A junior high school principal who had been involved in several incidents of physically grabbing or striking students was fired by the school board here earlier this year and now, as a result, five board members are being recalled by an angry community.
The board voted March 14 not to renew Myron McKee's contract for the fall, and within two weeks, 6,200 citizens in this Missisippi River city of 50,000 had signed petitions demanding the recall of the board members who oppose McKee. Last month, the La Crosse city council set Aug. 2 as the date for the election.
The debate surrounding McKee, his disciplinary tactics an use of physical force, and the actions of the school administration and board to rein him in have been a dominant topic in La Crosse for a year and a half. It fits into a national debate rekindled by U.S. Supreme Court decision in April over the appropriateness of corporal punishment in schools.
What has made the La Crosse situation unusual is the tremendous community support for a man who freely admits to using physical force as a way of controlling students.
When McKee, 29, took over as principal at Longfellow Junior High School in the fall of 1975, he went into a school the community viewed as out of control.
McKee adopted a stern and somewhat flamboyant approach from the beginning, going personally to truant students' home to bring them back to school, patrolling the neighborhood, freely giving out detentions.
By February, 1976, he had been reprimanded several times by the school administration for using physical force on students. A few months later, one student used McKee and the school district for $420,000 charging that the principal had broken the student's eardrum by striking him on the head. That suit is still in court.
McKee pleaded not guilty in La Crosse County Court in June to Charges of battery to a student, stop the youth from throwing fire-crackers in the schoolyard.
The administration tried to fire McKee last summer after several other incidents involving his use of physical force, but the school board backed away after the community rallied to McKee's support. When more incidents occured this school year, the board finally took action. The official charges were insubordination and lack of administrative ability.
McKee did not appeal.
McKee makes no apologies for his willingness to use physical force, saying he does not use it for punishment but only as a way to bring unruly students under control.
The citizens who want the board recalled say they are upset both because McKee was fired and because of the way the board went about it - not dealing with the main issue of discipline.
Board Vice President Robert Kueschmann, one of those named in the recall, said it is not fair for the board to be recalled merely for trying to carry out its duties of hiringand firing personnel.
One of McKee's strongest critics is James Birnbaum, the attorney who represents the student in the damage suit and the American Civil Liberties Union in a separate suit against McKee. "I don't care if 100 per cent of the citizenz of La Crosse feel that if a kid is truant, he ought to get the hell beat out of him. That's just not acceptable in this country," Birnbaum said.
But McKee's supporters point to the April Supreme Court decision that coporal punishment is not unconstitutional and say that more schools need tough principals like McKee.
A mail-in poll done by the La Crosse newspaper in March found 72 per cent of its respondents favoring corporal punishment of even higher percentages favoring searches of students and enforcement of school rules in the neighborhood around the school - two other McKee tactics that drew fire.