School administrators need to use common sense and good critical judgment

School Administrators Need to Use Common Sense & Good Critical Judgment

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on October 9, 2018

All too often, we roll our eyes in disbelief when bureaucrats don’t use common sense and good critical judgment when making a decision on a nuanced issue. Instead, they “follow policy” without making an exception or asking someone with higher authority in the organization to grant a variance.

In the Washington Post article headlined, “Homeless D.C. high school football player kept off field amid questions over eligibility,” columnist Samantha Pell writes about Jamal Speaks, who was ruled ineligible to play football because he did not have a permanent residence.

Due to family issues, Speaks was staying at the various homes of his friends while maintaining a solid grade point average and holding down a part-time job.

According to Pell’s article, due to the lack of a permanent residence, the principal of his school threatened to fire the coach if he let Speaks play.

After receiving support from fellow students, teammates, coaches and fans, Speaks was ultimately allowed to play after a favorable ruling by one of the two governing bodies on athletics within the D.C. school district.

In May 2016, I wrote an article headlined, “What has happened to the use of common sense and good critical judgment by school officials?” What follows is an update of that article.

Often, a school infraction is nuanced, and the prescribed punishment does not fit the infraction. In a May 2005 article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bill Torpy reported on the suspension of a Muscogee County, Georgia high school 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 his phone. 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 an exception 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. Even the school board doesn’t get it. No suspension should have been given to the student.

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.

Schools should learn a lesson from what happened here and examine their own decision-making processes. When the punishment does not fit the infraction, school administrators lose the respect of their students.

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.

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 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 founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Follow Silverman on LinkedIn here and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.

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