Ethical Educator

A Threat on Record
School Administrator, October 2017

Scenario: The high school principal is well-respected and credited with disciplinary reforms that led to a 40 percent reduction in suspensions and fewer expulsions. But the superintendent receives an audio recording in which the principal, who is also an assistant varsity football coach, can be heard threatening a 14-year-old special education student. He is heard on the tape telling the teen, “I’ll knock your (expletive) teeth down your throat.” Legal counsel advises the superintendent the tape cannot be used against the principal for criminal or potential disciplinary proceedings because state law prohibits recording someone without permission. How should the district proceed?

Sarah Jerome:
The superintendent can use the tape with the principal to have a serious discussion about appropriate conduct with students. The superintendent can set up a meeting with him and the parents of the victimized student — and perhaps the student too — and play the tape. The discussion should lead to an apology by the principal to the parents and the student.

The superintendent should increase supervision of this administrator to determine if other incidents of a similar nature are taking place. While the audio tape might not be useful in a court of law or a disciplinary proceeding, it can serve as a catalyst for the superintendent to be more vigilant with regard to the principal's behaviors. The principal needs to have the opportunity to know that he has breached the trust established with the superintendent.  

A discussion with the principal could lead to him volunteering to receive additional training in working with special-needs students. While the “principal as coach” actions are unacceptable, it is possible the discussions and revelations could lead to new growth and professional learning by the offender.
Maggie Lopez:
This tape cannot simply be ignored. It needs to be played for the principal. Whether or not any action can be taken against the principal, he should be made to discuss the incident. 

The superintendent should develop a plan with the principal to ensures this response to any student is never repeated. In essence, with or without any consequences or formal action taken against the principal, the knowledge of the tape has placed the principal and school district “on notice.” 

A critical question for the superintendent is whether this principal’s behavior has occurred previously. How can the superintendent legally find out without using the tape as the evidence? Perhaps a starting place might be to explore what tactics were taken by the principal and his staff to create the disciplinary reform outcomes they laud.

Additionally, a decision will need to be made on how to address the tape with the individual who gave it to the district, assuming the district knows who this person is. Many parameters must be considered, including the fact someone taped the principal without his permission. Obviously, this individual was distressed enough to risk an unlawful act to get the information to the district. 

Also important to consider is the followup with the student and his family. The district leaders are aware of this incident with the student, so do they just ignore it because of the circumstances? If it is not addressed, could this tape end up on social media?
Meira Levinson:
No school principal should tell a student, “I’ll knock your (expletive) teeth down your throat.” It doesn’t matter how effective he is at reducing suspensions and expulsions or at coaching the football team. Nor does it matter whether the student he is threatening has been diagnosed with special needs. Children should not be threatened with physical violence nor should they be cursed at by school personnel. If this is how the disciplinary reforms — or football victories — have been achieved, then they are not worth the cost.

Because the superintendent cannot legally use the tape to initiate formal disciplinary proceedings against the principal, she must decide how to proceed informally. Confronting the principal about the tape could enable a productive conversation about leadership expectations and anger management. On the other hand, it might risk exposing the student to retaliation and expose whoever made the tape to risk criminal prosecution for illegally recording the incident. Perhaps the superintendent could encourage the principal to rethink his approach to students without directly discussing the tape  through professional development or district initiation of a school culture survey.

In deciding whether to disclose the tape and how to engage the principal, the superintendent will need to conduct an informal analysis of the likely pros and cons of disclosure and engage in some creative thinking about leadership and personnel management.

At the same time, the district leadership team should take a hard look at the cultures surrounding school discipline, athletics coaching and special education throughout the district. Rather than being a “bad egg,” it’s quite possible this principal is simply reflecting a more widespread culture of disrespect toward students in one or more of these arenas. Overcoming this risk should be of highest priority to the superintendent and her team.

Shelley Berman:

By being given the tape, the superintendent has been alerted to a serious incident and has an obligation to investigate. Although the tape cannot be shared or used as evidence, the superintendent can indicate that she has received a report of an incident. Then she or her designee can interview the student, his parents and others who may know about this or other incidents where threats and intimidation were used.

The student may not have come forward for fear of retaliation. It is important to treat this matter sensitively and ensure that the student is protected and supported. If the investigation reveals that the principal threatened the student, the student’s statement or evidence other than the tape can be used in a disciplinary proceeding.

If the superintendent can’t confirm the incident through an investigation, it would still be appropriate for her to meet with the principal and let him know that she received a report that he had threatened a student. The principal can deny the incident happened, but the conversation would still put him on notice of the unacceptability of that kind of behavior. Or the principal can admit it, offer some explanation as to the circumstances, and accept the disciplinary consequences.

This incident should also give the superintendent pause to think about the actual disciplinary reforms put in place by the principal. If he has threatened one student, other similar circumstances may reveal a troubling pattern of discipline based on fear and intimidation. Even if the student or others are unwilling to come forward, the superintendent is forewarned to look more carefully into the disciplinary reforms and approaches the principal uses with students or condones among his staff.

Anonymous letters, statements or tapes present challenging dilemmas for administrators. We may be inclined to ignore or discount them. While many are erroneous, some point to serious issues presented by an individual who is afraid to step forward publicly. The superintendent can’t simply ignore information when issues have been raised. Even if a tape or anonymous material can’t be used, a separate investigation may reveal evidence that requires an administrative response or disciplinary action.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Sarah Jerome, a retired superintendent in Arlington Heights, Ill., and an AASA past president; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; and Maggie Lopez, interim superintendent, Eagle County, Colo.