Saturday, April 21, 2012

You Know, If This Guy Were My Principal, I Might Be Tempted to Skip Class, Too

Carrollton, Ohio, senior Austin Fisher will walk with his class on graduation day. This shouldn’t be the lead sentence in any news story or blog entry by anyone who doesn’t know Mr. Fisher personally. The fact that I mention it is testimony to two things: Carrollton principal Dave Davis is a certifiable idiot, and the Internet does have its uses.

Fisher has known since January that school rules would prevent him from participating in graduation exercises (or prom, or other senior activities) because—get this—although he was passing all his courses, he had racked up too many absences by caring for his mom, who suffers from Stage IV cancer. Really.

Let’s take this step by step. Teri Fisher has breast cancer, diagnosed as terminal although now, hopefully, in remission. Her son, the only other person in the household, took some time off school last fall to look after his Mom on particularly bad days, to drive her to doctor’s appointments and chemotherapy sessions… you know, irresponsible kid stuff like that. “I wanted to take a lot of pressure off of her, because that’s the most important thing when you have a cancer – a stress-free lifestyle, I mean, that’s how you heal the best, so that’s what I was trying to do,” he says.

He also worked two jobs to help with the bills, while maintaining passing grades. But, apparently, all those 16 absences were truancies according to school policy, and if you have more than 14 of them in a semester, you can’t walk. The Fishers went to Principal Davis when Austin was informed that he couldn’t walk with his class, and were told that “rules are rules.” A petition to allow “Fish” to go to his own graduation was “confiscated.”

Skip ahead in time to a few days ago. The exact order of events is unclear, but a few things happened in close proximity. A letter from Angela Howard appeared in the local newspaper. A thank you to Ms. Howard from Teri Fisher followed in short order. Shortly thereafter, Tammy White, a Carrollton alumna, started a petition drive on which ultimately gathered over 100,000 virtual signatures. A Facebook group, Let Fish Walk!, got over 30,000 “likes.” [The FB page administrator announced he’d be taking the page down soon, so the link may no longer work.] Kids started wearing “Let Fish Walk!” t-shirts to school. The entire town, minus the people responsible for the idiocy, of course, rallied behind the Fishers. And things started to change. All that “we can’t do anything” crap Davis tried to force-feed the Fishers in January suddenly evaporated.

There was a meeting between administrators and the Fishers, and ultimately Superintendent Palmer Fogler unilaterally reversed the earlier decision and announced that Austin will indeed be able to walk with his class. The press release says that:
At the meeting, Teresa Fisher provided additional information to the school administrators concerning Austin’s absences, which had not been previously provided to the district. Based on this new information and after careful consideration by school officials and the board of education, it was decided that Austin would be permitted to participate in commencement. In the interest of all of Carrollton’s students, the district and Teresa Fisher ask that the community respect their decision and that everyone move forward. Carrollton Schools is a great place to work and learn and we do not want to be sidetracked from our mission of educating children.
Apparently Austin may still not be able to do stuff like go to prom: that would be a remarkably stupid call, but asking a gaggle of education administrators to make two consecutive decisions requiring greater intellect than that of particularly dim-witted chipmunk is probably asking rather too much.

Meanwhile, members of the School Board professed ignorance of the situation as it was brewing: Board President Rose Seck claimed that “to be honest, we didn’t know anything about it until it hit the media.”

Indeed, all six Carrollton seniors who were prevented from walking only because of absences are now being permitted to walk. Principal Davis said that the administration and school board “made the decision that if we allow one to walk based on attendance records, all of them should be allowed to walk.”

So, why talk about this now, when everything seems to have worked out? Because the lunatics running the asylum are still in charge.

No one gets off scot-free here. Even the Fishers could have handled the situation better: whereas no one doubts Austin’s priorities, there are consequences to actions, and sometimes “sacrifice” actually has meaning. It’s also problematic that the national attention was initially linked to the fact that Austin is a baseball player. OMG, this awful thing happened to a jock! Good thing he doesn’t, you know, play the sax or hold office in the French Club, ’cause then he’d still be sitting at home on graduation night.

And School Board claims of ignorance are troubling, either way. Either they knew all along and are lying to avoid the consequences of their own moral cowardice, or they really didn’t know about a situation that had, months ago, already resulted in the confiscation of a student-generated petition. Everybody else in town seems to have known. After all, the town of Carrollton has barely over 3000 residents: everybody knows everybody. But the people charged with understanding what goes on in the schools didn’t know what was common knowledge in the high school? If that’s true, it’s an indictment of them, as well as of the high school administration. If it’s not… well, the courses in Prevarication and Avoidance of Responsibility will at least be well staffed.

Indeed, the incompetence shown by the people in a position to make something happen is astonishing, even in high school administrators. I learned long ago that I need to be smarter than my own rules, and I need to apply that intelligence to the benefit of students. If the database says you get an A, you get an A even if I think you deserve a B. If the database says you get a B but I think you could legitimately get an A, I think about it: how close were you? was it just one bad day that made the difference? are you a student who suffers from test anxiety? what was your attendance record? was there a group project in which your grade was dragged down because other members of the team didn’t pull their weight? And so on. Sometimes, the student gets the benefit of the doubt. Usually, not.

Principal Davis’s initial response to the situation was appalling. Confiscating petitions? Really? This silliness (or it would be silliness if he weren’t in a position of authority) is thrown into relief when considered in light of subsequent actions. Lesson #1 from Davis’s guidebook: don’t worry if you look like an authoritarian jackass in front of your students and faculty; it’s only when the school starts looking bad to the outside world that you should capitulate. Petitions by your own students: irrelevant. Petitions on the Internet: determinative.

Then he trotted out his variation on the “my hands are tied” soft-shoe number. This is both craven and mendacious—neither of those is a quality much to be admired. The “rules are rules” mentality is first cousin to “zero tolerance,” a policy system so stupid that even school districts pretend not to follow it (even when they do). It is a mind-set that is explicitly and virulently in opposition to the very foundation of what schools ought to be about: thinking. Different situations are… wait for it… different, and no one-size-fits-all rulebook should apply to all cases. But a system based on evidence, ethics, and contemplation—a Confucian system, if you will—requires both competence and work by administrators. Good luck with that.

Even worse than the fact that Davis’s intellectually lazy unwillingness to consider the specific circumstances of a case that any casual observer could recognize as something other than standard, every-day, truancy, however, is the fact that he lied about it. His hands weren’t tied. How do we know? Because the core facts haven’t changed. Austin Fisher still missed those class days. The rules haven’t changed—what you and I, Gentle Reader, might regard as an absence that ought to be excused (or placed in a separate category of some sort) is still, as far as I can tell, unexcused in the Carrollton Exempted Village School District. So, in other words, the fact that “Fish Will Walk” means that Davis could have done something in January. Apparently he and his colleagues are very concerned that the school looked bad in the recent controversy—enough so that Teri Fisher apparently had to agree not to talk to the press as part of the deal. They aren’t, however, sufficiently concerned with not being doctrinaire buffoons.

It’s not uncommon that I “break the rules.” For example, I might let a student with too many absences according to School policy—to pick a situation purely at random—still pass Theatre History, keeping in mind that the policy was really created for performance courses, which are more experiential in nature. Still, there has to be a reason—a documentable case of an ailing parent, for instance. And then… I make sure my boss knows what I’m doing. You know, zap him an e-mail that says, “I know the rule says X, but this is a special case, and I’m going to do Y unless you tell me not to.” And because he knows that I’m only going to say there are special circumstances when they in fact exist, he generally signs off on my decision. See how easy that is?

All Davis had to do was to say, “you know, I’m not sure there’s anything I can do for you, Austin, because our policies are pretty clear, but let me look into the situation further.” Then he picks up the phone and calls the Superintendent: “You know that policy that says a student can’t walk with the class if he’s got too many absences? Well, I think we ought to make an exception…” And the Superintendent can make that exception. How do we know? Because she did.

Finally, there’s the utter capitulation in allowing everyone who didn’t meet the attendance requirement to walk, provided they met all the other requirements. The problem with the current (now replaced?) policy isn’t that it’s too strict—I’d argue it isn’t strict enough—but that’s it’s too inflexible. One other case about the absence policy was presented to the School Board: it looked to have merit. The other four: probably not so much. The intelligent thing to do is to look at appeals on a case by case basis: sometimes there’s a good reason a kid didn’t show up to school every day; sometimes there isn’t. But that would make too much sense.

No, what we’re going to do instead is to say that rules don’t matter at all; that real, actual, truancy is without consequence; that Emerson’s critique of a foolish consistency was never more apt. And why do we say that? Because we’re too cowardly to admit that we make exceptions to rules, and too craven to look an actual truant squarely in the eye and say, “No.”

Everyone in the Carrollton system, Principal Davis foremost among them, seems to be suffering from the lack of a brain, a heart, and courage. Alas, I don’t see a wizard—or even a man behind a curtain—to make things right.

Maybe a Curmie nomination will help.

1 comment:

Jack Marshall said...

This a fantastic piece, Rick, because it brilliantly explains what I call the Ethics Incompleteness Principle. No rules work all the time, and if you respond to anomalies by amending a rule permanently to include them, pretty soon the rule doesn't function at all. You resolve to accept the fact the rule is imperfect, and that exceptions are reasonable. NOT making exceptions is unreasonable, and ironically, undermines the rule far worse than an exception, by making it look bad.