The Teacher, The Ex, and Zero Sum Ethics

"Carie? Your ex-husband is hear to see you!"

“Carie? Your ex-husband is here to see you!”

Domestic violence victims advocates are outraged over an incident in which second-grade teacher Carie Charlesworth, a teacher at San Diego’s Holy Trinity School, lost her job because of threatening conduct by her ex-husband.  After an incident where the school was placed on lock-down because Charlesworth’s ex, undeterred by a restraining order, came to the school to confront her, the school district decided that her continued employment was a risk to the safety of the school and its students.

In a termination letter, the district informed Charlesworth that her ex-husband’s “threatening and menacing behavior” made it impossible for her to continue teaching at the Holy Trinity School. Predictably, Charlesworth is angry, and suing. “They’ve taken away my ability to care for my kids,” she says.  She has four. “It’s not like I can go out and find a teaching job anywhere.”  Now she is publicizing her dilemma to dramatize the plight of domestic violence victims.

She is focusing her resources and anger on the wrong parties. The school is only acting responsibly. Its action may be unfair to Charlesworth, but the school system has a greater obligation to protect the safety of its students and other employees, as well as to be able to do the work of educating children, than it does to stand by Charlesworth. Is it being very cautious? Yes. Now the ex-husband is in jail, and the risk is greatly diminished.  I could defend the decision to monitor his continued incarceration, request that the state alert the school immediately if he was released or escaped, and continue to employ Charlesworth in the meantime.

The school’s decision to fire Charlesworth is even more defensible, however. When the safety of the students are in genuine potential peril, and the existence of a violent man seeking vengeance against a teacher in the school creates such peril, the most responsible decision is to sever ties with the reason for the threat. The school can’t control the husband. It can banish Carie Charlesworth, which accomplishes the same objective.

This is the kind of ethical conflict involving competing interests and obligations that only a balancing approach, utilitarianism, can address properly. The husband is Carie’s problem. He is not the school’s problem. It is not the students’ problem. It is not the children’s parents’ problem. I know it’s not an easy problem for her to solve, but she has no right to insist or demand that her inability to solve her problem should be permitted to put others at unnecessary risk. All right: this makes it difficult for her to care for her children. That’s still not the school’s problem, or obligation.

The news story says that some parents would have pulled their children out of school if Carie was allowed to stay. I would have. It isn’t callous or unethical to conclude that while the school should do everything within its power to help Carie up to a point, it would be a breach of its duties to the children to allow her to remain employed.

Sometimes ethics is a zero sum game, and someone has to lose. This is one of those times, and tragically, Carie Charlesworth, harassed spouse, domestic abuse victim, has to solve her own problem.

Pointer: Alexander Cheezem

Facts: NBC

Graphic: Joshua Hoffine

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance, as well as photos and graphics, that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution or permission, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

170 thoughts on “The Teacher, The Ex, and Zero Sum Ethics

  1. This is a chillingly cold analysis. Next time you’re in a car accident, I will not help. It is your problem; you chose to drive. If you’re house is flooded, and you’re clinging to the roof, I will not help because you chose to live there. And if you’re sick, I will not help you, because likely it’s due to things you chose like not exercising enough. And that’s your problem.

    • Terrible, illogical rebuttal. We all have obligations to help fellow citizens in peril. But our professional obligations to others cannot be so neatly discarded just because to hew to them seems cold to those who think with their hearts and not their brains. It is really cold, not to mention irresponsible and stupid to risk the safety of children in your charge to offer dubious assistance to a disaster magnet. She is nothing like the victim of a car accident. Try someone trapped in a burning car that you would have to try to rescue with ten kids handcuffed to you.

      • It was my impression that one of the benefits of religion is community. A helping hand when you need it. Everyone watching out for each other. Not sacrificing one of the flock because you’re scared that the lamb knows some shady people.

  2. KP was correct: it IS a chillingly cold analysis. It was also a cold, callous decision by the school — not only did they deprive Ms. Charlesworth and her children of current financial stability, the school deprived them of future financial stability within Ms. Charlesworth’s field of expertise. Certainly there is a middle ground that could have been reached — ‘leave of absence’ comes to mind, which removes the teacher from the school without jeopardizing her & her family’s means of income.

    • By what logical policy does a teacher get indefinite leave of absence—with pay, presumably—when unable to work because of personal problems? Either the school is deprived of a teacher, or a teacher who, unlike this one, COULD do the job without jeopardizing the safety of others, is deprived of job.

      • I never mentioned or alluded to ‘indefinite leave.’

        The ethical [and compassionate] thing would have been for the school to have offered her the option of withdrawing/resigning, rather than immediately moving to a termination. At least THEN her application for a position at another school would stand a chance for consideration.

        Had she refused that option, then, clearly, the school would have to proceed with a termination.

          • I find she *was* initially put on Indefinite Leave of Absence (the school rises in my estimation).

            According to the article –
            A letter was sent to all parents, explaining the incident and that Ms. Charlesworth AND her 4 children (who also attended the school) would
            be on an indefinite leave of absence. This was in January.

            The next letter she received [again, according to the article] was her notice of termination – not only from that school, but any school in the Diocese, where she had worked for 14 years. THAT was in April. There is no mention of an option on her part to resign/withdraw (and my estimation of the school/Diocese again plummets). There is no mention, in fact, of any other communication between the school and Ms. Charlesworth.

  3. I initially reluctantly agreed, that although it is unfair to her the school has a valid interest in removing her from the vicinity of the children for safety purposes. However, when I checked the thread after the weekend, it sure looks like you are saying that she isn’t just out of luck with her JOB, but out of luck entirely in every way shape or form.

    If she is required to fully disclose her loony ex to every potential future employer she will never be able to get a job. If even this is not an excuse to proactively remove the threat (via what I’ll call the “Ejercito Method”) then she is helpless. According to you, it is fully acceptable that this woman’s only real choice is to sit at home, unemployed, and wait for her ex to come and kill her and hope that she can kill him first.

    Why, again, wasn’t it right for the school to simply move her to an office job in a different building from the kids? Surely you’re not saying that everyone with a stalker should be fired from any job where other people work there…

    • Who said that it is “fully acceptable”? I said that it is completely unfair and unjust from her perspective. That isn’t expressing approval of her fate, or lack of compassion for it. That’s just recognizing reality.

      You really think it’s ethical for someone who has a murderous stalker after them not to inform employers, especially when the welfare of kids are involved? How can you possibly justify that?

          • It’s called the U.S. Constitution, rule of law, and fairness.

            The Constitution only constrains the government, not private citizens like Carie Charlesworth.

            As far as we are concerned, when the ex violated the protective order, he outlawed himself.

            A threat isn’t the act being threatened, until the act is imminent.

            So the school should not have fired Carie, because her ex was not really a threat.

              • You’re not seriously advocating vigilante preemptive executions, are you?

                In the above, you wrote,

                You really think it’s ethical for someone who has a murderous stalker after them not to inform employers, especially when the welfare of kids are involved? How can you possibly justify that?

                If that is the case, she has an ethical obligation to remove the threat before seeking employment.

                Why would it be wrong for her to remove the threat?

                • You’ve created a false dichotomy, however, you’re making it out that the only options are “Dead Ex, Carie Works”, “Living Ex, Carie Cannot Work”.

                  Since the ex appears jailed, that seems to fulfill the need of removing the threat.

                  Let’s assume that dead ex ends up being the only viable option for Carie to work. It would still be wrong for Carie to initiate the killing. In that case, you have also created a false dichotomy of “Carie must seek the ex and kill him” or “Ex lives on”.

      • My question is, what do you think she should do? Take it as a given that it’s ethical to get her away from kids, I’m not going to argue it. But NO employer will particularly want to have her around, and any of them can make the argument that she is too much of a liability. So what possible justifiable course of action does she have?

        I don’t simply mean what is ideal- it’s not a case of her having to move into a shabbier house or take a crappier job until things get better. If the school district can’t just move her to an admin building free of children, then it means that no employer can justify having her work anywhere. It follows from there that anybody with a stalker can/should ethically be prevented from getting any employment, which steers us straight back to the “wait for him to kill you and hope you can kill him first” scenario. That’s the stuff of thriller movies.

          • For years I have donated often to a local charity which operates a safe house for abused and endangered women and their children. The charity actually may have multiple safe houses; I don’t know. I also do not know (1) how the charity maintains the secrecy of the threatened persons’ whereabouts, (2) if the charity somehow maintains awareness of the threatening persons’ whereabouts on behalf of, and for the benefit of, the threatened, or (3) what kind of security is provided at the safe house(s).

            I guess now I will have to investigate the operations of this charity more thoroughly, just to satisfy myself. I do not know of any instances of stalkers tracking down the protected persons and harming them while in the charity’s care. But, I also do not know one way or the other about the charity’s long-term successes (or failures) to enable women and children to achieve lasting security and safety. I can only hope that Carie Charlesworth has access to help which I have long understood is provided by the charity I support.

  4. Much as I would like to disagree with the conclusion that the school did the right thing, I have to agree. Carie Charlesworth’s ex-husband is HER problem, not the school’s.

    Blaming the school for firing her is wrong; the school was acting in its own best interest and the best interests of the students. Suppose the ex-husband had come back after this incident with a gun, tried to shoot Carie, and killed a few students instead? The school could and would have been sued six ways from Sunday for failing to remove the “trouble” magnet” (Charlesworth) and thus failing to look out for the best interests and safety of the school as a whole.

    The real blame here should lie on (a) the ex-husband himself, and (b) the idiot legal system that fails to deal adequately with such people and protect others from their obsessive, violent tendencies. A “restraining order” should be just that– the person so restrained should be required to wear an electronic monitoring device, and he should be promptly arrested if he violates the order– and if he does violate it, he should be put on house arrest– and if he violates that, he should put in jail.

    Finally, however politically incorrect it may be to say so, some of the blame lies on Carie Charlesworth herself. Why did she get involved with this creep in the first place? There are almost always warning signs and red flags that someone has an obsessive/abusive personality, so why did she ignore those warnings? Why did she stay with the guy long enough to have four kids by him? Why didn’t she buy a gun and tell him, “Look, jerk, if you ever come near me again, I’ll shoot you”?

    Yes, I’m going to be accused of “blaming the victim” for saying that– but the fact is, the “victim” is not always “blameless.” Every human being has a duty to look out for himself or herself and to avoid people and situations that endanger him/her. People who ignore the danger signs and fail to look out for themselves are indeed at least somewhat to blame for what happens to them.

    Along the coast here, there are warning signs posted at intervals along the beach, warning people NOT to go swimming there because of dangerous rip currents. And every year, there are people who ignore those warnings and drown. Are they “blameless victims”? No. They ignored the warning signs, they took their chances– and they lost.

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