LAW & EDUCATION
The President’s Message – National Character Counts Week
National Character Counts Week was proclaimed by President Obama this year. However, if you are like me, you, too, never heard about it and National Character Counts Week passed by unnoticed, which was our misfortune. In his Proclamation, President Obama said: “During National Character Counts Week, we reflect on the ways we support one another, the ways we come together and seek common ground, and the lessons we teach our children about what citizenship means in the United States of America.”
“The children we raise today are surrounded by proud examples of integrity, and moral courage, but it is our task as parents, community members, and leaders to teach them not only the skills they need to succeed, but also the values that keep our country strong. This week, we reaffirm our commitment to helping our children turn away from bullying, harassment, and discrimination, and to giving them the confidence and integrity to stand up for each other, imagine a brighter future, and realize their dreams.”
During the past two years or so, I have noticed an increasing number of publicized incidents which demonstrated a lack of values by educators, each of which occurred under different circumstances, but all of which, in retrospect, and as reported by the media, made me pause. And it wasn’t because the educator involved may not have meant well or may not have been trying to “do the right thing.” Each was unfortunate in its own right and each cast a long shadow over a renowned educator nullifying, in many instances, their decades of devotion to the education process.
Perhaps, the most publicized instance was the mishandling of unwanted sexual conduct at Penn State, which in October resulted in the University’s agreement to pay almost $60 million in exchange for settlements with 26 sexual abuse victims. However, there have been less publicized incidents, from the recent indictment of an Ohio school superintendent for obstructing justice as a result of his failing to take adequate actions in connection with an alleged rape, to the mishandling of a cheating scandal at Stuyvesant High School last year, which was investigated by New York City’s Education Department and resulted in a report that (according to the New York Times) created an unflattering portrait of the school’s leadership team, and cited its well-regarded (until then) principal and an assistant principal with a failure “to efficiently and effectively carry out the administrative duties entrusted to them”.
I do not mean to single out educators, nor call for them to be held to a higher standard than the rest of us (although it would not be a horrible thought). I do not know if the recent publicity of good educators showing a lack of good sense is a sign of our times, although I hope not.
During a sentencing hearing of a former bank executive in November 2013, Alvin K. Hellerstein, a senior judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, is reported to have said “Why do so many good people do bad things;” a thought that I, too, also have had. At a minimum, it is clear that there is a perception our moral fiber is not what it should be. This was just pointed out by Transparency International in its yearly “Corruption Perceptions Index” which, in ranking 177 countries in perception of public sector corruption, ranked the United States as 19th, below Canada, Uruguay, Barbados and the UK!
But, all is not bad. Notable exceptions include Cornell’s September 2013 cancelation of all fall competition for its men’s lacrosse team as a result of a hazing incident as well as Harvard’s 2012 required withdrawal of over five dozen undergraduate students, generally for a year, as a result of cheating on the same take-home exam. I was particularly impressed by Cornell’s “Group Misconduct” and “Hazing” public website pages, which attempt to explain in clear, unambiguous language what is unacceptable behavior and, just simply, not tolerated.
However, Cornell’s and Harvard’s actions are just a start. We still need to instill in our children a better sense of integrity, moral courage and what is right. And more publicly celebrating National Character Counts Week in 2014, in my view, would be a good start. #
Arthur Katz is a member of the law firm of Otterbourg, Steindler, Houston & Rosen, P.C.