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Raising Arizona

What doesn't it take to raise good kids?


Mike Gemma is back to work as principal of Canyon del Oro High School after enduring a brutal month of innuendo and finger-pointing stemming from a confrontation with a student. On August 27, Gemma was talking to the student after the kid had been referred to the office for cussing out a security monitor on the far northwest side of campus.

At one point during the meeting, the kid just got up and started to walk out of the office. Gemma cut him off and then, when the kid made yet another in a series of bad decisions by trying to buffalo his way past the principal, Gemma physically restrained the kid.

That should have been that, but somehow, the Oro Valley Police Department got involved. Gemma was arrested and charged with assault on the kid, who reportedly had (are you ready?) "a bruise."

Like you, I had always thought that "Oro Valley" was Spanish for "speed trap." Heck, if you had to drive any slower past CDO High, you'd be going backwards. But, as the bedroom community has grown, its police department has branched out into filing bogus assault charges. (I talked to a couple of Oro Valley officials, and I haven't heard the phrase "They were just doing their jobs" that many times since AMC showed Judgement at Nuremburg.)

I first met Mike Gemma when he and I served on a committee together in the Amphi district. He's soft-spoken and friendly, dedicated and caring. He's also extremely professional, although not in a stick-up-the-butt way. Our committee had a tough job to do, but Mike made it easier for all of us. He provided insight and leadership without ever being pushy or pedantic.

When I spoke with Mike last week, he was his usual upbeat self, belying the fact that he had spent much of the previous day and night in the hospital trying to comfort the family of a 15-year-old CDO freshman who had been gravely injured after being struck by a van while crossing a busy street before school. The boy later died.

Over the past couple of years Mike Gemma had spent too many hours in hospital waiting rooms with nothing to show for it but a huge hole in his life. In January of 1999, his son, Nick, was diagnosed with Wilms Tumor, an extremely rare form of cancer that attacks the kidneys. A half-century ago, Wilms Tumor was almost always fatal, but, over the past 50 years, advances in treatment and surgical techniques had flip-flopped the odds to where nearly 90 percent of those who are diagnosed with it today will survive.

Unfortunately, Nick Gemma was in that other 10 percent.

Nick endured two major operations and then was scheduled to undergo stem-cell therapy. Since Tucson's University Medical Center is the only hospital in Arizona that does the procedure, Mike Gemma quit his job as a principal of a school in Phoenix and moved the family here. It was around that time that the CDO job opened up and Mike beat out dozens of other candidates for the position.

Mike had to move his family, take over as principal of the then-largest high school in Southern Arizona and watch his son slip away, all at the same time. Nick Gemma was 8 years old when he died.

And now Mike was back in the hospital with the family of one of his students.

"Spending time in a hospital certainly provides you with perspective as to what's important and what isn't," Mike told me when I asked him about his police trouble last week. "When you think what this poor family is going through, (my arrest) is completely insignificant.

"Besides," he added, "I knew everything was going to be OK. I hadn't done anything wrong. All it took was for a little time to pass so that everyone could cool off a bit."

While he wouldn't wish the experience on anybody, he did come away with something positive. "I was overwhelmed by the support I received. When this happened, I don't think I went two or three hours at a time without hearing from somebody--parents, teachers, administrators. It was very gratifying."

Why, then, did this happen? Gemma is too nice a guy to say it, so I will. Some parents aren't doing their damn jobs.

Oh, they're great at having kids and some are real good at making lots of money, but far too many adults these days stink out loud at being parents. They're successful in their careers, but they neglect that which is truly important. They have the amazing ability to delude themselves into believing that the inane concept of "quality time" truly exists.

How else do you explain a high-school kid who cusses out an adult and then has to be physically restrained from leaving the principal's office? With all due respect to Father Flanagan, are there some kids who are just plain bad? Yeah, there are probably a handful, but most kids are just careening down Puberty Highway at 200 mph, driving a body that's all of a sudden unfamiliar to them, and then being asked to negotiate the blind curve of adolescence. And learn trigonometry.

They all need a little help, a little guidance. They need parameters and discipline and they need their parents to give them a little bit less money and a whole lot more time.

The charges were dropped when the kid and his parents decided not to pursue the matter, according to Oro Valley prosecutor Tobin Sidles. It all ended OK, but it reeks that the kid had anything to do with the way it turned out.

Speaking of parents not doing their jobs, what kind of parent would name a kid "Tobin"? Why not just call him "Please Beat Me Up"? The poor dude couldn't have grown up to be anything but a lawyer.

Amazingly, the kid is back at school. He should be happy that Gemma's back at work, but that probably isn't the case. He either thinks that he got away with something or that the system screwed him somehow. Maybe his parents will take the time to set him straight. They should have done that a long time ago.

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