The Pinocchio Problem

January 05, 1994

Teachers and other school workers are calling for sanctions against students who willfully make false accusations about them. It is impossible to disagree with their idea, but difficult to figure out how it could or should be enforced.

How do you determine when a student is not telling the truth? If only human beings were like Pinocchio, who wore his lies on his face, it would be easy. Take the boy who accused Northeast High teacher Laurie Cook of sexual abuse. If he made it all up, his nose would be a mile long by now and no one could argue that he should not be punished. As it was, his case -- like most involving charges against teachers -- was largely one person's RTC word against another. A jury acquitted Ms. Cook, citing inconsistencies in the prosecution's testimony. Even so, no one except her and the accuser knows for certain what happened.

But if a jury acquits a teacher, doesn't it follow that the accuser must be lying? Not necessarily. Judges and juries, when asked to decide cases where there is a reasonable doubt about who's telling the truth, must always give the defendant the benefit of that doubt. That's the way it works in a system where protecting the innocent is more important than punishing the guilty. Such verdicts tell us the accuser failed to meet the burden of proof; they do not always tell us who is a liar.

Even confession isn't always a reliable barometer. In 1989, one of Ronald Walter Price's victims recanted her story. Her charges were true, but she was scared of pursuing them. If a student like this were subject to sanctions, who would decide if she is a malicious liar or a fearful victim?

Certainly some young people are capable of concocting accusations against authority figures. Certainly the school system should let students know that such lies will not be tolerated and devise suitable punishments. Knowing they will be held accountable for malicious, frivolous accusations can't help but deter students from making them. We think the school board should listen to what teachers and other school employees are saying.

But if the board considers sanctions, it must remember that drafting a policy saying kids who lie will be suspended or denied recess is not enough. It must also decide who is responsible for judging when a lie has, in fact, occurred.

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