An Absence of Personal Moral Leadership
by Jerome F. Winzig
Earlier this month, some three dozen boys went on a rampage at a high school in an upper-middle-class suburb of Minneapolis. They hurled eggs at other students, threw rotten fruit and beer bottle caps, overturned chairs, and spread oil on hallway floors. Teachers who tried to stop them were cursed at and threatened. The mayhem at Edina High School, dubbed a "stampede," has apparently become an annual event for the last three years, getting worse each time.
The principal decided to set off the school's fire alarm moments before this year's rampage began in an futile attempt to disrupt the rampaging students, some of whom had painted their faces or were wearing masks or wigs to conceal their identities. During the ensuing fracas, one male senior student shouted expletives at a female physical education student who blocked rampaging students from chasing sophomore girls into a locker room. A science teacher who tried to stop another student was cursed at and told to get out of the way.
The teachers asked the principal to bar students "who physically and verbally assaulted staff and students" from participating in graduation ceremonies the following week. The principal, however, had already decided on a different, even milder approach. Twenty students who had been positively identified as participants were told they could attend graduation if they agreed to perform 14 hours of school cleanup duty during the week after graduation. Nineteen agreed and were allowed to attend the commencement exercises. The principal called this "appropriate" discipline for the students' "inappropriate conduct."
The school's teachers did not agree. To show their disapproval, they refused to wear their traditional black robes, sit with the students during the graduation ceremony, or lead the students up to the platform to receive their diplomas. One history teacher commented, "Without order, without a sense of safety, we can't educate."
The school board chairperson was unhappy with the teachers' protest: "I support the teachers in their right to dissent. But I'm very disappointed that these children are caught in the middle of this squabble between staff and administration." However, this was no "squabble," which the dictionary defines as "a noisy altercation or quarrel usually over trifles," unless one regards such outrageous misconduct as a trifling matter.
Some parents thought that requiring the vandals to do even a little cleanup was too severe. One parent whose son was disciplined said, "I think the teachers are reacting to what's been going on forever. I think they should discipline all the kids. They shouldn't pick and choose. Kids are going to be kids. They're good kids." Apparently, there should be no consequences when "good kids" do bad things.
Others also wanted to limit the punishment. Teachers pointed out that school administrators were under pressure from a small element in this well-to-do community to limit discipline to minimize the risk of lawsuits.
Who is running this school? It doesn't seem to be the principal. Tripping the fire alarm to deal with a bunch of miscreants is an act of desperation, not leadership. Whatever happened to personal intervention? Why didn't the principal just walk down the hallway, confront these "good kids," and order them to stop? Is that too much to expect of a high school principal?
A principal ought to be convinced that students who won't obey a direct order to stop rioting don't belong in school. A principal ought to know that his or her personal refusal to be intimidated by misbehaving students would speak louder than the school's fire alarm.
Sadly, this kind of personal moral leadership is often lacking today. Earlier this year, Attorney General Janet Reno called in a heavily-armed SWAT team to take custody of young Elian Gonzalez in Miami. If this really had been a mere child custody case that somehow demanded the attorney general's personal attention, why didn't she walk up to Lazaro Gonzalez' house herself to pick up the little boy, accompanied at most by a couple of social workers?
When moral courage and leadership is absent, bad conduct is encouraged. Some of the students who were disciplined in Edina tried to excuse their behavior. One said the punishment was too severe because he didn't throw eggs or swear. Another was upset about having to do some school cleanup because he was "only minimally involved." But when people lend their support to a mob, their presence contributes to the chaos and encourages the misbehavior of the worst in the crowd.
Students--and adults--need personal moral leadership. One of the Edina students said, "I don't think enough action was taken against the students involved. I think there needs to be some sort of respect for authority. Another student said of the teachers, "I'm glad they stood up where the administration did not stand up. I'm glad somebody is taking a stand."
It's time for more leaders to stand up.