June 2006 Ethics Dunces

Hungary Creek Middle School Administrators

Principles are wonderful things, and driving home ethical principles is an important part of a school's job of shaping young minds. Unfortunately, when reverence for principles results in punishment that is wildly out of proportion to the conduct being punished, the principle that registers in an impressionable young student's mind is likely to be this one: those with power can employ it however they please.

That's a false principle, of course. The true principle is that power and authority carries with them many ethical obligations, including reasonableness, responsibility, proportion, fairness, empathy, kindness, and care. None of these were displayed by the Hungary Creek Middle School when its administrators decided to punish eighth-graders Jeremy Maitland and J.P. Stephenson with one-day suspensions and dismissal from the baseball team for the dread crime of eating a few of a teacher's cookies.

As Maitland tells it in an account the school does not dispute, he and Stephenson were in the school kitchen to get water for a baseball game. Two other students were already there and said they had eaten some cookies they found and that he and Stephenson should, too.

Maitland and Stephenson filled the water cooler, and accidentally knocked over an open cookie container in the process. The boys ate a couple of the sweets as they were putting them back on the shelf, Maitland admits. "We were in a hurry. At least we cleaned up the cookies. We could have left them there." he said. "The only regret I really have is that I didn't go to the coach and tell him what happened."

The families received letters from the assistant principal telling them the cookies were a staff member's personal food, hence the punishment. Presumably, the school takes the position that theft is theft, and today's filched cookie will become tomorrow's hijacked Lexis. The Scoreboard doesn't disagree, though as a recidivist cookie-snatcher who grew up to be a lawyer and ethicist (okay, a fat lawyer and ethicist), I am pretty secure in my belief that the vast majority of unpunished cookie thieves go on to lives of productive and honest citizenship. Yes, "everybody does it" no more excuses the theft of a single cookie than it does accepting bribes from lobbyists. Some punishment is appropriate, and here's the appropriate punishment: an apology…something like this:

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Keebler. I was wrong to eat your cookie, and I apologize. Please tell me what I can do to make it up to you."

If it was a really, really special cookie, the greatest cookie ever, perhaps a sentimental cookie, the last cookie from the final batch whipped up from a generations-old secret recipe by Mrs. Keebler's grandmother on her deathbed, Mrs. Keebler might be justified in requiring something more, like a couple of afternoons cleaning the supply closets. Absent some sentimental attachment to the lost cookies, however, the reasonable, proportional and ethical response would be, "Apology accepted. Forget about it; just ask next time. I've taken some cookies myself in my time."

Instead, teacher and administration decided to make examples of the students and strike terror into the hearts of all would-be cookie burglars. As a result, they only taught students a lesson about the abuse of power, and how a disproportional punishment can be more unethical than the offense that inspired it.




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