You have doubtless heard about the 15 year-old high school student who was at a party where she drank heavily and went upstairs with three boys where she was allegedly assaulted. She was then apparently photographed and the photos shared with the three boys’ friends at school. Eight days after the incident, the young girl hanged herself. This was last Fall. In a recent story it became clear that while the girl’s parents are bringing homicide charges against the three 16 year-old boys, the school will have nothing to do with the incident and has refused to expel the boys whose names are known. The young woman’s name is Audrie Pott and her family lawyer, Robert Allard, had this to say about the school’s refusal to act:
Allard described the school district as “more interested in protecting its image than in taking responsibility for its lack of actions in Audrie’s case.”
It would appear that the lawyer is correct in his assessment, which raises questions once again about the role of an academic institution in the face of possible scandal. We usually see this sort of thing happening in our college athletics programs where the institution refuses to acknowledge an incident until it has been made public. This happened most recently with the basketball coach at Rutgers whose behavior was well known by the administration for months before anything was done. As Allard suggests, in this cover-up culture that is academia the institutions are “more interested in protecting [their] image than in taking responsibility.” This is doubly disturbing because these are academic institutions that are charged with educating the young. One must wonder what sort of message they are sending to their students.
The Superintendent of Audrie’s school insists that the school need not take any action because the party did not happen on school property. The Pott’s lawyer insists that it was the showing of the photographs on school property after the party that drove Audrie to suicide. Be that as it may, it is a senseless quibble in the face of the girl’s death. The school should have stepped forward immediately after the incident, expelled the three boys, and made a public statement regarding the incident and its moral implications. Again, it is a question of basic common sense and common decency — if not a question of taking the moral high ground (which seems to be getting flatter as the days and weeks go by). The school was remiss and especially so since there were important lessons to be learned from the terrible incident that have been swept aside in the interest of saving face.
It is ironic that the urge to preserve the reputation of an educational institution turns into a black eye when it becomes known that a deplorable incident has been brushed under the rug. It would seem to make sense for the institution to acknowledge the incident as soon as it is known “in-house” and make clear that they will not stand for that sort of thing. Being pro-active in the face of possible scandal would, it seems to me, enhance the reputation of the institution rather than tarnish it — as occurs when the cover-up is disclosed.