Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on May 16, 2016
Have you recently read a news story about a decision made by a school official that “followed the rules” but that flew in the face of logic, common sense and good critical judgment? When that decision becomes public on social media, it generates the scorn and derision of thousands of people asking, “What were they thinking?” While many of these stories appear in the news, it’s likely that others never get reported.
On May 11, the Miami Herald ran a story written by Kaytlyn Leslie that first appeared in the San Luis Obispo Herald about an Arroyo Grande, California high school student who had been diagnosed as having a brain tumor and was confined to a wheelchair. A few weeks prior to his prom he fell out of his wheelchair and broke his hip. The student was told, according to Leslie’s article, that he was “denied entry to his prom because he missed three weeks of school due to his broken hip.”
Leslie wrote that the student’s father was told “it would be too difficult to arrange accommodations [to attend the prom], and that if … [the student’s mother or father] wanted to attend to assist their son, they would have to provide a doctor’s note, undergo a TB test and background check, and set up a meeting with the district to develop an individualized education plan for their son.” Really? A great example of school policies and procedures gone amuck! Did anyone in the high school’s administration have the common sense to just let the student go to his prom?
After thousands of commentators on social media blasted the school for its decision, the obligatory apology was issued by the school superintendent, stating that “We are truly sorry that [Jared] did not get to attend his senior prom.” The school administration needs to evaluate their decision-making process in these types of situations.
All schools should learn a lesson from what happened here and examine their own decision-making processes. In addition to school administrators, all leaders and managers need to think through and understand the impact of their decisions. Their personal reputations and the reputation of their organizations depend on it.
All effective decision makers need to use common sense and discretion. How many of us have been stopped by a police officer for speeding or some other traffic law infraction, and only been given a warning? The officer is using his discretion. School principals should also use their discretion in applying school policy, and of course be able to justify their decision so as not to set a precedent for a similar situation in the future.
Often, a school infraction is nuanced, and the prescribed punishment does not fit the infraction. In a May 7, 2005 article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bill Torpy reported on the suspension of a Muscogee County, Georgia high student who violated school policy by speaking on his cellphone with his mother, who was deployed in Iraq. The student’s father had passed away many years ago, so he was living with another military family while his mother was on active duty.
The student had not been able to speak with his mother for a month because she had been on a mission, and when the student saw that it was his mother who was calling him, he answered her call. The student’s guardian said, “It’s difficult for families kept apart by the war. There should be an exception [when a parent calls their kid while on active duty]. Moms at war getting shot at want to talk to their kids.”
Did this infraction justify suspension, a punishment that would appear on the student’s transcript and potentially have an adverse impact on future college and employment opportunities, or was a less serious punishment that would not appear on the student’s transcript warranted?
Torpy wrote, “Wendell Turner, an assistant principal, said the student was ‘very defiant. He didn’t want to listen to what the rules are, like the rules didn’t apply to him.’ Students are allowed to bring cellphones to school, but they must be turned off during school hours.” Perhaps the student was “very defiant” because he was speaking with his mother who was in a war zone. School officials should have handled this situation with sensitivity and common sense.
After the school received a huge amount of criticism from the public, the school board reduced the 10-day suspension to three days.
After receiving the negative feedback, Torpy quoted Turner as making the obligatory apology, stating that “… many students … have parents serving overseas. We are the school that serves Fort Benning. We’re well aware of students with parents overseas. Some will just call the school if they want to talk to their sons or daughters. We’ll gladly get the kid out of class.” Too bad the school didn’t consider this and use some common sense when this incident occurred.
So, what is it about the culture of some organizations in which leaders are reluctant to exercise common sense and good critical judgment, and do the right thing in situations that require discretion? A “zero-tolerance” policy was put in place by federal legislation in 1994 for students who bring a weapon to school. Extending this zero-tolerance policy to many other types of infractions does not serve our students well. In addition, when the punishment does not fit the infraction, school administrators lose the respect of their students.
In organizations where the leaders are ultimately accountable to the public (schools and the local, state and federal government), is there a fear that they will be second-guessed and criticized for using discretion by their bosses, the news media or by political opponents? In this environment, before leaders can make the right decision, does there need to be significant public criticism of the original by-the-book decision? Does the right decision need to be approved by an organization’s outside attorney, in order to provide cover for the leader?
These are questions that only leaders who work in these types of organizations can provide. What we do know is that we need to hear less obligatory apologies by school officials for decisions that fly in the face of common sense.
Stan Silverman is the founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a writer, speaker and advisor to C-suite executives on business issues and on cultivating a leadership culture within their organizations. Stan is Vice Chairman of the Board of Drexel University and a director of Friends Select School and Faith in the Future. He is the former President and CEO of PQ Corporation. Follow: @StanSilverman. Connect: Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com. Website: www.SilvermanLeadership.com