Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Strip Searches and Torture

This week, both Barack Obama and the Supreme Court have grappled with the issue of individual rights and the safety of the greater community.

Obama approved the release of memos detailing the legal justification for interrogation techniques used by the CIA under the Bush Administration. The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on a case regarding a woman who, as a 13-year-old girl, was strip searched by school staff when it was suspected she was concealing prescription-strength Ibuprofen meant for distribution.

Because I am a Vice Principal and the latter situation involves the search of a teenager at a public school, some of my buddies have asked for my thoughts. And I've been thinking.

Tonight on my way home from work I heard an NPR interview with Col. Steven Kleinman, an Air Force reservist/intelligence expert. Kleinman was responsible for halting some interrogations he witnessed and became a controversial figure in Iraq among his peers.

He made a few key points that struck me. As Col. Kleinman began to investigate and question the interrogation techniques used in Iraq during his tenure there, a common rationale offered by military personnel included that if they themselves were captured by the enemy, they would expect similar treatment. Kleinman's response was that our adversary's standards shouldn't determine our own, nor lower our standards. Our standards, ostensibly, are why we are there in the first place.

Our values, he noted--the ones of which we are so proud as Americans, the freedoms and liberties--are precisely what our armed forces are overseas to protect.

It's the temptation to justify a relativism of rights that's so hard for society, and individuals, to grapple with.

A vice principal, for the record, should not be lightly compared to a soldier. However, in my position I do view myself as a protector of the rights of our students. On most days, that job has me protecting the right of students to their education, the right they so often appear to squander as they meander across the quad, late to class.

But on some days it's vital to remember that ALL our students are our constituents--the ones breaking the rules as well as the victims. And unlike how criminal cases are handled in the courts, individual administrators often serve simultaneously as prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge.

That's a delicate balance to preserve--ensuring the protection of each individual's rights and that policies are consistently followed. It requires having respect, compassion, and understanding for the children in our care, both innocent and guilty.

So I imagine myself the parent of the student who claims to have procured her extra-strength Ibuprofen from another; I imagine myself the parent of the accused. I concern myself with both the potential danger posed by a student distributing drugs on campus and the gravity of accusing a child of that act.

Schools have certain broad liberties to search; we do not need probable cause or warrants, only "reasonable suspicion." Even the Court agrees that "reasonable suspicion" is fairly vague.

But there are certain places we haven't gone nor do I imagine myself comfortable venturing. So much of this job requires building trust and relationships: a far better strategy for ensuring the safety of students on our campus, in my view. That often means drawing lines, sometimes acknowledging there will be no answer, once in a while understanding there will be no neatly-tied-up investigation nor consequences.

So we muddle through, using our best instincts and our humanity and caring for kids.

Fortunately, I have never been in the position of feeling the responsibility for imminent safety of people in my care as dependent upon my gaining a key piece of information or evidence, as our military investigators do, I imagine. I have the luxury of working with children and not insurgents. Our students are a relatively free but captive constituency. We generally have time to work with them, and we trust that serious talks in an administrator's office can be preventive measures.

But we have something in common, I would suggest, American soldiers and vice principals: our actions and interactions represent our stations, our institutions, and the culture of our communities. There's a lot at stake.

Which is why the Federal Government is concerned about the liberties it grants both of us.

1 comment:

kris said...

Too serious and worrisome. More funny family stuff and antics from your daughters please! Maybe explain the birds and the bees to M and see what she thinks of that! That will be a great post some day! haha