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Mark P. Murphy
Educational Leadership
The Pennsylvania State University

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Girl in the Pretty Pink Dress

The Girl in the Pretty Pink Dress
By: Marla Susman Israel, Ed.D. Assistant Professor Loyola University Chicago

The Setting:
Before I was a university professor in educational leadership, I was an early childhood center principal. The center I led, which was part of the public school system, contained approximately 350 children ages 3 – 5 years old. Over 80% of the children came from homes of poverty and 90 % of the children were of color. In contrast, the faculty was ethnically, racially and economically diverse. We prided ourselves on serving the whole child and the whole family. Registration was completed by proving residency in the community through a rental lease, electrical bill or social service agency agreement. The parents’ legal status in the country was never questioned. Parents were never asked to provide information about their own past. Our goals were threefold: 1) to provide the highest quality of early childhood learning experiences possible; 2) to ensure that all children who graduated from our program were ready to be successful upon entering kindergarten; and 3) to ensure that all children and their families were treated with respect and dignity, regardless of past or present circumstances.

After five years of being the school principal, I was a well-known entity in the community and with the local police force. Family members were issued a picture ID when their child entered the program and they knew that it had to be presented each time they entered the facility. Guests could only enter the building by providing a photo ID. Weapons and drugs were not tolerated - nor were gang colors or the flashing of signs. These rules were enforced fairly and were respected by all. The police had been called three times during my tenure to assist in the enforcement of these rules. The community’s police chief and I were on good terms. He believed in early intervention and family support as the most effective way to ensure a safe community for the future.

An important tradition at the early childhood center was the annual winter pageant. At the winter pageant, the children would perform songs and dances for their families. The “acts” were low key and everyone was a star. After the performance, we would all go into the multi-purpose room where the faculty and I would serve every person in attendance a home-cooked meal. We would then all break bread together and be grateful for this special occasion. Each year, the faculty and children would truly look forward to this experience. Parents and grandparents would attend. Children who had very little would arrive for this event in their holiday best. Families, who had very hard lives, for a few hours, could enjoy their children and the company of others in a safe and nurturing environment.

The Incident:
It was the Winter Pageant of 2003. As the principal, I was greeting the attendees, helping backstage, and acting as the master of ceremonies. I was on the stage, with a group of squirming four and five-year-olds behind me. I was about to introduce the children and their teacher. As I looked out onto the beaming faces in the audience, I saw at the back of the room the father of one of the children who was on the stage with me. She too saw her father. And with her perfect smile, in her pretty pink dress, she waved to her daddy who was standing there. Since she was standing on the stage in the front row, and was so incredibly sweet-looking, everyone else turned to smile at the person who was receiving such a warm welcome. As they turned, they saw her father. He was a reputed gang-member who was wanted by the police for questioning concerning a violent crime that had recently occurred in the community. But to the girl in the pretty pink dress, she was her daddy who had come to see her in the winter pageant – and she was ecstatic.

The winter pageant went on without incident. The girl in the pretty pink dress ate dinner with her grandparents and her father amongst the community. The grandparents carried their grandchild out the door and to their car, the father following along. I watched this father, this reputed gang-member and possible felon, kiss his little girl good-night, and put her into the car with her grandparents. The grandparents took the girl in the pretty pink dress home. The father drove away in his car. I noted the make of the car and license plate number. Once he left the parking lot, I then called the police.

The Values Audit:
As an educator who has worked extensively with minority populations and young children, I often begin my deliberations with voices unheard. Therefore, I will begin there as a starting point for my analysis. Research and common sense tell us that all individuals need to feel safe from harm. This desire for safety is most critical for young children whose lives are invariably controlled by adults. Likewise, minority populations in this country, a country that is currently fearful of “the other”, need to feel safe in order to be able to function at all. The conflict surrounding the girl in the pretty pink dress turned on the issue of how these unheard voices defined safety.

The families in the center knew that this was a place where their pasts were not questioned. Immigration status, prior police records and prior mistakes were not the point of entry into the center for these families. Admission into the center symbolized a fresh start for these parents and their young children. At the same time, the families also trusted that their young children would be safe from physical harm in the center. The father at the back of the room was a reputed gang-member and possibly involved in a violent crime. However, in this country, one is innocent until proven guilty. Yet, by protecting this foundational claim for this father, I was possibly jeopardizing the immediate physical safety of every individual in attendance that night at the winter pageant. But might I not put the participants in harms way if the police were called immediately and the father reacted violently to their presence?

But I knew that not calling the police while the father was in the center was surely going to damage my relationship with the police force - damage that could have grave repercussions for the future. However, I believed that if I called the police, real pain would occur to the girl in the pretty pink dress. Experience had shown me the destruction of worth that a child experiences when seeing his or her parent dragged away in handcuffs. The question was not whether or not to call the police, the question was at what point in time the call to the police would produce the least amount of harm.

As an administrator in 2003, as I applied the values stated within my professional code to this situation turbulence resulted. As I pondered my next steps, I believed that the following two values as stated within the American Association of School Administrators’ Statement of Ethics (1981) were in direct conflict with one another:
Makes the well-being of students the fundamental value of all decision-making and actions; and,
Supports the principle of due process and protects the civil and human rights of all individuals.

And now as a professor of educational leadership, as I retell this story to my university students and to this blog, I believe the following values from the UCEA Draft Code 2 (Feb. 2008) are in direct conflict with one another within this situation:
Model ethical behavior for others; and,
Value and respect the intrinsic worth of individuals both personally and within multiple communities.

In 2003, I had to decide what type of safety was most valued at that moment and for whom. I chose one child’s well-being over the possible physical harm that could have occurred that night to all the people within the center. I chose respect for one father over possible future harm to the community. I chose to protect the culture of respect and dignity for families trying to create a new life over the obligations I had to the police force that had come to the protection of these very same families in years past.

In a post 911 world, to choose to uphold our basic present values over safety from possible harm in the future is not a popular choice. However, it was the choice I made then. It is a choice that current school administrators must make each day as they create policy to keep their students safe – the individual versus the group, the present values versus a future fear. It is a choice that must be discussed continually as we try to make sense of today’s world.

This post was authored by Marla Israel, Ed.D., and posted by the blog administrator.


Norm Miller said...

This is a great post. I must say that the narrative itself is a nail-biter. I am sure the intra-personal conflict of deciding what to do and how to handle the situation during the presentation was immense. I see how your ethic of care (for the moment of happiness for the entire family, especially the young girl) must have conflicted with the ethic of justice (whether or not to notify the police). I admire your choice. The child will look back and remember the event either way….the way you chose made the event a positive memory for the her. Your analysis of conflict of whether to model ethical behavior for others and,
value and respect the intrinsic worth of individuals both personally and within multiple communities – speaks volumes regarding this incident. What ever became of the father?

JTW said...

What a compelling story as well as dilemma! I admire your effort greatly! Your story is definitively a struggle between the ethic of care and ethic of justice. This is one of those cases that one must choose one ethic over the other unless you chose creative insubordiantion, which in my mind is what happened. I thank a greater power that it all worked out. I began to think that maybe another solution to the dilemma would have been to ask police to meet you quietly while the event was occuring and explain to them your concern for everyone involved. Do you think they would have made the same decision you had or do you think they would have sided towards the ethic of justice with complete disregard to the meaning of the evening? Did any of the parents contact you or the police on their own?

lrc said...

Your ethic of care was evident as well as your commitment to your schools' vision as the veteran administrator. You did not want to jeopardize your school's reputation as a safe place that puts children's learning first. The background of the family was known, but you did not allow that to dictate your action. You were cognizant of the potential problem which you were monitoring, and you chose the timing of your action. You did act, but not until the little girl in the pretty pink dress got to have her daddy in the audience at her winter pageant. Thanks for putting the child first. I do not think you would have allowed others to be in harm's way. I think you used discernment in the situation.

ECM said...

I really appreciated that you approached this dilemma from a number of ethical positions--the ethic of critique is evident in your discussion of minority relations and power structures within the community; the ethic of care is evident in your concern for the little girl in the pink dress who loves her dad and was excited to see him in the audience; and the ethic of justice is evident in that you did report the father's presence to the police. You made a big difference in the life of that child who got to spend a special evening with her dad.

Ty said...

So what happened to the father? Is there no post script? No epilogue? What a difficult situation!

In your post Dr. Israel, you stated that you "believed that the following two values as stated within the American Association of School Administrators’ Statement of Ethics (1981) were in direct conflict with one another:
Makes the well-being of students the fundamental value of all decision-making and actions; and,
Supports the principle of due process and protects the civil and human rights of all individuals."

What would have caused you to choose in favor of acting in behalf of the group (the parents) rather than the individual (the girl in the pink dress)?

You go on to state that: "And now as a professor of educational leadership, as I retell this story to my university students and to this blog, I believe the following values from the UCEA Draft Code 2 (Feb. 2008) are in direct conflict with one another within this situation: Model ethical behavior for others; and, Value and respect the intrinsic worth of individuals both personally and within multiple communities."

I was wondering why you don't think you modeled ethical behavior?

Thank you for the post!

Cathy Peachey said...

This was truly a difficult dilemma. I appreciate your choice to respond to your ethic of care. I believe that the environment you had created in this school, by not questioning the past of the parents, was reinforced by this incident. Were you aware of any other parents that might have had violent tendencies based on past history? Since this was not questioned upon entrance into the school, there may have been others in attendance with the same characteristics. The only difference being your knowledge of this particular father. Given that knowledge you were placed in a difficult situation. In response you used the ethic of critque to assess the situation, evaluate all your alternatives and then sided in favor of what was best for the child. I agree with your assessment that all the children may have been harmed by an invasion by the police. I beleive again, based on the environment and trust developed by the parents, you did what was best for all.

Sam said...

Thanks for sharing this educative and informative professional experience. Your meta-value of profession is well grounded in molding the minds of future leaders so that the lights in them will surface and shine the brightest. As a result of your ethics of care, you carefully determined the right time to alert the police. Your thought was with everyone at the program, thereby upholding the social trust reposed in you and the value you respect. Bravo for being an exemplary leader.


Dave Jagger said...

Your talent as a storyteller and your presentation of the complexity of your principalship adds so much richness to this account. Empathy between professionals dealing with such dilemmas runs deep, and I found myself rooting for you not to call the police until the little girl left for the night. So yes, I agree that your creative insubordination ran the risk of challenging your relationship with your local law enforcement, yet I have no doubt you were able to take some comfort in your true role as an educator that you helped meet a student's needs in spite of the larger issues at hand.

This is that professional courage that we all wish we could employ at just the right time, but that we sometimes fear because of the repercussions that accompany such courageous acts. Think of the possibilities of "unfettered courageousness!"

Bridget said...

I appreciate your posting, thank you, a compelling story. Do you think your decision would be different today based on your growth from the winter 2003 to present, in our post 9/11 era? I react based on what I know at the time. I believe my ethics of care, justice, and critique are situational and experiential. My meta-values are more over-arching.

Keun Jin said...

Your posting shows the dilemma between ethic of care and ethic of justice very well. I think you did not abandon any value and took effort to balance appropriately. the balance between diffrent values is importnat but difficult for leaders. Your story shows the leader's deliberate behavior for the balance of values.