Ethical Educator

Tattling on Truant Peers
School Administrator, January 2021

Scenario: A central-office administrator learns through her teenage son, confidentially, that his two closest friends, who attend school in a neighboring district, had skipped school three times in recent weeks to play video games while parents were working elsewhere. The administrator sits with the information but wonders whether to contact the two boys’ parents or someone at their high school.

MaryEllen Elia:

As a mother, this person has a duty to protect her son and their trust. As a central-office administrator, she has a duty to serve students’ best interests. She must find a solution that honors the importance of both roles. Calling the two boys’ parents would not be such a solution as it risks implicating her son and would be inappropriate given they attend school in another district.

The unfortunate reality is that we know huge numbers of students are struggling to remain engaged in distance learning. A diplomatic approach would be to address this issue with an administrator in the neighboring district to indicate she’s heard of students in both of their districts not attending distance learning. She could say, in the interest of their students and teachers, she felt compelled to raise awareness. She could even consider opening a communication pathway with the district administrator to exchange strategies to address the issue of student engagement. 

Maggie Lopez:

This is not her story to tell! Her son shared the information with his mother confidentially, not as a student but as her son. Though the line between professional and personal life for administrators can at times be blurred, in this case it appears it was a private, personal conversation with her child. She needs to approach this primarily from her role as a parent.

She might want to ask him why he shared information about friends’ behavior with her. It appears to bother him so he may be looking for clarification regarding what he should do as their friend.

The mother/administrator should discuss the seriousness of the friends’ actions with her son. The knowledge she has as an administrator will help the son see what the result of their actions might look like from the school perspective. The boys could end up so far behind it might delay matriculation to the next grade or even graduation. There could be punitive responses from the school staff. She has an opportunity at this time to speak as his mother who is also an administrator. However, she should approach it primarily from the perspective of a mother whose son has taken her into his confidence.

Most importantly, she ought to allow her son to process his own thoughts and reactions to what he shared. During this conversation, she could offer examples of how she has responded  when she’s been in similar situations. She can talk about how she’s handled it and ask him for his input on how he might have responded were he in his mom’s shoes. Hopefully, this will lead to the two of them exploring next steps. 

Though it might have been easier for the administrator to jump to a decision without discussion with her son, this is a real-life opportunity for the mother and son to work through an ethical dilemma that may arise again where they will have to figure out their respective roles. 

If the son decides he wants to do nothing, the mother needs to be sure her son understand the consequences of that decision, as well.

Shelley Berman:

Each district has a system for tracking attendance and class participation. Although tracking is harder in remote classes, it is still the responsibility of teachers and school administrators to be cognizant of absences and students cutting classes. The friends’ school should be the one contacting the boys’ parents about their absences. As this is not a health, safety or endangerment issue, the administrator should respect the confidentiality requested by her son and not contact the other district. 

However, the administrator could thank her son for trusting her with the information and applaud him for recognizing how problematic his friends’ behavior is. She also could engage him in a conversation about how he could talk with his friends about the risks they are taking and the impact those missed classes might have. In casual conversation with the boys’ parents, she might also mention that parents have had to develop new strategies and assume some responsibility for monitoring their adolescents’ remote participation—without divulging that she is aware of their sons’ reported behavior and without casting suspicion on her own son as a source of information.

Max McGee:

Of the many lessons remote learning has taught us, one of the most important is to the power of relationships and need to preserve them. Teachers have learned their virtual lessons will be tuned out if they cannot connect with each individual student, and parents have learned the more isolated their kids are, the more their (the kids’ and the parents’) mental health is at risk.  

The administrator is first a mother and second a district office leader, and she needs to respect the confidentiality of her son. In fact, parents of many, arguably most, teenage boys are envious that a son would confide in his mom at all! She should let her neighboring district police its own students. She should not contact the parents, and she should let her own son know how much she values that he is engaged in his remote learning classes and deeply appreciates his choice not to blow off classes to play video games.

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.; MaryEllen Elia, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates in Schaumburg, Ill.