Patrick McLaw, an eighth grade language arts teachers at Mace’s Lane Middle School in Cambridge, Maryland, has been placed on indefinite administrative leave by the Dorchester County Board of Education and the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office. This measure was taken after it was discovered that McLaw had several aliases, two of which he has used to write novels. One of those novels was about the largest school shooting in the country’s history, set in the year 2902.
Because these books terrified parents, apparently, Dorchester County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Henry Wagner felt it necessary to announce that the Dorchester County Board of Education had moved swiftly, saying, “We have advised our community that the gentleman has been placed on administrative leave, and has been prohibited from entering any Dorchester County public school property.” That’s not all that happened. McLaw was taken into custody for an “emergency medical evaluation.” The same day,police swept Mace’s Lane Middle School for bombs and guns.
This sounds like a Kafka novel. Of course, if Kafka had been a middle school teacher in Cambridge Maryland, parents probably would be afraid that he was going to turn their kids into cockroaches.
How can this hysterical reaction to a teacher’s novel be justified, legally, logically or ethically?
Your Labor Day Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz involves yet another possible variation on “The Naked Teacher Principle”:
Is there an “Alarming Novelist-Teacher Principle” ?
This would be a principle dictating that writing certain kinds of novels may be reasonably deemed antithetical to a teacher’s role. (I am not going to deal with the alias issue in any detail, but it probably has significance here as well. Aliases suggest dishonesty and lack of trustworthiness, a desire to deceive. In the case of pen names, however, aliases may be practical and prudent.)
This is a hard one, and I have no confident answer.
Is the theory that the teacher is a danger because he has such fantasies, as the search and the medical examination suggest? Or is the theory that students will get deadly ideas from his novels?
Or are parents simply justified in not wanting their children taught by individuals who imagine school shootings, even in the future?
My gut feeling is that this is just another manifestation of an anti-gun freakout by parents and school administrators, one that has First Amendment implications. Can a teacher be disciplined and abused like this for the contents of his creative writings on his own time, published under a nom de plume? How can this be justified? And yet there was “Wisconsin Sickness”….
The closest I can come to a justification for the school’s reaction is this controversial Ethics Alarms post, from 2012. A woman who had been an active and popular Girl Scout troop leader was kicked out of the organization because her husband ran a disturbingwebsite called “Wisconsin Sickness,” featuring stories and images of various perverse crimes, many involving young women. I concluded that the decision was ethically justified:
“If I have a daughter in the Girl Scouts, I am not going to be comfortable with her having a troop leader whose nearest and dearest spends his time and passion writing and thinking about serial killers, cannibals, mayhem, and the darkest reaches of the human soul. Maybe I watch too much “Criminal Minds”—okay, I DO watch too much “Criminal Minds”, but the fact remains that if something horrible happened, and it turned out that the scout leader was part of sick cult that entrapped young girls to be menu items for her husband’s mutant friends, I would never forgive myself. This is the Girl Scouts, and it is reasonable to want young girls as far away from the shadow of Ed Gein as possible. I’d want another troop leader for my daughter. She’s not a bus driver or a plumber, she’s a leader, a role model and a mentor, and the man she lives with celebrates mayhem.
This is an ethical conflict, where two ethical principles are in opposition. If one wins, the other loses. Sheis a volunteer, not an employee, and that tips the scales for me. Responsibility and prudence, mine, trumps fairness to her.”
It was the closest of ethics calls then, and this situation with the novelist teacher makes it seem even closer, and perhaps mistaken. I have no hesitation saying that everything done by the school system beyond the suspension is ridiculously excessive, unfair and abusive. But are there no reasonable limits to what kind of published writings a teacher can engage in without causing legitimate alarm among his students’ parents? Novels about serial killers? Novels about child abuse? Novels about sexual perversions? Novels extolling terrorism?
Novels about school shootings?
UPDATE (10:42 PM, 9/2/14)
As many suspected, there is something, we’re not sure what, disturbing about Mr. McLaw other than his novels and his multiple names. Over at Popehat, Ken White reveals some more facts in this strange tale, and also criticizes the sloppy journalism that characterized this story as a school punishing a teacher for a work of science fiction, concluding,”Just as it’s entirely plausible that the government might do it, it’s entirely plausible that journalists might report it without criticism, analysis, or apparent consciousness of how outrageous it would be. “
One of the nice things about this being an ethics analysis and commentary blog rather than a news or politics site is that as far as the issue raised in the original post is concerned, I don’t have to worry about whether the story is strictly accurate or not. I’m still interested in whether a teacher’s writings out of class ever disqualify him (or her) to teach young minds. The question of whether such writings ever justify the significant measures taken by the school and the police is, comparatively, too easy.