By Deborah Jacobs, ACLU-NJ Executive Director
When I talk to people about the work of the ACLU, I often share outrageous stories of poor decision making by government employees that costs the taxpayers big time. And, I usually tell people that among the sectors of government, no one digs their heels in on the wrong issues more than school administrators.
Here are just a few of these stories . . . there was a school district in Washington State that didn't want to pay to mail the ACLU about 11 pages of public records, went to court and ended up writing the ACLU a check for almost $60,000 in attorney fees . . . or the school that suspended a student for having aspirin at school under a zero-tolerance policy . . . or the student suspended for having a chain on her Tweety Bird wallet to connect it to her jeans because they considered it a "weapon." I could go on.
Then there is the one about the recent example of the Newark Public Schools, which in June 2007 blacked out the picture of a gay student and his boyfriend kissing in the yearbook - but wait, fortunately, this one has a different outcome than most.
In this case, Newark Public Schools Superintendent Marion Bolden, after learning the full facts of the matter and receiving an avalanche of angry phone calls and e-mails generated by our friends at Garden State Equality, reversed her decision to censor the picture - and reversed it in a big way.
Essentially, Superintendent Bolden's mistake was to authorize the censorship without having the full facts, and failing to do due diligence to ensure that she got the whole picture, forgive the pun. Among the facts she was missing was that one of the students in the photo is indeed an East Side High School student (she was told otherwise), and that there were photos of heterosexual couples also in the yearbook (which she says weren't brought to her attention).
However, once she had the full facts, Bolden reacted in a way that we rarely see among school administrators: she took full responsibility and did everything she could to make up for her hurtful mistake.
The censorship took place late in the week of June 18. Within a few days Bolden had the whole story and quickly agreed to reprint the defaced yearbooks and attempted to reach the student who submitted the photo, Andre Jackson, to apologize. She was finally able to meet with him on June 26, and their apparently tearful and difficult conversation moved the issue forward. She asked Jackson how she could try to repair the damage. He asked that his photo page be distributed at graduation, and she promised to try to make that happen in the couple days' turnaround time she had. She also reached out to his mother to apologize and urge her to attend graduation. She contacted Garden State Equality to personally apologize and she volunteered that the act was spurred by homophobia. And, she publicly apologized in front of the entire East Side High School senior class at graduation rehearsal.
How do I know all this? For one, it has been generously covered by the press. But, in addition, Bolden called me personally, perhaps in response to the ACLU-NJ's Letter of concern about the issue, to let us know what she had done to make it right. Bolden was distressed, primarily concerned about how to address the hurt that the censorship had caused Jackson, other gay students and the student body in general. She was contrite and distressed over it.
For the first time in my 15-plus-year ACLU career, I have witnessed a school superintendent putting aside her pride, leaving lawyers out of it and doing everything in her power to make it right. Her actions to make up for her mistake should serve as a model for others who find themselves in hot water over a poorly decided action. For the manner in which she ultimately handled the issue, she deserves our praise.