Topic: Professions & Institutions
Ethics Dunces Reconsidered: Cape Coral High School Teacher Sue Propert [ RETRACTED] and the Southwest Florida News-Press [AFFIRMED]
A year ago, the Scoreboard weighed in on a local controversy involving Florida high school teacher Sue Propert, who had been accused of ethics violations arising out of an assignment to her students to write an essay about the state of the high school under the leadership of then-principal Charles Dailey. When many of the essays expressed negative opinions, Propert showed them to the school board, arousing the principal's ire, sparking the ethics charges, and leading to months of newspaper articles and community debate. Propert was honored as the 2006 Teacher of the Year in the midst of battling the ethics charges.
The Scoreboard entered the fray after the charges against Propert were rescinded and the Southwest Florida News-Press printed an editorial declaring that her conduct, as the paper had reported it, was ethical. According to multiple stories in the News-Press, Propert, who was outspoken in her criticism of Principal Dailey's regime, asked her class to register their own opinions about the school under his leadership, and used some of the essays to spur the school board into action against him. The editorial stated that there could be nothing unethical in this conduct. Dropping the charges was appropriate, said the editorial, because:
"Being reprimanded for encouraging students to tell the truth is an outrage beyond any educational standard anyone wants to quote."
It was and is an ethically wrong-headed editorial. What the News-Press was expressly approving, according to its own accounts, is unethical conduct. Truth or not, a student's opinion of school administration is a not proper topic for a class assignment, and it is wrong to drag students into teacher-administration disputes, and use them as allies, weapons or mouthpieces. According to every story that the News-Press ran between February and July 2006 describing the charges against Propert and what she had done, this was the essence of the teacher's actions, and if that was what the teacher did, it was unethical. The editorial's opinion to the contrary was eminently worth of an Ethics Dunce. The News-Press' Ethics Dunce designation stands.
But Propert, by her own account, didn't do all the paper's stories said she did. According to her, Principal Dailey, not the teacher, assigned the essay to the students. That is a significant change from the published account. It means that Propert was not, as the News-Press stories suggested, priming the essay to gather ammunition to use against Daley. It means that some of the essays raised concerns that she felt should be communicated up the administrative ladder, and she did so. The Scoreboard would argue that fairness and best practice would dictate that Dailey himself should have seen the negative comments before they went to the school board (and maybe he did; who knows what the News-Press didn't report?), but Propert was in a difficult political situation, as the subsequent events proved, and cannot be judged harshly for taking the route she did.
Presuming that Propert's account is the accurate one, then, the Scoreboard incorrectly identified her as an Ethics Dunce along with her local paper. For this, I am sincerely sorry. Propert obviously went through an ordeal in the aftermath of the essay assignment. The ethics charges were filed and investigated for six months; the school district initially found the charges warranted and reprimanded her; an appeal was denied, and the charges were ultimately dropped and removed from her record. It was a long and nasty affair.
The Ethics Scoreboard isn't required to concur with the school district's verdict any more than it is bound to agree with a newspaper editorial, but in this case, it was apparently basing its analysis on inaccurate information. Over and over again, the News-Press wrote that Propert had assigned the essay. Letter writers to the editor assumed this to be true, but like the editorial staff, saw nothing wrong with a teacher using student assignments as a catalyst for criticism of a principal. Why didn't the newspaper ever report the story as the Properts described it to the Scoreboard? I have no idea. Mrs. Propert's husband seems to feel that the News-Press was being used to discredit his wife. If so, News-Press is genuinely conflicted and confused, describing Propert's conduct in a misleading way that makes it appear unethical, then declaring that same misrepresented conduct ethical on the editorial page.
Ah, journalistic ethics!
In fairness, I must say that I also find it puzzling that Propert was unable to get her true role in the essay's assignment into print over so many months. If she had, the Scoreboard would never have had anything to comment on. I have had to remind the Properts, who are understandable annoyed with me, that this is an ethics commentary site, not a news site. The Scoreboard bases its ethics calls on news reports, always checking multiple sources to confirm the facts. In the Propert case, the one news source tracking the story apparently was not describing the story accurately. The Scoreboard remains confident that its ethical analysis of the story the News-Press reported is correct, and if some time in the future a high school teacher assigns an essay to his or her students designed to provoke negative comments about his or her principal, the Scoreboard will be firmly on record as declaring that conduct unethical.
But that isn't what Sue Propert did, and the Scoreboard retracts its Ethics Dunce verdict with sincere apologies.