Tuesday, May 13, 2008

District Faces Opportunity To Dance To New Tune

Poor Dan Ward.

Surely the suggestion that the interim Memphis City Schools superintendent should appear on Bill O’Reilly’s national cable show was groupthink gone terribly awry.

Surely, nobody in the Memphis City Schools communications office or on its leadership team really thought this was a chance for the district to shine. After all, the subject was the “rape dance” video that was taken at Mitchell High Schools and that’s been so widely played on WREG-TV.

More Than Image Problems

The irony didn’t escape us that a few hours before Mr. Ward’s appearance, Memphis City Council was killing off Memphis Police Department’s appearances on A&E’s “The First 48” because of concerns that the series cast our city in a bad light. It’s always interesting how one city – say, Baltimore – can be the location for some of the most disturbing crime dramas on television, and another one like ours thinks that controlling the image is the same as controlling the problems depicted in them.

City Council Member Wanda Halbert was quoted as saying Memphis isn’t much different from other large cities in the amount of violence here. First, we need someone to send her the data, because she is badly misinformed. That said, we actually think the A&E show painted a positive portrait of MPD and the homicide officers that spend so much of their lives in the underbelly of our city seeking justice for murder victims. Based on the program, our opinion of MPD actually rose.

Unfortunately, Councilwoman Halbert seemed to suggest that it’s all just an image problem. She was quoted in The Commercial Appeal as saying, “Right now, I think Memphis needs to focus on cleaning up the image of our city.”

Actually, we’d be smarter to focus on changing the reality. The image will follow.

Positive Thinking

While we believe that Memphis needs to have a more positive self-image and about what makes it distinctive, we are admittedly troubled by the notion it’s all just a marketing problem that we need to solve. All the bumperstickers and slogans in the world will count for nought unless we accompany it with measurable improvement in some troubling indicators, and that’s why we are encouraged by the city’s high-tech Real Time Crime Center (if city government can walk the thin line between crime prevention and Big Brother).

But back to Mr. Ward. Actually, we feel for him. He’s much too old school, mannerly and measured in his approach to have a chance with cable television’s biggest blowhard, Mr. O’Reilly. Not that anyone trying to explain the outrageous conduct at Mitchell High School would have done any better. In the end, Mr. Ward looked like a man taking a beating for the good of the team.

The Spin

The O’Reilly website summed up his appearance this way:

“Students at a Memphis high school dance simulated various sex acts as teacher ‘chaperones’ stood by and did nothing. Memphis Superintendent of Schools Dan Ward entered the No Spin Zone and gave his reaction: ‘We have 112,000 kids and this activity is certainly not indicative of what they do. But it is a disaster and I'm not making excuses for anyone. We're dealing with it, and we expecting the principal to get the situation to where that never happens again.’ The Factor urged Ward to mete out appropriate punishment to school officials. ‘Teachers and administrators were watching overt displays of sexuality, and it looks like there is no discipline at this school whatsoever. There is something fundamentally wrong in the school.’"

This incident is despicable on so many levels, but we have no real grievance with Mr. Ward’s official statement on it: “To say that we are troubled…would be an understatement. We are shocked and disappointed by the behavior of students shown in the video clip. These images demonstrate a serious issue that educators, parents, and community stakeholders alike must focus on – the need for a more productive partnership between schools and homes to ensure children understand how to act as responsible, mature young adults with a sense of self-respect.”

Losing Ground

The district didn’t do as well with a second official response: “Pop culture, the Internet, and mainstream media greatly influence the activity and behavior of today’s youth. We trust that our partners in education – parents, guardians, and school families will continue to reinforce to children the appropriate way to conduct themselves before, during, and after school hours.”

The good done by Mr. Ward's outrage was eroded in a party line that seemed determined to point the finger at everybody but the principal and administrators of Mitchell High School. However, this was an issue that wasn’t going away, especially at this ratings-conscious time for our TV news teams, so in time, the Mitchell HS principal, John Ware, issued a statement accepting “full responsibility for inappropriate content in one of the acts in a talent show, and understand we should have taken immediate action and ended that performance.”

For now, however, it appears that the district’s communications strategy is to weather the storm and stonewall the media, but we predict that this storm is headed to hurricane status until and unless administrators are held as accountable as the students who were disciplined as a result of the “rape dance.” Mr. Ware has acted professionally in accepting “full responsibility,” and now, he has to accept the discipline that goes with it.

Paying The Piper

We loathe the fact that this places us on the same side of an issue as Mr. O’Reilly, but surely this is one that knows no political differences or partisan positioning. It was simply wrong, and if no action is taken against administrators who saw the “dance,” it is tantamount to sending the message to the 16,000 employees of the district that no one is ever really held accountable for their actions in Memphis City Schools.

We don’t believe that is the intent of Mr. Ward or the Board of Commissioners, but in the end, they have to prove it if this controversy has the chance of ending in an instructive way for the district.

Otherwise, it only validates Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton's contention that the district can only turn itself around with a Joe Clark-style tough guy who is willing to make the tough decisions that are needed right now.


Anonymous said...

No one is held accountable. Not the faculty, not the staff, not the administration, and not the school board.

Kelvin Oliver said...

Lean on Me is a good movie. I've seen that a few times on TV over the last couple of months. When i first heard about this, I missed it on WREG; however, I finally saw it once they the video on their website. Today, I saw the clip with Ward and O'Reilly. I will say that it was anxious to see what the two had to say and to see our school system, at least MCS, on national news for something negative. Something must be done and that should change as we get the next leader over the school system. This is just crazy. I will say it is not suprising to me, but on the wild side.

On the side, as I watch each fanalist for the next Memphis City Schools superintendent, it is interesting to hear their responses to the questions. Though only a few are actually superintendents and others are behind the scene workers, the school board and the firm has a big decision to play. I have my eye on which may person may work good for us and who may go not get accepted. If I was able, I would want to run!

Anonymous said...

I agree. Ward should have run from O'Reilly. MCS has handled this whole thing very poorly. Starting with the adults at Mitchell.

BTW - Richard at Mediaverse will call you a Puritan if you are in the least bit offended by anything contained in those rape dance videos. I mean - what could we be thinking to be so intolerant of simulated sex "dances" at a school?? Bunch of Puritans! And how dare anyone think a dance called "Rape Dat Hoe" is demeaning to women.

Anonymous said...

The school system, administration, teachers, students and parents should be outraged at this behavior. Both Ware and Ward need to be replaced. You can make all the excuses in the world but the teachers/chaparones there could have and should have stopped this behavior at the onset. Perhaps in certain cultures this is permitted....but normal behavior would say NO WAY to this type of action. Shame on the parents, shame on the students, shame on any and all adults present who stood by and did nothing to stop it. That is why behaviors like this happen in the first place. If I know I can do things outside the normal behavior and get away with it......I would. That is why we have laws and rules. To ignore them is disgraceful.

Sean G. said...

Such an outrageous act should be punished an investigated. Both Teachers and Students should be held responsible. If you are going to have sex, please do it in private.

This just shows that our values system is getting lax, and Honor and dignity are far from the minds of My fellow memphians now-a-days.

I have friends that go to that school, and this makes me sick. If I were there, I don't know what I would do first, puke, or demand that the school show some backbone.

If you agree with my statement, I created a group to discuss this or at least unite with one voice.


Together, we will stand in our beliefs and bring back honor and dignity to school.

Do not think that I am trying to push my beliefs on others, but to be frank some things just cross the line, and this is one of them.

Sean G. (A Memphian)

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