Editorial : Where the buck stops
News that Tisbury police arrested West Tisbury School shop teacher Dan Johnson last week, on charges that he entertained teenagers at his house and furnished them with alcohol and worse, disturbs one's sense of what's right, or ought to be, and especially of what one has always thought is especially and reliably right about Martha's Vineyard. Coming after the distressing allegations against Dan Murphy, the high school music teacher, and then the questions surrounding the abrupt departure of John Stabile, the driver's education instructor, it nurtures the metastasizing worry that the wholesome sense of themselves and their neighbors that Islanders have come to cherish is unfounded.
The view here is that common sense and sound judgment argue that such an indiscriminatingly despairing conclusion is probably unfounded as well.
Of course, sadly, it is true, and data support the view, that alcohol and drug abuse hobble a significant portion of the adult population. Even more discouraging, it is also true that both of these social pathologies have taken root among significant portions of the youthful populations, perhaps a third. And, more appalling still is the slack attitude of many adults, including some parents, who will host holiday parties this weekend for a jolly Island group of grownups and teens, complete with beer, wine, highly charged eggnog, all the weed you need, and more.
"Our goals," explains Theresa Manning, coordinator of the Island's Youth Task Force, in a Letter to the Editor published this morning, "are to persuade kids to postpone the age at which they begin drinking; to encourage them to drink legally and responsibly when and if they do begin; and to enlist parents and other adults in the community in assuring they do not - in any way - encourage children to use alcohol and drugs illegally." One welcomes such efforts as Ms. Manning describes, though one worries that the adults on leadership's front lines in this matter - including especially parents, and secondarily teachers - all too frequently fall down on the job. After all, a parent or a teacher, few as they may be among us, who encourages these dangerous misbehaviors is in the premier power position to effect unhappy outcomes for young people. Thankfully, these are not most of us.
As regards educators, not merely those mentioned above but their professional and lay leaders, we are gravely disappointed. While we welcome the letter we publish this morning from James Weiss, the superintendent of schools, it comes much too late. Each of the events, which Mr. Weiss acknowledges in passing, was itself worrisome to parents and taxpayers. As they accumulated, the worry, disappointment, and concern gathered too. And, the school system's response was muted, to the extent that there was a response at all.
And now, that response begins with a meaningless genuflection to the innocent until proven guilty trope that is utterly without meaning or substance outside court. Everyone knows that the legal outcome of some of these matters must wait upon a judge's or a jury's decision. That's the court's job, and unless it is intended as a soothing signal to the schools' collective bargaining unit, empty repetition of the familiar language skirts the point.
The point is that what was required months ago but missing then as now was a straightforward statement of horror that such allegations have been made against a professional educator, no matter the outcome in each case. And this ought to have been coupled to a clear statement that the school committee members and the superintendent will take immediate and extensive steps to review, revise and strengthen the system's hiring policies. That it will examine and strengthen programs for continuing education of its employees in the risks and limits of their close involvement with young, susceptible juveniles. That it will strengthen its policies for supervision, review, and evaluation of employees by department heads and principals. And, that it will enhance its efforts to remind the system's professional personnel, many of whom certainly have this understanding of their calling and responsibilities built into their DNA, that as professionals (like lawyers and physicians) they must be alert to the behavior of their teacher colleagues, not only as they instruct students, but how they interact with them, and share the honorable role of enforcing ethical behavior. All this is the job and the inescapable responsibility of the school system's lay and professional leadership. It cannot be devolved upon the police, the courts, or the bargaining unit.