Father/journalist roles create schism in St. Paul's scandal

April 14, 2001|By Rob Kasper

LIKE MANY folks in town, I have followed the recent developments at St. Paul's School. There, in the past two weeks, a student was expelled, others disciplined, and the varsity lacrosse season was canceled after a player secretly videotaped himself having sex with a girl from another school and the tape was shown at a lacrosse team gathering.

I do not pretend to have an objective point of view of this story. St. Paul's is where I have sent my two boys. I have more feelings of conflict than certainty.

While my sons - one a recent graduate, the other still in high school - do not play lacrosse, they have played other sports and participated in extracurricular activities. That means that over the past 13 years I have sat with "lacrosse parents" as we watched our sons play other sports, sing in choral groups, give speeches. While I don't know all of the students involved in this incident, my take is that many of them are good kids who made a mistake.

I think that the sanctions the school took were correct. While most teen-agers make mistakes, this one involved serious mistreatment of a young woman. She is the victim here, as school authorities have repeatedly said. The school, in my view, needed to send a message that such behavior ran contrary to what it was teaching young men about the dignity of human beings. It needed to speak in a forceful voice about its values, and it did.

While these are the big issues here, the past two weeks have left me with conflicting feelings on a number of the smaller aspects of the experience.

I was, for example, of two minds about the amount of attention this story has drawn in the local media. The coverage was extensive. When I snapped on the television, I saw a live shot of a television reporter camped outside the school gates. When I turned on the radio, I heard talk show hosts handling dozens of calls on the topic. When I called up an online chat room, I saw heated e-mail exchanges on the topic. And when I picked up The Sun, my newspaper, I read report after report, column after column devoted to the story.

I could see why. Lacrosse is a big deal in Baltimore, and the St. Paul's team was touted as the best in town, a title that usually equates with best in the nation. When the mighty succeed, it is news, and it is also news when they fall. Moreover, for some years now, the moral climate of America's high schools has been a noteworthy topic.

The journalist in me would defend such reportage as "thorough coverage." But the school parent in me would shout "Enough! These are kids! They are being punished! Stop piling on!"

The developments at St. Paul's over the past two weeks also have reminded me of my blind spots, of instances when I lose perspective. Among the times this has happened to me are when I have been evaluating my kids' athletic abilities, and when I have been searching for a college for my kid. I would like to think, for instance, that I would support the school's actions even if they compromised my son's chance of getting into a top college. Some St. Paul's parents feel they are in this position. I'm not, so I can't make an honest call.

The events also have made me take another look at my feelings about winning. In my tenure as a volunteer coach of kids recreational league teams, I have seen that winning games builds confidence. The difficulty comes in keeping that on-the-field confidence from becoming off-the-field arrogance. I am not entirely sure how to impart that sense of balance. But I think it is my job as a father.

Finally, I have been trying to figure out what impact this incident might have on the community. I got some inkling, I think, a week ago while watching my son play a junior varsity baseball game at St. Paul's.

While I was standing on the sidelines, a father of a player on the other team struck up a conversation with me. The father told me that his son, who had been following the early news accounts of the St. Paul's story "like a hawk," was convinced that the school was going to take no meaningful action. It had been his son's bitter experience, the dad said, that top athletes in Baltimore high schools were immune from serious disciplinary sanctions, especially when their sport is in season.

When St Paul's acted, the boy had been surprised and his father had been impressed. It is now going to be easier, the father predicted, for schools throughout the Baltimore area to discipline wayward athletes.

I am not sure about that. But I know it makes it easier for me to cheer for my son and his classmates when they step on a field wearing the school colors.

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