Reading news stories about cruel, power-abusing, or judgement-deficient teachers and school administrators is like eating potato chips, I’ve discovered. Once you start, it’s hard to stop. Luckily for my waistline and cholesterol levels, eventually potato chip bags become empty. Unfortunately, the supply of terrible tales of student abuse appears to be bottomless.
In Staten Island, 9-year-old Patrick Timoney, a fourth-grader at PS 52, South Beach, was observed by his school principal playing with LEGOs during his lunch period. One of the LEGO action figures was carrying what appeared to be a toy automatic weapon. The principal, Evelyn Matroianni took Patrick, crying and frightened, into her office, and called the boy’s mother. She told her that she considered the toy a violation of the no-tolerance rule prohibiting guns and gun replicas, and that she was going to confirm this with a security administrator from the city Department of Education.
The administrator, who unlike Matroianni was apparently not OUT OF HIS GOURD, told her she should confiscate the toy and return it to the parents at the end of the day, and that no other action was necessary. That was good, but he neglected to give the principal one more critical piece of information: “You are irresponsible, and have the common sense and sensitivity of a sea cucumber. Go home, and consider a new career in some area that doesn’t involve children, interpreting rules, problem-solving, human interaction or three-syllable words.
Or words to that effect.
The “gun,”you see, was two inches long.
A two-inch toy LEGO gun is neither a gun nor a replica of a gun. It is a piece of plastic, as dangerous as a lima bean. It can not shoot. It cannot fool anyone—except perhaps a deranged, officious school principal who was frightened by the story of Gulliver in Lilliput as a small girl—into thinking for one nanosecond that it is a gun. You might be able to use it to rob a very, very, very small store, if you could find one, but I doubt you could. For this, a child was intimidated, reprimanded, and upset.
We think of medical doctors as pledging to “do no harm,” and educators, for whom there is no universal ethics code, should have a similar duty: don’t hurt the children. Some of ethics codes for educators that I have examined certainly suggest this: here, for example, are two provisions from the Texas Code:
Standard 3.2. The educator shall not knowingly treat a student in a manner that adversely affects the student’s learning, physical health, mental health or safety.
Standard 3.3. The educator shall not deliberately or knowingly misrepresent facts regarding a student.
I believe Principal Matroianni violated both of these. She violated the first, because she pointlessly and unfairly treated an innocent child like he was a criminal, and the second, because saying a child is carrying a gun when he is playing with a LEGO policeman action figure carrying a two inch piece of plastic that only is a gun if you live in LEGO-land is misrepresentation. Or just plain stupid. It would have been more sensible to drag the LEGO figure into the principal’s office.
The New York Code is more pompous and vague, but it is clear that her conduct breached it as well. The Code emphasizes respecting each student’s dignity. It mentions nurturing their intellectual development. It calls for educators to build trust. Trust. As if anyone would trust someone who regards a two-inch LEGO “gun” as so grievous a threat that it justifies making a child cry.
The ethical duty being violated here, along with the ethical values of fairness, prudence, proportion and respect, is competence. A school administrator who does something like this is not competent, and any school system that gives such a person responsibility for the education of young children is also incompetent.
Meanwhile, Patrick Timoney is well on his way to having contempt for authority, school officials, and public education. Who can blame him?