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Mark P. Murphy
Educational Leadership
The Pennsylvania State University

Monday, October 13, 2008

Disaster Avoided

"Disaster Avoided"

Note: This narrative was authored by JTW and posted by the blog administrator.

It was approximately 8:05 a.m. in the morning. School had just begun. The resuscitation of the pledge of allegiance and the moment of silence was completed in each classroom of the school. As I prepared to leave my office to begin a formal observation of a teacher, Mrs. Light came rushing into the office. She looked at me and said, “I do not know what to do about this so I am bringing it to your attention.” She opened the palm of her hand to reveal a 22 caliber bullet!

I immediately asked her where she found it. She explained that as she was closing her door to begin class she found it laying directly outside her door on the floor. I began to think furiously as to what my next move should be. Is there a possibility that there is a student in the building with a gun? Are they planning on using it to harm another student or a teacher or possibly me? Are they already executing a plan somewhere inside the building? I calmly said thank you to Mrs. Light and told her that I would take care of the situation immediately and asked her to return to her room.

I immediately called the Superintendent to inform him of the situation. He was not in the district that day, of course, but he asked me to get the administrative team to my building as soon as possible and together we would discuss what course of action needed to be taken to ensure the safety of all involved. As I was waiting for the administrative team to convene I decided to notify the school over the intercom to stay in their classrooms until further notice and asked the teachers to be certain to lock their doors from the outside. I could not take the chance of having someone enter a classroom and begin a shooting spree; all I could think about was the incident at Columbine High School.

I directed the custodian to check all exterior doors to ensure the security of the building. Anyone who came to the main office door was allowed to enter but was asked to remain in the office. I was certain that as soon as all of the administrators from other buildings began arriving at my building that the office staff would realize that this was not going to be an ordinary day.

At approximately 8:30 a.m. we convened a conference call in my office with the Superintendent. Together, as a team, we collaborated on what was our next move. Police, both state and local were notified as well as the Sussex County bomb squad. We requested the bomb dog be brought from the Sussex County into the building to make sure that we did not have a gun in the school that possibly had already been fired. We also decided that we would collectively search all rooms, available space in the school as well as students and their lockers. Basically we decided that it was necessary to make a sweep of the entire building inside and out, for it was the only way to ensure the safety for everyone inside the school.

An announcement was made over the loud speaker that everyone would need to stay in their classrooms until further notice and any classroom emergencies should be called into the main office. We knew that we were under a time constraint due to the amount of building space we needed to search and the amount of students and their lockers that would need to be searched. There was also a time constraint due to students and teachers being locked in rooms without food, water and bathroom facilities.

At approximately 8:45 a.m. we began to search all areas including lockers, rooms, and students. We began in the front hallway where the 22 caliber was initially found and systematically went through each hallway, room and locker one at a time. The local police provided us with metal detecting wands to use to scan the students. At approximately 9:35 a.m. the Sussex County police dog arrived and was taken through the building to alleviate fears of a fired weapon. The building both inside and out was determined to be safe and by approximately 11:00 a.m. all students were able to move about freely and classes resumed for the remainder of the day.

A letter was drafted, as per the Superintendent’s request, explaining the incident. I was very relieved that this seemed to be an isolated incident, possibly a bullet that fell out of a student’s pocket that was left there from a weekend of hunting.

At approximately 1:30 p.m. in the afternoon that same day, Miss Uply came into the office and asked to see me. She too had something in her hand. She looked at me and said, “I’m not sure what to do about this but I thought I should bring it to your attention.” At that point and time I thought déjà vu! What could possibly be wrong now? She opened her hand and unfolded what looked like a Kleenex and inside the Kleenex was a pocket knife. I looked at it in disbelief. How could this day go so wrong? First a 22 caliber bullet and now a knife! She must have saw the look on my face and said to me, “I do not think this one is as bad as our incident earlier.” Shannon gave this to me because she was afraid that she would get into trouble. She knew that you were searching everyone so before you searched her she hid the pocket knife in a tissue box in the classroom. When the searches were over she retrieved the knife and gave it to me and asked me to bring it to you and explain to you what she did. To make a long story short, this young ladies father is a knife maker and she had the pocket knife left in her sweatshirt pocket from the weekend and forgot it was there. When her class was told that they would need to be searched and they were asked to empty their pockets she found the pocket knife, panicked and hid the knife before she was searched.

I brought Shannon into my office and asked her to explain what had happened and how the pocket knife came into the school. It was not my decision to make as to whether she would receive a suspension or possibly even an expulsion due to a weapons violation, but I did promise her that I would speak on her behalf as to the sincerity and cooperation that she showed in my office. Fortunately, we do not have a zero tolerance policy and the superintendent understood that mistakes can be made and told the student that if there is another incident such as this one she will be suspended and an expulsion hearing will occur.

Let me take you back to the 22 caliber bullet. Approximately a month later, rumors throughout the student body were brought to my attention. A specific student was being tied to the 22 caliber bullet that was found in the hallway outside Mrs. Light’s doorway. We checked the students schedule and indeed he was a student in Mrs. Light’s first period class. We called Fred to the principal’s office and explained to him the severity of the situation and that we were being told by many students that the 22 caliber bullet found the previous month was his. Fred confirmed and apologized for not coming forward. He explained to us that he was afraid of the consequences of his actions and did not want to be chastised by his peers. As previously thought, he was hunting over the weekend, thought that he had taken all of the ammunition out of his jacket pocket and obviously missed one.

In light of now knowing what happened on that day should Fred have a consequence for his actions, or non-action, on the day of the incident? Police were involved, the school day was disrupted. We do have a school board policy #713 which states if a student impedes or delays the educational process they can be disciplined by reprimand, detention, suspension or even expulsion. We decided to give the reprimand, taking into consideration the student’s previous record and sincerity.

Both of the incidents presented could have been disastrous from many aspects, but because of level heads, collaborative teamwork and cooperative students, staff and faculty, the day was salvaged for academia to continue. This day made me realize that I am capable of providing leadership to my school. Even more so, I can be an effective member of an administrative team.

Step 1: Interpretation of the problem (ethic of critique)

• Who are the stakeholders? The stakeholders from the incidents of the day are Mrs. Light, Miss Uply, Fred, Shannon, all students, parents, administration, superintendent, office staff, custodial staff, local and state police, Sussex county police and the bomb dog.

• Are any unrecognized or without voice? Due to how the incidents originated the students, teachers and parents are without voice. They had no control as to the events that occurred. They were a captive audience due to the possible severity of the situation.

• What arenas of practice are relevant? The arenas of self, group, profession, organization, community and culture were all relevant.

• Does the conflict exist within an arena or between two or more?
The incidents conflict is between the culture and the organization. The culture is one of acceptance of guns, ammunition and knives due to the number of people in the community that hunt for food or play. The organization, in this case the school, exists to educate. The organization is not accepting of weapons within the school setting, however is willing to be understanding of mistakes made. There also is a conflict between self and the group due to the fact that not all students and their families are accepting of hunters and their use of weapons. This is a case of a few interrupting the education of the majority.

• Can the values in conflict be named?
In this specific scenario the values of profession, care and critique are all aligned. There is a question however as to whether or not justice was served due to the fact that neither student truly received a punishment as such, other than a reprimand. One could say that a certain faction of the community would be in conflict with the value of justice in this case.

• How much turbulence are the values in conflict creating?
There is a degree of risk for structural damage to people, specifically the relationships between students, teachers and the administration because of the disruption that was caused for all. This incident could also cause damage to the relationship between the community and the school administrators. I believe the one salvation is that the community is never privy to what consequences are given to students, unless of course the student shares the information with other students, then all bets are off!

Step 2: Toward a Humane Response (ethic of care)

• What motivations and degrees of commitment are apparent among the stake holders?
Mrs. Light and Miss Uply used rational values that were grounded in consequences. They were concerned about the outcomes that the weapons would bring for everyone involved. Fred and Shannon were acting sub-rationally when they brought the weapons to school and grounded in consequences when they acknowledged their mistake to the administration. Fred also was grounded in consensus. He was concerned of what his peers would say or do if they found out it was because of his actions that they had to be locked in their classrooms for quite some time. The superintendent required the use of rational values that were grounded in consensus by the administrative team. The remainder of the student body, faculty, staff and parents had no motivation and commitment, as previously stated they were a captive audience.

• Is the conflict interpersonal (among individuals) or intrapersonal (within an individual)?

I believe the conflict is both interpersonal and intrapersonal. It is interpersonal because there are many stakeholders involved. It is also intrapersonal due to the beliefs that both of these students have in regard to the value and purpose of a weapon which is in direct contrast to the thought process of the value, or non-value of weapons within the educational system.

• What are the human needs, as opposed to organizational or philosophical standards?
The human need, first and foremost, in this scenario is the safety of the students, staff and teachers in the school. The organizational or philosophical standard is the weapons policy that is in place to deal with organizational factors and needs for the educational environment within the school.

Step 3: Ethical Action (ethics of justice)

• What actions or response would maximize benefits for all stakeholders?
In this scenario, I believe that the actions taken by administration did maximize the benefits for all stakeholders. All decisions were made in a timely manner to minimize the disruption of the school day and the educational process.

• What actions or response would respect individual rights?
I believe the individual rights were respected due to the lack of a zero tolerance policy.

• Are desired “ends” or purposes interfering with the selection of a “means” or solution?
The desired “ends” of the school is to ensure that the student’s education is not impeded or delayed. When a weapon is brought into a school, intentionally or unintentionally, the educational process is delayed. It is our jobs as administrators to minimize the impact the decisions of students have on the educational process. All stakeholders were treated equally in this scenario.

• If an ethical dilemma exists (a choice between equally unsatisfactory alternatives), how will you resolve it?
I have always prided myself in taking a moral stand. I believe that we compromise our character if we do not.


smc said...

As a principal, you have to deal with ethical dilemmas everyday. Even if this was an extraordinary situation, your previous experiences can help determine the proper course of action. Often, principal decision-making is constrained by other factors, such as the zero-tolerance policy and this can create a conflict within the principal's decision-making process (arenas of practice); between what is best for the school, the majority of the student population (safety) and the individual student who infringes.

Cathy Peachey said...

I was impressed with the collaborative efforts of your administrative team. In such a situation the level of punishment for the students who violated the policy could have created a conflict had members disagreed on the level or severity of the punishment for the students who caused the disruption or potential disruption with the knife. I believe that with a zero tolerance policy this would have been a much more difficult conflict of values and beliefs.

Norm Miller said...

I impressed how you all worked together as a team in this situation. Whether in education or another profession, I believe this is necessary in this day and age. Using an ethic of care for the child in addition to ethic of profession -- this represents a great post. I think that it is important in situations such as these to take into account the ‘turbulence’ where other relationships such as that with other students, the community, etc., are taken into account. Thanks for sharing.