Disciplining students is principal's job

March 14, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

We may have more facts, allegations, accusations and recriminations in the St. John's at Prospect Hall expulsion case than we need.

If you read Wednesday's column, you know most of the facts: two students caught necking in the hallway, engaged in either "petting" or "heavy petting," depending on whose elegant semantics you want to believe. The girl's affidavit said her leggings were pulled down to expose her underwear. The boy is black and a basketball player. Fred Cooke, lawyer for the students, said they were kissing and hugging, nothing more.

Then comes the allegation that St. John's Headmaster Thomas Peri has some vendetta against the basketball team and, by implication, black students. Charges were made that discipline at St. John's is racially biased. References were made to an October incident in which another black basketball player faced expulsion. The student stayed, but some charged that Peri vowed to expel the next basketball player who got into trouble.

Some of those facts are in dispute, but here are two that are not: Both students admitted they were wrong, and Peri is, indeed, the headmaster of St. John's at Prospect Hall. He's the only headmaster. And when two students admittedly transgress against school policy, it's the headmaster's job to mete out punishment. Not the parents. Not the courts. Not lawyers.

As things now stand, headmasters, principals, assistant principals, anybody in authority at schools will have to mete out punishment based on secret ballot. Everybody will have to be consulted -- parents, teachers, lawyers, judges, unions, the media the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, for heaven's sakes -- and then a punishment given that will please everybody and offend no one. If the principal happens to be white, then the day when he or she can discipline a black student and not be accused of racism is fast disappearing.

Mind you, I sympathize with the mother of the girl and with Karen Conley, the mother of a black student on the St. John's basketball team. Conley is the woman who told me that Peri's problem was not with two students kissing in the hall, but with "students of color." From their voices, from the look in their eyes, I could tell they sincerely believed that Peri had a problem with black students. They both believe the October incident showed Peri's agenda was to nail a basketball player, not to discipline either wisely or fairly.

Peri, in one of the rare comments he is able to make on this issue, said the two cases are entirely different. He's right. They are different in this respect: The October incident was the case of a student accused of something where guilt had to be established. In the Feb. 6 necking-in-the-hall incident, guilt was admitted. The dispute -- and the lawsuit -- is over the severity of the punishment in the latter case.

And the punishment is strictly Peri's call as headmaster. His motives are moot. Whether his punishment is right or wrong, too harsh or too lenient, is quite beside the point. When I looked into Peri's office Monday, I noticed only one chair behind the desk. It seems everybody wants to crowd into that chair with Peri. Everybody wants to dictate what kind of discipline the headmaster at this small Catholic school should hand out.

But let's all understand something about Catholic schools. They have a reputation for strictness. The margin for transgression is VTC very slim indeed. And it's not just the schools. I'll put the necking incident at St. John's in perspective for you. Years ago I attended the Catholic Youth Organization at St. Pius V Church. In charge was a short, rotund, feisty priest named Father Razza. One Friday night, he said there would be no more of the body-to-body dancing we called "slow-dragging" at our Friday night dances. We figured he was joking and looked at him, waiting for the punch line. We never got one. Father Razza had laid down the law. There would be no debate, no discussion and no appeal to a metaphorical higher court.

The St. John's case has been taken to a literal higher court. You have to wonder how it ever got to the court in the first place. Even though the girl's mother is sincere and has invested more than $14,000 in St. John's for her daughter's education, she admits that some sort of punishment was in order. In fact, she said she disciplined her daughter herself. The punishment, the mom said, is still in effect. The boy's father, an NBA basketball player, has disciplined his son.

I wonder if either parent has considered that Thomas Peri did not visit their homes and suggest or dictate to them that their punishment was too harsh or too lenient. He respects each parent's right to discipline his or her children. Quite the pity, they apparently don't respect his right to discipline St. John's students.

Pub Date: 3/14/98

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