Civics and Civility


Civics
 is the study of the theoretical and practical aspects of citizenship, its rights and duties; the duties of citizens to each other as members of a political body and to the government.    
   

                                                                                                                                       – Wikipedia

The last couple of weeks have seen a familiar tone in the news for this time of year. As the school year winds down, court cases and related news stories pop up around the country as students are denied admission to the prom, commencement ceremonies, or other activities associated with the rites of passage that mark the end of high school. These restrictions are typically related to aberrant behavior, criminal activity, or lifestyle choices that school officials find disruptive, or potentially so. 

Most adults probably don’t pay much attention to these reports, perhaps with the realization of the significance of these events to life in general. In all honesty, some of the complaints seem rather petty in relationship to the larger issues of the day. For example, the graduates of a suburban Cincinnati high school who are being denied their diplomas because people cheered too loudly for them at commencement. I’m sorry, but that’s just ridiculous.

However, two recent incidents locally have raised some interesting questions, and exposed what may be some disturbing trends. 


Any person indicted stands before the bar of justice clothed with a presumption of innocence and, as such, is tenderly regarded by the law. Every safeguard is thrown about him. The requirements of proof are many, and all moral, together with many technical, rules stand between him and any possible punishment.
                                                                 – People v. Riley (1941), Illinois Supreme Court

COPS is filmed with the men and women of law enforcement. All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
                                                                 – Fox Television

The first incident involved a student who had been denied the ability to participate in graduation because he had simply been charged with an offense related to drug or alcohol use. 

As the Post-Gazette reported on May 24, this student, Mitchell Klemencic, challenged the Mount Lebanon School District’s actions in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. The judge declined to intervene on Mr. Klemencic’s behalf, and made statements supportive of the district’s efforts to reduce drug and alcohol use among students.

Both Mr. Klemencic’s attorney and Witold “Vic” Walczak, Legal Director for the Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU, expressed concern in the P-G story over the broad scope by which schools are attempting to arbitrarily discipline students for incidents that do not involve the school or school-sponsored activities. 

This case has some relevance to recent events in the Quaker Valley School District. In April, QVHS senior and basketball player Jamal Gloster was arrested and accused of selling marijuana from his Sewickley residence, as well as possession of an assault rifle. More recently, Mr. Gloster was charged with fighting another male in a Leetsdale Park. 

As Mr. Gloster was free on bond, and the offenses he was accused of did not appear to involve the school or school functions in any way, the question arose in my mind whether or not QV would attempt to prevent Gloster from participating in graduation or other “extra-curricular” activities, especially in light of the recent events in Mt. Lebanon.

District spokeswoman Martha Smith declined to comment on any individual student’s situation, but did refer me to several school board policies that both define the district’s likely response, and raise questions about how much authority the school board believes it has when dealing with issues outside its walls.

The board policy on Chemical Use and Co-Curricular Activities appears to mirror much of the Mt. Lebanon policy as described in the P-G story. Another policy, titled Social Probation, includes the following:

“Social probation is a restriction placed upon a student who fails to demonstrate responsible behavior and who has chosen to violate the school’s code of conduct, school board policy or the law.” (emphasis mine)

For me, this issue seems more centered on the legal concept that a person accused of a crime in this country is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

This same policy also includes the following sentence:

Upon request by the parent or student, the principal will meet informally to review the issue and afford appropriate due process.

That being said, does a public school district, itself an arm of the government, have the right to arbitrarily restrict someone from participating in events that they would otherwise be permitted to take part, simply on the basis that they have been only accused of a crime, and are thus presumed innocent by the judicial system?

Doesn’t a school district have an obligation to respect due process of law as it applies to all branches of government, not just theirs?

According to at least one legal expert, the answer is yes..and no.

Mr. Walczak from the ACLU, contacted late last week, provided some supporting statute and case law information that would appear to bolster his assertion to the Post-Gazette that “If it’s outside the school day, unrelated to a school activity, the school’s got no jurisdiction, no authority”.

Mr. Walczak disagreed with the notion that a judicial presumption of innocence would be an effective defense against any punishment that a school would want to mete out under these kinds of conditions. He equated this with the practice in many public safety agencies of suspending or even firing personnel who have been accused of law violations.

I’m not sure that I agree with that, however. These government agencies set expectations of behavior for employees in whom they have placed critical levels of trust. Whether teenagers can be reasonably expected to meet the same standard, at least enough to have a critical legal right ignored by a government entity, is questionable.

One thing I’ve noticed in research is that the courts are very reluctant to interfere with the decisions of school boards, unless there are clear or blatant conflicts with existing law, regulations, or legal precedent. 

Another thing I’ve noticed is my own personal ambiguity with the plight of these young men. Do these kids really deserve to be excluded, guilty or not? This is based on trying to balance what I’ve read in the media with how I would like to be treated if I were placed in a similar predicament – especially if I had not done what I was being accused of.

As a Colorado resident during the time of Columbine, I understand the rationale behind some of the measures taken in the name of “school safety and security”. I nonetheless believe that these types of school policies that target non-school related activity tread too closely to a sacred line that our school officials seem only too willing to cross more frequently.

This institutional arrogance needs to be tempered with a respect for the rights of all citizens – including students – as well as recognizing the responsibility to work with other branches of government on behalf of those citizens. This is something that QV may be learning about already

According to Sewickley Patch Editor Larissa Dudkiewicz, Jamal Gloster walked with his classmates as a member of the Class of 2012 at Quaker Valley’scommencement ceremony this past Monday. 

Martha Smith advised me that the “school board/administration and school solicitor will be reviewing these student policies for the 2012-13 school year”. 

Best wishes to all the graduates out there. 


The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 
                                                                   – John 8:3-7 (NIV)                          

I have often struggled to live up to the lesson from this scripture. Indeed, when considering the earthly consequences of the actions of ourselves or others, we realize that we are flawed, that we will often redirect our own attention or that of others in an attempt to conceal our own weaknesses, and it is only when there is no other avenue for escape that only then will we admit those weaknesses, and ask for forgiveness.

Nowhere in recent years has there been a more relevant and painful example of this than the reports of sexual abuse by clergy, especially in the Roman Catholic church

The local perspective on this has been shaken in recent weeks by the report that the pastor of St. James Church in Sewickley has taken a leave of absence while allegations are investigated that the priest sent Facebook messages to a minor. These messages were reportedly characterized by the Allegheny County District Attorney as “a matter of poor judgment”.

The DA has thus far declined to press criminal charges.

According to Larissa Dudkiewicz, this story has generated more comments than any previous individual story on Sewickley Patch. Most of the comments appeared to be precipitated by an initial comment from a representative of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), who stated:

We hope that anyone who may have knowledge or who may have been harmed by Fr Dan Valentine, will have the courage to contact the police,.. 

This was followed by numerous comments from readers (including myself) defending Father Valentine and/or the process being used to fully investigate the allegations.

There were also several comments from readers who seem to be close to theongoing controversy surrounding Catholic clergy accused of illegal behavior, therecent trial in Philadelphia that has re-energized this issue, and the perception that either the church, the government, or both are engaged in a complex and extensive cover-up. 

Local media outlets seemed mostly consistent in reporting the information released by the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese, along with attempting to clarify the information released through other sources.

Unfortunately, at least one broadcast outlet tried to fan the flames of controversy, for seemingly little more than the desire to titillate or gain ratings points. KDKA-TV cited “sources close to the investigation” to try and provide additional information regarding alleged specific behaviors, illegal or otherwise, that had not been publicly released, and served no useful purpose for me. 

As a member of the clergy, Father Valentine and his position most certainly qualify as one in which a critical level of trust has been placed. The investigation by the District Attorney, as well as Father Valentine’s employer, is warranted, as is a release of information to the public through the media.

Transparency is essential to develop, maintain, or rebuild an atmosphere of trust.  

civ·i·lized [siv-uh-lahyzd] adjective
1.having an advanced or humane culture, society, etc.
2.polite; well-bred; refined.
3.of or pertaining to civilized people: The civilized world must fight ignorance.

                                                      – dictionary.reference.com

As members of a civilized society, we have a responsibility to engage in conduct and discourse that reflects a level of both mutual respect for each other, as well as those public and private institutions in which we place a measure of trust.

We can and will disagree – this does not mean we must be disrespectful or loud. There is a time and place for that type of behavior, usually reserved for when these institutions become unresponsive to debate and/or adopt an autocratic, insulated approach to leadership or governance. We haven’t arrived there yet.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit.
                                                      – Desiderata

Reading the comments about Father Valentine on Patch, Facebook, and other online sources, I was impressed with how many commenters were pleading for restraint, to allow the system in place to run its course. It appears as if perhaps many of our citizens are tiring of loud accusations, intractable viewpoints, and inflammatory language. 

This is especially important as we enter another political season and presidential election. 

Those who are advocates or adversaries around these causes, along with the media who clamor for the next controversy, might do well to pay heed to another scripture verse that my wife, who is extraordinary in her knowledge of the Bible, brought to my attention recently:

Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down.

                                                 – Proverbs 26:20 (NIV)

On that note, keep it civil, and have a good week ahead.
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This entry was posted in Civil Liberties, Faith, Government, Local, Media, Schools. Bookmark the permalink.

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