Board-Savvy Superintendent

Defining Ethical Decisions Alternatively
BY MICHAEL ADAMSON/School Administrator, September 2020

STUDENT HANDBOOKS AND codes of conduct define expectations for athletics and extracurricular activities. We view these rules with respect for order and compliance, but also for the ethical values they represent.

Savvy superintendents understand that implementing rules representing ethical values can mean the difference between success and failure. Rules often provide expectations of behavior that can be labeled right and wrong, but ethics define why those rules are right or wrong in a given circumstance. It is important that school board members also understand the ethical basis for decisions they may be called upon to defend.

Within any broad ethical definition, it is helpful for superintendents, with their school board members, to approach ethical decisions utilizing three frameworks: virtue ethics, consequentialist ethics and deontological ethics.

Three Frameworks

Virtue ethics are representative of individual moral character and are recognized by such attributes as honesty, integrity and fairness. Decisions from a virtue ethics perspective are rooted in individual core beliefs or a personal moral code.

Consequentialist ethics, as the name implies, relies on the results of an action to justify whether it is right or wrong. In other words, the end justifies the means. This line of thought suggests that whatever action is necessary is acceptable so long as the result is good.

Lastly, deontological ethics, or duty-based ethics, are grounded upon an established set of rules.

A Suspension Case

Sometimes the resolve of an ethical dilemma can lead to a different outcome depending on which ethical perspective is in play. Not long ago, a superintendent in a small school district struggled with developing a recommendation dealing with a student athlete’s suspension case for underage drinking. The student was a standout basketball player and the dismissal hearing was scheduled to occur immediately before the season’s championship game. Undoubtedly, the star’s suspension would jeopardize the team’s chances to win the championship.

Initially, the superintendent’s personal virtue ethics were not a factor in the decision making because strict rules governed the of-fence. However, while those duty-based ethics were clear, there also were consequential ethics to consider, from both the team and community perspectives.

No one questioned whether the penalty reflected the infraction, only the timing. The superintendent was being pressured to delay the penalty until after the championship game. From a consequential ethical perspective, the suspension before the championship penalized the entire team and would damage school spirit and community pride. What was the harm in delaying action for a week?

A Defensible Stance

It was at this point that the superintendent’s virtue ethics entered the equation, particularly from a fairness perspective. Would the same consideration be entertained had the student not been a star athlete? Probably not. In fact, the request would not likely have been made because the negative impact on other students, school spirit or community support would have been a non-issue.

From that perspective, another view through the consequential ethics lens clearly revealed that delaying the suspension ultimately meant that the rules were not applied equally to everyone but were influenced by popularity and public opinion. The long-term consequences clearly outweighed any immediate fallout. Finally, the duty-based ethical decision prevailed, and the student’s suspension was immediate.

The decision, while not popular, ultimately was the most defensible and sustainable. This illustrative case shows how difficult ethical decisions can become when viewing them from only one ethical perspective. The best decision in this case ultimately defended the rules in the spirit they were written, established long-term respect and did not compromise the superintendent’s sense of fairness. Looking through more than one lens often helps every superintendent uphold the rules while making the best ethical decisions.
MICHAEL ADAMSON is director of board services with the Indiana School Boards Association in Indianapolis, Ind.