Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Case of the Soused Superintendent

Alexandria, Virginia’s, superintendent of schools, Rebecca Perry, had a couple of glasses of wine too many before taking the wheel, and after some road-weaving, found herself posing for a police mug shot in the course of being charged with Driving Under the Influence. Under the influence of a story too juicy to pass up, the Washington, D.C. area media made her misadventure front page stuff, while the school board wrestled with the dilemma of how to respond. Alexandria schools, you see, have a “Zero Tolerance” substance abuse policy. For students, that is.

The local radio call-in shows had a field day, or rather field week. Soon the episode became one more sad example of how routinely the public, abetted by an ethically muddled media, resorts to rationalizations and logical fallacies when a situation calls for sound ethical analysis. Let’s review the typical opinions called in by parents, tax-payers and others, along with their ethical distortions, regarding how the school board should deal with Ms. Perry:

· ” Leave her alone. Let’s not make a big deal about D.U.I. Everybody has driven tipsy at one time or another. She really did nothing wrong.”

COMMENT: “Nothing wrong?” For any citizen, not to mention a public official, breaking the law is by definition doing something wrong. That’s what laws do: define what society believes is wrong. Drunk driving kills people, and is per se irresponsible. If everybody has done it, everybody has been irresponsible, everyone should be ashamed of themselves, and everybody deserved punishment. This argument represents a license for more innocents to be run down.

· “It’s not as if her job has anything to do with driving. The D.U.I. charge is irrelevant to her duties as “superintendent of schools.

COMMENT: Is it? Her job has nothing to do with driving, but it has everything to do with providing leadership, and leadership always means ethical leadership, for administrators, teachers and students. Breaking the law with behavior that the school system specifically condemns for students undermines her authority, and sends mixed messaged to everyone in the school system. When a caller made this comment to a radio talk show host, the host exclaimed, “Good point!” It’s a terrible point, the equivalent of arguing that if a superintendent is convicted of making counterfeit money, it doesn’t matter because she doesn’t handle cash in the course of her job.

· “She’s a good superintendent. She should be cut some slack.”

COMMENT: The translation of this all-too-common response is that the better you do at your job, the more bad things you ought to get away with. This is ethically indefensible. Imagine the equivalent policy for students: the better your grades, the more drugs you can use. Nobody earns the right to break the rules.

· “She just made a mistake.”

COMMENT: Yup. And for a lot of jobs, her mistake would have no employment consequences, or warrant any. But as Superintendent of Schools, her public and private actions profoundly affect her effectiveness. She accepted this fact when she chose her career; if she wasn’t willing to accept the additional burden of being a leader and role model, she should have gone into a different field…radio talk show host, perhaps. Mistakes have consequences, and bad mistakes have bad consequences. In her position, getting arrested for intoxicated driving is a really bad mistake, for which she is fully accountable.

· “Other superintendents have probably driven drunk. They just weren’t caught. Why punish her for being unlucky?”

COMMENT: She’s not being punished for “being unlucky.” She’s being punished, and rightly so, for driving drunk. Unethical conduct is never justified by the fact that others have gotten away with it in the past.

If these arguments sound oddly familiar, there’s a reason. All were trotted out on a daily basis by defenders of President Clinton’s dishonest (he preferred “unhelpful”) statements under oath before a judge and a grand jury arising from his workplace fling with you-know-who: “Everybody lies about sex;” “This had nothing to do with being president;” “This is trivial compared to the important work Clinton has done as president;” “It was just one mistake;” and of course, “Other presidents cheated too.” All classic rationalizations and all invalid arguments, but much of the public accepted them. Now it can parrot them back with ease, proving, ironically enough, the very proposition that the former President and his defenders denied. Leaders must be held to a higher standard of conduct, because those they lead adopt their ethics as their own.

In a kind of backward and cynical acknowledgement of this, the Alexandria School Board is reportedly considering a more lenient policy toward student substance abusers. Yes, Ms. Perry kept her job, although the length of her contract was reduced. School Board members cited many of the same non-justifications expressed by the radio callers, and students throughout the Alexandria system have now gotten a message…the same message the kids of Washington, D.C. received years ago when Mayor Marion Barry, who had solemnly urged students to avoid drug use, was caught on a videotape smoking crack. The message is that the adults who preach values don’t really believe in or practice them, that it is all a game with rules that can be changed by those in power whenever it suits them.

If Ms. Perry truly embodied the ethical values of duty, responsibility, courage, and sacrifice, if she cared as much about doing her job as keeping it, she could have been an ethics hero. She could have voluntarily resigned instead of tearfully pleading for mercy from the School Board. She should have done so stating that the head of an educational organization should be held to a higher standard than its students, and that, while she had made a mistake that she pledged never to make again, the school system could not be led by someone who had publicly betrayed its values.

Alexandria students would have learned a very different lesson. And Superintendent Perry would have proven her worthiness as an educator, for her next job, somewhere else.

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