The Fifth Annual Ethics Alarms Awards: The Best of Ethics 2013

Ethics Story 2013

I decided to start with the Best in Ethics this year, in contrast to other years, on the theory that it would get things off to a positive start in 2014. What it did, instead, was make me realize how negative Ethics Alarms was in 2013. Either there wasn’t much positive going on in ethics, or I wasn’t seeing it. My thanks to those of you who send me nominations for Ethics Heroes (and other stories); even when I don’t write about them, they are valuable. Please keep them coming. In the meantime, I pledge to try to keep the jaundice out of my eye in 2014. Things just can’t be as dire as they seemed last year.

Could they?

Here are the 2013 Ethics Alarms Awards for the Best in Ethics:

Most Important Ethical Act of the Year:

The U.S. Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, paving the way for the universal legalization of gay marriage. Yes, it was a legal decision, but it was also based, as all such culturally important decisions are, on a societal recognition that what was once thought to be wrong and immoral was, in fact, not. This is ethics, an ongoing process of enlightenment and wisdom about what is right and wrong, and the U.S. Supreme Court did its part. Continue reading

Vote For The 2013 Curmie, Designating The Worst Of Misconduct In The Name Of Education

...and middle school, and elementary school....

…and middle school, and elementary school….

Over at Rick Jones’ Curmudgeon Central, the final nominees for his not-so-coveted 2013 Curmie Award are up, and the winner will be determined by the vote of Rick’s readers. The Curmies memorialize the worst in U.S. conduct by education professionals, and a revoltingly diverse group of miscreants he has assembled. I urge you all to drop by, read Rick’s commentary (and about some of the awful incidents that didn’t make the cut), and vote.

Only three of Rick’s final eight were covered on Ethics Alarms, and while I am confident that the ultimate winner is among them, I am now second guessing my editorial judgment. Rick’s blog is more education-centric than Ethics Alarms ( his work has filled the gap created when the excellent “No Tolerance” blog went down), but I’m trying to recall why I passed on the other six, particularly Alex Evans and his imaginary grenade, and the student suspended for disarming another student. I think I was getting so sick of post-Sandy Hook hysteria when the invisible grenade story came out that I just couldn’t write about another one just then. The other one…well, as Rick notes, there were some complicating factors, but I should have covered it. Luckily Rick Jones was on the case, and did his usual excellent job.

Here, with Rick’s descriptions and links to his commentary, are the nominees:

Principal Greer Phillips of PS 79 (the Horan School) in East Harlem for conducting a completely unannounced (to teachers, to the police…) lockdown drill less than a week after the horrors at Sandy Hook Elementary. In aggravation: outrageous timing and an incompetently run drill complete with contradictory instructions, but also the makeup of the student body (a high percentage of students with emotional or cognitive problems). In mitigation: I can’t think of a thing. [Ethics Alarms commentary here.]

Principal Valerie Lara-Black of Mary Blair Elementary School in Loveland, Colorado for suspending 2nd-grader Alex Evans for throwing an imaginary grenade into an equally imaginary box containing “something evil.” In aggravation: this is stupid behavior even if there’s something tangible. In mitigation: there’s probably some idiotic zero tolerance policy that purports to justify if not demand these flights of inanity.

Principal Tracey Perkins of Cypress Lake (FL) High School for suspending a 16-year-old student because he disarmed another student, a football player who was threatening a teammate with a loaded gun. You see, he was “involved in an incident in which a weapon was present.” In aggravation: apart from the sheer idiocy the charges, they were changed after the school started being (quite rightly) embarrassed by the publicity. In mitigation: it is possible that the boy was indeed uncooperative with the ensuing investigation.

Principal Carla Scuzzarella of North Andover (MA) High School for stripping Erin Cox from her volleyball team captaincy and suspending her for five games because she went by a party where there was alcohol long enough to drive a drunken friend home. In aggravation: the police statement makes it clear that Ms. Cox had not been drinking, and the policy manual makes a specific point about the folly of guilt by association. In mitigation: there are reports that she was at the party longer than it would have taken just to collect her friend.

Officials at Dietrich (ID) High School for reporting science teacher Tim McDaniel to the school board and the state professional standards commission, allegedly for using the word “vagina.” Yes, in a biology class. In aggravation: Mr. McDaniel seems to be being penalized for the precise reason that he was doing his job. In mitigation: it is unclear to what extent the school per se was responsible for the brouhaha, although they clearly did little to prevent it.

Batavia (IL) High School and their equally incompetent school board for punishing social studies teacher John Dryden. His crime? Reminding his students of their 5th amendment rights while distributing a survey that could indeed have led to self-incrimination. In aggravation: the survey, with students’ name on it, was a clear invasion of student privacy, motivated by the usual nannyish hogwash. In mitigation: Dryden did react without checking with school officials about the intents of the survey. [Ethics Alarms commentary here.]

The unnamed teacher at Boles Junior High in Arlington, Texas for pouring pencil shavings into the mouth of 8th-grader Marquis Jay, and to the authorities who cravenly gave her a slap on the wrist. In aggravation: you need aggravation??? In mitigation: the boy deserved some punishment—he was at best inattentive—and it seems to have been an unpremeditated and isolated incident. [Ethics Alarms commentary here.]

Principal John Hynes of Grace Brethren High School in Simi Valley, California for the completely unauthorized action of changing the grades of at least one student (possibly several, including his own daughter), and the spineless board who allowed him get by with little punishment. In aggravation: it’s a short step from what has been admitted to and what has been alleged, which would be an outrageous abuse of power. In mitigation: with the exception of the one case, the allegations come almost exclusively from a now-former teacher. This may not be the most objective of sources.

Ethics Hero: John Dryden, High School Teacher

DrydenIt took a couple of months to determine whether John Dryden, would be best described as a high school social studies teacher in Batavia, Illinois, or as an ex- high school social studies teacher in Batavia, Illinois.  That part had a happy ending: he was not fired, as appeared at one point to be likely, for his act of ethical heroism.

In April, he was directed by the school board to distribute a survey on so-called “emotional learning” to his students. The results of the test, created and scored by Multi-Health Systems, were to be evaluated by comparing them to statistical data obtained from a large sample of students of similar ages given the same test. The MHS test included thirty-four questions regarding the use of drugs, alcohol, and the students’ emotions. Though Dryden was supposed to assure his students that their responses would be confidential, they were not. Any student whose answers raised concerns was to be sent to the school’s  counselors.

After the teacher picked up the survey forms from his mailbox shortly before his first class of the day, he noticed that each survey form had a student’s name on it  and that the questions involved under-age drinking and drug use. He had just finished teaching a unit on the Bill of Rights, and recognized a looming Fifth Amendment violation while fearing that his students, who were used to following orders, would not be aware that their rights were in peril. The survey, he correctly surmised, was state-compelled self-incrimination, and a breach of his students’ right to refuse to incriminate themselves.There was no time to confer with administrators, so he told  his students that they did not have to complete the forms if doing so involved admitting illegal behavior. Continue reading