White Hathaway Brown Teen Missing, Then Found


On Friday afternoon, a school bus deposited Hathaway Brown 8th-grader Devon Smith at her home in Westlake, but she never went inside. That evening, she was reported missing. The Westlake and Shaker Heights Police Departments, along with the Hathaway Brown community and concerned neighbors, were all on the case.

Smith's photo predictably surfaced on Facebook in very short order. It was the smiling face of a girl who looked a lot older than 14, but who's curly head of hair gave her the aura of certain old-timey Broadway youths.

Police said the disappearance was not officially considered "suspicious." Nonetheless, everyone was distressed about poor Devon. Social media erupted with appeals for information. (I had friends in New York City posting Devon's photo and offering their solidarity and prayers.)

Devon was found the following morning hiding beneath a neighbor's deck. Someone had spotted articles of clothing there and alerted the police. The area had been checked the night before, but residents thought Devon may have been scampering around the neighborhood to avoid being found.

There was no criminal involvement. Police are treating the brief disappearance as a "family issue," especially after learning that Devon may have been "despondent" because of school matters.

The "outpouring" of support which HB president Bill Christ referenced in a statement of gratitude — don't get me wrong — was terrific. Good on Hathaway Brown and their network of well-connected alums to spread the word and ensure that no harm came to one of their students.

But something about the story and its immediate media frenzy seemed afoul or out of proportion. Maybe because it came so close on the heels of the photo taken of the Chicago RedEye which highlighted an alarming (but by no means new) bias in the way media covers violence and race.

Devon Smith lives in an affluent, predominantly white suburban neighborhood. She goes to a private school on the other side of town in an equally affluent neighborhood. She is white. She is cute — the curly hair and big smile make her instantly digitally likable.

And though police seemed to intuit early on that the disappearance was non-criminal, the above elements inspired a crazed media response. Just on the off-chance that something tragic had happened.

I'm delighted Devon is home safe and sound; I just wish we were this concerned about the children who run away (out of protest or anger or apathy) in Kinsman and Hough and Central.

There's also an underlying — and tangential — narrative enmeshed in all this, which might suggest that "running away from home," isn't all that bad. Devon Smith was either pouting or nervous about something that happened at school and didn't want to deal with her parents. Sounds like a lot of 14-year-olds I've met.

Even among exceedingly well-behaved children, "running away" has long been a secret desire, even if there's no direct catalyst. It's the idea of adventure maybe. If nothing else, it's a compelling method for testing boundaries — what our parents will allow, how much our own fear will bear, etc.

And here's that apprehension's thesis: As parenting becomes increasingly crowd-source-able, relics and stamps of childhood may be increasingly at stake.