on one accusation.


Stricter supervision and more parental involvement guarantee better student safety. But mostschool district administrators, teachers and coaches steadfastly peddle overnight school-sponsoredtrips as safe rites of passage, even though they know they have a dangerously low number ofadults to students, as demonstrated by the Mepham football camp ratio of five coaches to 60 youth,and they have strict policies prohibiting parent chaperones.


Child protection always requires adult intervention. State lawmakers should legislate stiffsupervision mandates for school trips, requiring that adult-to-student ratios be set at a minimumof one to five and requiring parent chaperones, whose backgrounds have been checked, to attendevery school-sponsored overnight trip.


And let's insist that when juveniles violate other juveniles' sexuality, they not be treatedwith kid gloves.