Thursday, December 26, 2013

Curmie Contenders: “It's Not the Crime; It's the Cover-Up” Edition

Today’s Curmie contenders feature outrageous activity, but at some level, the problem is in the lack of response rather than the conduct per se. In other words, given the literally millions of people employed in the education profession in this country, it’s a virtual given that a few of them will do something vicious or hateful or otherwise unethical from time to time. And, as an educator myself, I understand that sometimes the frustration just boils over: probably most of us have said or done something completely out of character at least a few times. More often than not, these outbreaks are unpremeditated, “last straw” sorts of events. If not, they’re likely the result of panic—the same causes, in other words, that cause students to do stupid things like threaten teachers or plagiarize a paper.

The greater problem, then, is when an administrator who has the time and detachment to render an appropriate judgment fails to do so. Think of it this way: Curmie has probably watched a few thousand football games over the years, either live or on TV. Seldom has he seen a more egregious facemask infraction than in the 1998 game between Kansas State and Nebraska. (If you want to see the video, check here, starting at about the 5:35 mark… or you can settle for the still picture you see here.) Despite its obviousness, it wasn’t called. Nebraska fans are convinced their team would have won the game had the officials done their damned jobs. Of course, perhaps K-State would have won anyway. But one of the worst no-calls in the history of sports meant we never got a chance to find out. (It was a fourth-down play, meaning K-State got the ball when Nebraska would otherwise have been marching towards a go-ahead score.)

So who’s responsible for that result? Not the player. All those clichés about “just trying to make a play” are actually true. I have no doubt the K-State linebacker was just trying to grab onto something to make a tackle, and it happened to be the Nebraska quarterback’s facemask. And frankly, it wouldn’t matter even if it had been intentional. Should there have been a penalty and possibly even an ejection? Of course. But it wasn’t the player’s fault that things didn’t turn out that way. We expect those charged with penalizing bad behavior—judges, cops, referees, school administrators—to do their jobs. When they don’t, they, as much as those who actually violate the rules, are responsible for the negative results.

All of which brings us to Arlington, Texas, where an unnamed teacher at Boles Junior High emptied the shavings from a pencil sharpener into a student’s mouth last winter. The exact timeline of events is unclear from news reports, but we know that the event took place in January, that the suspension (or at least the announcement of it) took place “almost a month after the incident,” and that the teacher was back in the classroom by February 9. In other words, the teacher was probably suspended for about a week.

At first glance, this incident bears a good deal of resemblance to what got reigning Curmie Award winner Lillian Gomez her title: punishing a student by putting something awful in his mouth (directly or indirectly). True, there are differences—the victim in this case wasn’t a special needs student, he actually deserved some kind of punishment (he was apparently sleeping in class, which is both disrespectful of the teacher and distracting to classmates), the scheme wasn’t premeditated, and it wasn’t the child’s regular teacher. Moreover, the chances that allegations of a racial motivation are unadulterated poppycock border on ontological certitude. Nor is bloviating about parallels between the school’s response and that of Penn State’s to Jerry Sandusky (“There’s no difference between what they did and the administration at Penn State did.”) either accurate or useful.

That doesn’t make this teacher’s behavior anything but outrageous and unprofessional, and she deserved to be fired: not suspended for a few days and facing a tough reappointment review while remaining anonymous; fired, with her name announced at a press conference. OR… there really wasn’t a case at all, and the suspension itself was a miscarriage of justice.

Assuming the objective charges to be true, irrespective of what motives some attention-seeker ascribes to them, this teacher should be gone, and it’s on the school that she was able to finish at least the academic year. Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall nails this one:
…any school administrator that wouldn’t resign and give a news conference to the local press and TV outlets if such a teacher was allowed to return to the scene of her crime is also in the wrong profession, and needs to investigate whether any bait shops are hiring. This is an example where parents and the public earn the kind of schools they get: no parent should send a child back to a school that employs teachers this untrustworthy, and the proper response to a school allowing such a teacher to return is to empty that school of students, and to demand the removal of every decision-maker within it as well as an independent review of every teacher employed there.
Jack is also right when he suggests a little later on that the union was an impediment to a just conclusion. Whereas teachers unions in particular are often accused of being the problem, even when there is no union, this time it would appear the allegations are accurate. That still doesn’t excuse the inaction of school authorities.

Our other story today comes from Simi Valley, California, where Principal John Hynes of Grace Brethren High School confessed to changing grades of at least one student and nonetheless kept his job.

Published reports are unclear about what was admitted to and what wasn’t—it appears that the pastor of the church with which the school is affiliated is claiming it was “one student in one class,” but Anke Saldarriaga,a Spanish teacher at the school last year, alleges that grades of four students in her class—including Hynes’s daughter—had been altered without her permission. If I’m reading the doublespeak correctly, the one case everyone agrees happened was not in Saldarriaga’s class. The daughter’s history grade was also changed, according to a report in the Ventura County Star.

To say that the school authorities are sending mixed messages is to err rather more on the side of understatement than of hyperbole. On the one hand, they claim that “There was an academic breach of integrity with our principal,” and that they took (unspecified) “swift and substantial disciplinary action.” On the other hand, they seem to dismiss the majority of the allegations against him, including… perhaps… the most serious one: changing the grade of his own daughter. I say “perhaps” because he won’t answer whether he changed his daughter’s grade because she’s a minor. Sure. That’s the reason you won’t answer. I believe you. My eyebrow just does that sometimes.

The one thing you don’t do, ever is change a teacher’s grades. Certainly not without consulting the teacher. Especially if it’s your kid. I get it. Christian school—they don’t have to play by the rules everyone else follows, but ought they not have more interest than their secular counterparts in academic integrity? Isn’t that part, at least, of what parents are shelling out $9K and change every year to get?

The point is that there are no doubt other principals as unethical as John Hynes. But it’s unlikely that there are many who are known to be so by both their superiors and the public and are still on the job. “Thank God the school didn’t fire me like another organization would have,” quoth Hynes. Um… I don’t think He’s the one responsible. You’re thinking of the other guy.

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