The voting is complete, and we have a winner in the most closely-fought battle yet for the not necessarily prestigious Curmie Award, bestowed each year on the person or institution who most embarrasses the profession of education. And the winner is… (fanfare… drum roll…) Principal Greer Phillips of PS 79 (the Horan School) in East Harlem.
Ms. Phillips ordered a lockdown drill at PS 79, complete with false claims of an armed intruder—without notifying either the faculty or the police that it was only a drill—in a school with a high percentage of special needs kids less than a week after the events in Newtown, Connecticut last December. It was this incident, indeed, that led me to decide that events “from late 2012 that didn’t find their way into the public perception (or at least into mine) until 2013” were still eligible for this year’s Curmie. It struck me at the time I wrote about this story last January 26 that boneheadedness of this caliber should not be excluded from Curmie consideration just because I hadn’t seen the story until after the new year. Apparently, you (collectively) agreed.
In all, 46 people voted, with 109 total votes cast in the open balloting which allowed readers to vote for as many nominees as they chose. Principal Phillips was named on 19 ballots, narrowly claiming the crown from some tough competition: Principal Tracey Perkins of Cypress Lake (FL) High School got 17 votes for punishing a student who disarmed a classmate who was carrying a loaded gun; officials at Dietrich High School in Idaho and at Batavia High School in Illinois collected 16 apiece for punishing teachers who said the word “vagina” in a biology classroom and reminding students of their 5th amendment rights before administering a survey that could well have led to self-incrimination, respectively. [Carla Scuzzarella of Andover (MA) High School also registered 16 votes, but new information about the Erin Cox case suggests at least the distinct possibility that Dr. Scuzzarella did nothing wrong.]
Principal Valerie Lara-Black of Mary Blair Elementary School in Loveland, Colorado was next in line with 10 votes for suspending a 2nd-grader who threw an imaginary grenade into an imaginary box containing “something evil.” Principal John Hynes of Grace Brethren High School in Simi Valley, California got 9 nods for changing the grades of at least one student, possibly more… including his own daughter. The board shares in his honorable mention for not firing him. Finally, the unnamed teacher who poured pencil shavings into the open mouth of a 13-year-old student at Boles Junior High in Arlington, Texas (and, again, the authorities who let her off with a short suspension) rounds out the finalists with 8 votes.
A few thoughts… First, I really had no dog in this fight. I was a little surprised that the pencil-shavings incident didn’t attract more votes, not because it necessarily deserved them, but only because it seemed closest to the kind of outrageous behavior by teachers which won two years ago and copped the first two places last year. Similarly, the outright dishonesty of John Hynes struck me as uniquely problematic. But they were, perhaps, perceived as anomalies—after all, the voting guidelines did say, “a thoroughly heinous but isolated act shouldn’t necessarily get your vote over a less outrageous action that might be seen as either an exemplar of a systemic problem or a harbinger of bad things to come.”
Punishing students and faculty for doing nothing wrong (a 2nd grader “saving the world”), or indeed for doing something specifically right—disarming a gunman, reminding students of constitutional rights, using the correct terminology for human anatomy—these are the deeply troubling glimpses into the world of educational administration. Even Curmie isn’t cynical enough to suggest that this is the norm, but it sure does seem to be approaching it. It’s all about following the rules even if they’re irrelevant, submitting to authority even if it’s overweening, coddling parents unless they have a legitimate concern. Because, you see, a). we mean well and b). we know best.
Curmie calls bullshit.
Nonetheless, it’s difficult to argue with the collective wisdom of Curmiphiles. Principal Phillips managed to do something not merely colossally stupid, but arrogant, cruel, smug, unethical, insensitive, reckless, boorish, and—oh, yeah—illegal, as well. Plus, in the kneejerk world of post-Newtown, it also succeeded in being an emblem of everything that makes me crazy about the world of public education and self-righteous liberal do-gooding.
I may not have had a preference among the finalists at the beginning of the voting, but you have convinced me that the right person won. I’ll send the Curmie along to her, but perhaps first I should call her up and tell her that there’s a serial killer waiting for her in her apartment and that he’s amusing himself by setting her cat on fire. She won’t really appreciate the Curmie until she gets out of therapy, anyway, right?