The Boston Phoenix
June 29 - July 6, 2000


The Muzzle Awards, continued

by Dan Kennedy

School reform, Maine-style: book 'em

Thanks to a law enacted in May, anyone who wishes to teach or otherwise work in the public schools of Maine must do the same thing required of someone suspected of robbery, rape, or murder: submit a complete set of fingerprints to law-enforcement authorities.

Deciding to give a coveted Muzzle to Governor Angus King was not easy. After all, there were many players involved in moving the fingerprint law from ridiculous proposal to repressive reality. A dishonorable mention goes to the state teachers' unions, whose only objection was that teachers might be forced to foot the $49 bill. Another goes to the Portland Press Herald, whose aggressive editorial support gave legislators the cover they needed.

King, though, truly distinguished himself, not just by signing the bill into law, but by vetoing an earlier version of the bill on the grounds that it wasn't sweeping enough, as it would have applied only to new employees.

If it's any comfort, Maine teachers should not feel that they've been singled out. According to the Associated Press, the vast majority of states require fingerprints, a background check, or both. The only states that do not require either are Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, and West Virginia. (Shhh -- don't give any ideas to Massachusetts governor Paul Cellucci, a two-time Muzzle Award winner who was shut out this year.)

Fingerprinting laws are motivated by a serious concern: the safety of children. The recent arrest of Christopher Reardon, the youth worker from Middleton, Massachusetts, who has been implicated in numerous instances of child molestation, is a reminder of how vulnerable kids can be. Yet a background check would not have resulted in screening out Reardon, since he had no prior record. And fingerprinting him would have accomplished precisely nothing.

Earlier this year, Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), explained the dangers of the new Maine law in an interview with the Portland Phoenix. "Fingerprints were taken originally for persons accused of crimes," he said. "Now they are coming into wide use, and everybody is being treated like a criminal. School teachers are being treated like criminal suspects."

Now King proposes to extend the fingerprinting law to include day-care workers as well. "Basically, what he's promising is to have a fingerprint check of anybody who deals with children," Bernard Huebner, a teacher in the Skowhegan area, told the Phoenix. "This is insane. This is so destructive of so many fragile qualities of society."

Beware of the plaid mafiosi

The horrific shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999 understandably inspired strong reactions from school officials nationwide. Some of those reactions, aimed at educating and counseling troubled students, were helpful and worthwhile. Others, which punished students for the clothes they wore or the kids they hung out with, certainly did more harm than good. And some were just plain stupid.

Without question, the actions of Guy DiBiaso, superintendent of the Bristol-Warren Regional School District, in Rhode Island, were just plain stupid. In May 1999, a 12-year-old sixth-grader at Warren's Kickemuit Middle School was suspended for 10 days for his supposed membership in a group known as the Scottish Mafia. The group's name was an apparent takeoff on Columbine's Trenchcoat Mafia, with which killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had a passing acquaintance.

The Scottish Mafia had reportedly caused some trouble and made some threats. Eight students were suspended, although about half were eventually found blameless. In the case of the 12-year-old, whose name had turned up on a list of alleged members, there was absolutely no evidence that the student had participated in any illegal activity. Nor had he ever been suspended before. Yet DiBiaso, rather than overruling his jumpy underlings at the Kickemuit School, extended the boy's suspension through the end of the year and said he would consider permanent expulsion.

In the end, sanity prevailed. Last September, the ACLU -- which had intervened -- announced that the school system had agreed not to expel the student, and to expunge its earlier actions from his records.

In December, following a trip by Hillary Rodham Clinton to Rhode Island's Cumberland High School in which she shamelessly attempted to whip up hysteria about school violence, the Providence Phoenix published a lengthy piece showing that, nationally, the problem has actually been declining in recent years. Rhode Island ACLU director Steve Brown referred to the Kickemuit incident as emblematic of the sort of "needless overreaction" that greeted the Columbine shootings. School officials, though, remain unrepentant. "I'll err on the side of caution every day of the week," Paul Canario, the school's acting principal at the time, told the Phoenix. And in an interview with the Providence Journal-Bulletin, DiBiaso said, "We're charged with providing a safe place for students."

DiBiaso and Canario might consider what sort of safe environment they provided to one 12-year-old whose only offense was having his name included on a list.

Page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | Next

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

1998 Muzzle Awards
1999 Muzzle Awards