Learning From Kyle Rittenhouse and Nicholas Sandmann

These Two Young Men Showed More Maturity Than the “Grown-ups” Who Condemned Them

In 2019, in the wake of the Nicholas Sandmann/Covington Catholic incident at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., I wrote an article condemning the various adults who failed a group of high school boys in an incident that became an overnight media dumpster fire. I wrote,

“I have not been more ashamed to be a grown-up in a long, long time. … The Covington Catholic boys have been terribly, horribly failed by a long parade of adults who, instead of modeling good behavior, have done the opposite.”

Less than two years later, it felt like déjà vu all over again as I watched the case of another young man, Kyle Rittenhouse, play out in the national news. In case you haven’t followed one or both of these stories, here are the basic facts.

On Jan. 18, 2019, 16-year-old Nicholas Sandmann went to Washington, D.C., to participate in the National March for Life with his classmates from an all-male, private Kentucky high school, Covington Catholic. After the march was over, while Sandmann and his classmates were waiting for their bus in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the boys were approached by members of a group called the Black Hebrew Israelites who harassed them verbally.

The boys responded with general goofy teenaged behavior (for example, one boy took his shirt off and led the rest in a series of school chants). Then a native American named Nathan Phillips, who was present for another event, approached the crowd. Sandmann, who was wearing a MAGA hat, was videotaped standing face to face with Phillips and smiling while Phillips drummed and sang. The video of this portion of the incident went viral and was reported by multiple media outlets as evidence of Sandmann’s racism and mocking of native Americans.

Within days, however, it became clear that there was more to the story and that the initial reporting had misrepresented the incident. Over time, many who condemned Sandmann early on retracted their condemnation. Sandmann ultimately sued a number of media outlets for defamation. Several of those suits have been settled for undisclosed amounts.

The case of Kyle Rittenhouse took much longer to play out than Sandmann’s, and had the truth not come out, Rittenhouse would have had more to lose than his reputation: he might have spent the rest of his life in jail. On August 24, 2020, Rittenhouse, who lived with his mother in Antioch, Illinois, traveled the short distance to Kenosha, Wisconsin, a trip he made regularly since he worked in Kenosha and his father also lived there. At the time, there had already been several days of demonstrations in Kenosha following the shooting of a black man, Jacob Blake, by a white police officer. (Blake survived with serious injuries, and the officer was not charged.)

Rittenhouse would later testify in court that he went to Kenosha with the intention of helping protect property and provide medical assistance to those who might need it in a community that was, for him, a second home. On August 25, Rittenhouse helped clean graffiti off a Kenosha school and was videotaped talking to various people and offering medical aid.

Shortly before midnight, during a brief series of violent encounters, Rittenhouse shot three men with an AR-15 rifle that he owned and kept in Kenosha. Two of the men died. Rittenhouse immediately tried to turn himself in to Kenosha police but was turned way, so he returned to Antioch and surrendered there, confident that he would not be charged with a crime because he believed the shootings had been in self-defense. However, he was quickly arrested and spent several months in custody, first in Antioch and then in Kenosha, before making bail. In early 2021, Rittenhouse was charged with murder by the state of Wisconsin but was found innocent by reason of self-defense in a jury trial that concluded on Nov. 19, 2021.

While there are significant differences between Rittenhouse’s and Sandmann’s cases, the most obvious being that Sandmann didn’t stand trial for shooting anyone, one disturbing parallel is the extent to which both young men were failed by a long line of adults who — supposedly having greater maturity and experience — should have done better. At the time of their respective incidents, Sandmann was 16 and Rittenhouse was 17. In other times and cultures, young men of that age might have been considered adults, but in modern America, they are not. The approximately 240 Covington High students who went to the March for Life in 2019 were reportedly accompanied by 20 chaperones, but only around five of those were present with the large group of students at the Lincoln Memorial. In the aftermath of the Sandmann incident, many onlookers asked where the chaperones were and why they didn’t intervene. To be sure, it’s easy for those of us who weren’t there to criticize those who were, but it’s a fair question. Why weren’t there more chaperones with the group? And why didn’t they remove the students from a charged situation?

In the case of Rittenhouse, the question on many lips was why his mother let him go to Kenosha during the unrest. That, too, is fair to ask. Rittenhouse’s parents were divorced, and all indications are that the domestic situation in which Kyle grew up was extremely complicated, with a history of domestic disturbance, substance abuse, financial challenges, and even homelessness. Rittenhouse reportedly worked to help keep the family afloat financially. His mother has been a visible source of support for him throughout his arrest and trial, and one can’t help but have sympathy for her. But had the adults in Kyle Rittenhouse’s life kept closer tabs on him, he might have never gone to Kenosha that fateful day.

But it wasn’t just parents or chaperones who let these boys down. Within hours of the Sandmann video going viral, and without waiting for the students to get home so they could tell their story firsthand, Sandmann’s own school and the local Roman Catholic diocese issued a joint statement publicly condemning him and apologizing to Nathan Phillips. As more information came out, the statement was removed, but the fact that it was issued at all demonstrated what was foremost on the issuers’ minds: the protection not of the minor student but of the diocese and the school.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of their respective incidents, both Sandmann and Rittenhouse faced grievously unfair treatment by the media and retained a high-profile lawyer, Lin Wood, whom each later released because they did not believe he was acting in their best interests. It is little wonder that on Nov. 22, following Rittenhouse’s exoneration, Sandmann tweeted that he looked forward to “getting in touch with Kyle. He has weathered this trial with grace and I will continue to help him hold the media accountable in any way I can.” On Nov. 21, Sandmann tweeted that he had been in touch with Rittenhouse and that Rittenhouse was “in great spirits.”

As I watched both of these situations unfold from a distance over the last two years, my reaction was, admittedly, colored by my maternal instinct. I have a son about the same age as Sandmann and Rittenhouse, and I couldn’t help imagining how I would feel if he were the one who had been so thoroughly victimized and exploited by people who obviously didn’t care about him, the truth or simply doing the right thing. I didn’t know for certain, in the early stages of either story, how things would ultimately end. But it was clear to me that countless individuals gave neither Sandmann nor Rittenhouse the benefit of any doubt or afforded them any presumption of innocence, something that everyone should have until the facts show otherwise. When I watched Rittenhouse’s verdict announcement, I cried in relief that, finally, someone had done right by this young man. It appears, based on continuing reports of court settlements in Sandmann’s favor, that he is finally getting his due as well. Rittenhouse will likely have a similar case to make.

I don’t mean to suggest that either Nick Sandmann or Kyle Rittenhouse behaved perfectly during their ordeals. There are things they, and those responsible for them, could have done differently. But they were minors, not adults. It speaks incredibly well of both of them that each has had gracious words to say about those against whom the press tried unsuccessfully to pit them — in Sandmann’s case, Nathan Phillips, and in Rittenhouse’s case, Black Lives Matter.

Both are also on record as saying that, if they could go back in time, they would have made some different choices and, in so doing, sought to avoid the events that changed the course of both their lives. Clearly, these two young men have learned from their experience. The question is, will anyone else?

is managing editor of Reporter, the official newspaper of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. She has written for a variety of publications, including The Federalist, Touchstone and The Lutheran Witness, and is a contributor to the book He Restores My Soul from Emmanuel Press. She has degrees in English and music and enjoys playing piano in her spare time.

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