Recently, we've heard a lot about the authority of principals to control their schools. Should their authority be strengthened? How much control is enough?
These questions turn on an understanding of the relationships that exist within a school. Certainly a principal should have enough authority to maintain an atmosphere of order, one that is conducive to learning.
But the question of individual rights -- namely, those of the students -- is also important. Students are protected by rules, one of which affords them the right to a hearing before being involuntarily transferred from one school to another.
Our government provides for a hearing and review process to ensure that individuals are not denied their rights without due process. And the right to due process was extended to students in the public schools after a number of Supreme Court cases, beginning with Goldberg v. Kelly.
The D.C. Board of Education recently moved to increase the power of the superintendent to transfer a student involuntarily should a principal recommend such a transfer. No doubt in the near future the board will move to strengthen the superintendent's hand even more, allowing her to expel students who fail to follow school rules. On the other hand, it will be important to build safeguards into any new policy; any rules changes must meet the constitutional test for fairness.
Our society is regulated by checks and balances. In the District, prinicipals are supervised by regional superintendents and the superintendent herself. The superintendent in turn is supervised by the Board of Education. The board answers to the voters. Failure to observe these checks and balances leads to a breakdown of order.
The temptation whenever a charge is made is to find a person guilty based on the charge. When that happens, a lynch mob mentality or public hysteria can lead to the persecution of an individual who may or may not be guilty of the accusation brought against him or her. It is in light of subsequent facts, figures, testimony, cross-examination and the like that we find the ultimate guilt or innocence of an individual.
Principals must be given the power to act, the power to control, the power to manage their schools, but not the power to try, convict or punish persons accused of a crime before the accused has had an opportunity for a hearing. The role of government in managing human behavior is to find the balance between that which serves the people and that which oppresses the people.
Finding that proper balance means that rules will have to change from time to time. The 1960s are now gone, and with them some of the idealistic expectations. The realities of the '80s leave us with clear directions for a more disciplined society and a more disciplined school environment.