Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Student, the Principal, and the Secret Cigarette

The Ethics Scoreboard could justifiably include an item (or more) every day inspired by the depressing array of news stories from across the country that Jim Peacock collects on his excellent site, Zero Intelligence ( His target: examples of craven, doctrinaire or otherwise misguided school officials who inflict indignities, insults, and senseless punishment on their charges in the name of "zero tolerance." Sometimes, however, what appear to be ethical outrages are a little bit murkier than the bare facts suggest.

For example, sophomore Eliazar Velasquez, a student at central High School in Providence, Rhode Island was suspended by his school principle after he took photographs of her sneaking a surreptitious cigarette on school grounds (a violation of Rhode Island law) and put them on his website. The Rhode Island ACLU was quickly on the case (this one was tailor made for the ACLU), and soon the boy was reinstated, a school hero. The pictures remained on the website, and the principal had a lot of explaining to do. The story, as it was trumpeted on the ACLU web site and elsewhere: bad principal, punishing a student for exposing her misconduct, gets caught abusing power, and justice is finally done.

But go to Velasquez’s web site, and a somewhat different plot emerges.

"The main reason I set out to expose Ms. Almagno’s illegal activities," he writes, making her sound like a drug smuggler, "is because certain events have led me to believe that our "beloved" principal is prejudiced towards people of Hispanic descent, as well as her lackey, Mr. Hunt." Later Velasquez writes "Looks like our dear principal doesn’t really care much about following the law, eh?…We think Ms. Almagno is not suited to be principal of Central High School."

While the teacher was indeed violating the provisions of Rhode Island’s "Smoking Restrictions in Schools Act," Velasquez’s conduct is hardly admirable either. His objective was clearly to cause trouble for the principal, whom he had already judged guilty of being a bigot. He was motivated by dislike and possibly revenge, and in aggressively seeking to cost an adult educator his job, was engaging in a deliberately harmful vendetta. Moreover, his publication of an accusation of bigotry is quite conceivably libelous.

It is not sufficient or fair to make this episode merely a matter of a vengeful school administrator setting out to punish a student who exposed his wrongdoing. Velasquez has also done wrong and behaved unethically; worse, at this point he appears to have no understanding of that fact. He is self-righteous and, it seems, proud of the fact that his scheme to bring down the principal is working like a charm.

Indeed, Velasquez has the school in a bind. Because he has exposed an actual violation of the law, he has girded himself in the armor of a whistleblower, despite the fact that there is much in his conduct that deserves rebuke. But any punishment related to the matter can and will be framed as "retribution." He is truly an untouchable now, and for the foreseeable future. His principal’s indiscretion has created a monster. And Velasquez is a monster that could well grow to alarming proportions unless someone (a parent, one would hope) steps in to provide perspective. Right now, he thinks the way to handle authority figures he doesn’t like is to catch them in an embarrassing act and destroy their reputations. If I were Eliazar’s father, I’d be watching my back.

Still, the principal brought this situation on herself. She is the adult in this drama; she is a leader and role model, and her need for cigarettes is not sufficient reason to break a state law or put herself in the position of being humiliated by a vengeful student.

Should her error in judgement cost her job? In the abstract, no; the legislative purpose behind the Rhode Island law she violated had little to do with secret puffs by the school door; it’s a violation less alarming than a speeding ticket. But as events have unfolded, yes. By her carelessness she has undermined her authority and prevented the school from correcting a student’s unethical conduct and motivations. Right now, that student is at risk, and if he is not set straight, so is anyone who has the misfortune to cross him in the future. The principal is responsible for all of this.

But no justice has been done, not at all. Before Velasquez’s "gotcha!" exercise, there was just a nicotine-addicted principal sneaking a smoke when she thought nobody was looking. After it, we have a wounded career, a slanderous website, an uncontrollable student who believes that destroying an authority figure is an appropriate way to settle conflict, and a student body that now regards such conduct as heroic.

Such can be the result when leaders of the young underestimate the importance of their conduct. Values have been distorted, unethical conduct is being glorified, and youthful character has been warped. And though that is an absurd amount of damage for some illicit drags on a cigarette, Principal Almagno, and nobody else, is responsible.


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