Saturday, June 21, 2008

Dancing Round the Manchester School Board May Pole

First, God created the idiot; this was for practice. Then he created the school board -- Mark Twain

Over in Manchester, two students, apparently thugs with prior police records, beat up a third student. This attracted the attention of Chris Powell, the no-nonsense Managing Editor of the Journal Inquirer, who wrote a column about it, which in turn attracted the attention of Margarett H. Hackett, chairwoman of the Manchester Board of Education.

In his column, Mr. Powell, noted that two months had elapsed since the Manchester student was “beaten so badly that he required brain surgery.” The paper discovered from court proceedings that “the two students charged in the beating already had felony convictions. One of them had a pending plea bargain for assault conspiracy that was about to send him to prison.”

Since state law requires police to notify school superintendents when students in they systems are arrested, Mr. Powell reasoned, it was likely that “Manchester's school administration knew all about the criminal records of the student-felons and made a decision to let them stay in school anyway, and to let one them stay right up to the moment of his imprisonment.”

Apparently, the paper put some pointed questions to both the superintendent and the board of education in Manchester, and the usual happened: Everyone hid behind the flowerpot of “student confidentiality.”

“Appallingly,” Mr. Powell wrote, “a Journal Inquirer survey of Manchester's Board of Education has found that eight of the board's nine members have no curiosity about how the administration handled the students with the felony convictions.”

The response of board member Jay Moran was typical: “"We have to trust the administrators that they're doing their job.” Linette Small-Miller, another board member concurred: "To make this public would open up a can of worms." Enrique Marcano said the administration should not tell the board anything about student discipline. The tight-lipped group rallied around the flag of student confidentiality.

The infelicitously named Michael Crockett (any relation to David?) fled from the burning building with his pants afire: “Despite the near-murder at the high school,” Mr. Powell wrote, “board member Michael Crockett retreats in terror from questions about how the convicted students were handled. ‘I don't want to know,’ he says. ‘That's too much for me to know, too much responsibility to take.’”

OK, Mr. Powell wrote, you want to be that way eh?

One by one, he polished off the responses of the school board members to the “near murder” in their school system, and at last he came at length to
Board Chairwoman Hackett, who “abdicates more disingenuously than her colleagues. She says the General Assembly should legislate more about what may be disclosed here.”

Mr. Powell, somewhat in the manner of the startled observer announcing the King had no clothes, observed (italics mine): “…nothing in the law prevents the school board from asking the school administration in public what it knew about the convicted students prior to their arrest in the near-murder and why the administration decided to keep them in school. Nor does the law prevent the board from asking the administration in public how many other students have criminal records and why they are being kept around.”

Then came the rat-a-tat of questions: “So why were felons, at least one of them apparently violent, roaming Manchester High School? What did the school administration know and when did it know it? Why did the administration decide to keep the student-felons in school? Why did the administration not perceive any danger?”

This is Pulitzer Prize-winning column writing. Here, at the risk of impugning a straight forward objective and truthful account of the issue in the Manchester school system, I must disclose a relationship with Mr. Powell. I wrote a column for the Journal Inquirer for many years, and Mr. Powell, in his capacity as Editorial Page Editor, edited my columns. In the years I wrote for the JI, he bore my idiocies with great grace and humor, and he never refused to print a column, even those with which he disagreed.

Mr. Powell’s initial column was “answered” by chairwoman Hackett, who trotted out the usual bromide: School systems were restrained by law from releasing to the press any information regarding students: “Members of the board cannot legally disclose details of the academic, disciplinary and court records of the involved students, and for that matter, any student.”

In a few paragraphs in another column, Mr. Powell disputed the assertion but waived it theoretically and pointed out that the school administration was not asked to disclose such information.

The questions put to the board were about the administration, not the students: “The questions were whether, prior to the assault at the high school, the administration was aware of the serious felony criminal records of the students charged in the assault; whether the administration had made a decision to keep those students at the high school despite their serious records, and, if so, why; and whether there are other students with serious criminal records at the high school.

“These questions can be answered without identifying any student in public. But they cannot be answered without identifying the administrators responsible, whom the board is protecting far better than it protects students.”

Mr. Powell’s questions ought to be answered, and one suspects he is tenacious enough to get the answers -- eventually.

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