Personnel File 4: The Case of Linda

This case study is offered as a discussion starter. The incident happened. The names are changed, but the facts are straight from the principal’s mouth. How did it end? I’m holding that, for now. How should it end? What reasons would you offer for that decision? Discuss this case with colleagues in leadership.

When the phone call came, Linda remembered she had greeted the caller with a “Hey, how are ya!” because she recognized the caller’s name as a school parent. She also remembered that the digital clock on her desk read 1:32 p.m. But the vibrato in the caller’s voice stopped her cold. Jack, the caller, was a mortician; he said, “I’m sorry, Linda, but I’ve got bad news. One of your students killed himself with a shot gun. Linda, I’m sorry, but Joe Massey is dead.” Jack advised her to find a way to tell the students before they heard about it another way. She had hung up, immediately pulled the school’s two counselors into her office, and wondered out loud what to do.

Linda first asked one of the counselors to lead them in prayer for wisdom to do the right thing, which Bob offered to do. After she had told them the details she knew, she asked them for advice. Kris spoke first: “Well, Joe was my counselee. I could never get much out of him. He had terrible acne and told me that he had no close friends, except for a couple of older students who still liked to play computer games with him after school. I know his dad is an alcoholic and can’t hold a job very long. For a junior in high school, he had really no interest in school; I will always associate with him that faint smile which probably covered a ton of unhappiness.”

Linda showed her frustration. “I’m sorry, Kris, but we have to decide quickly. What am I going to say to the kids; it will be on the radio on their way home from school. I know Joe is, I mean was, absent a lot, but I had no idea….” Linda looked down and then up through tears, “What am I going to do? Do I talk to the faculty? How do I do that without the kids knowing something strange is going on? I never do that otherwise during the school day. Do I get on the intercom and just announce it? Do I talk to the couple of close friends Joe had and tell them first and send them home or to sit with you guys?” She spilled out the questions like tears.

Bob stopped the torrent with his advice: “I think you need to announce to the kids what happened and announce it in the plainest and calmest voice you can muster. I don’t know the best time. I’m afraid if you do it right now that no other education will take place today. Maybe you could do it just before school gets out. Some kids are going to really cry and will be embarrassed. If you do it late, then kids can freely leave and talk about it with their teachers or each other or not at all.”

Linda listened and said, “But don’t the teachers need to know first? Some of them will be even more shocked than the students and won’t be able to talk about it, even if some kids want to. Should I explain to them in a meeting and have each teacher go back to their rooms and tell the kids what happened? These teachers are really caring and could help kids understand; they could pray with the kids for Joe’s family and each other. But I worry about some teachers adding comment to the news or getting the message a little mixed up in their own emotional reaction.”

She knew she only had a few more minutes to decide how she would handle this.

If you were the principal in this real event, what would you do? Reply to this blog to expand the discussion among your colleagues who read the case. In my next blog, I will write what the principal did.

The Case of Carl: Here’s how Carl’s case was decided (see my previous blog “The Case of Carl”):

The principal had earlier explained the situation to the education committee of the board. Now the principal presented a recommendation that Carl would not be offered a contract for the next year but would be allowed to continue for the final two months of the school year if he faithfully taught and did not bad-mouth the school. The board accepted the recommendation. Carl announced to his classes that he would not be back the next year, telling them the principal “had it in for him.” He solicited letters of support from the state-wide association of art teachers and parents in the school. Carl did little teaching the last month and was absent often, but the principal did not terminate him.

– Dan Vander Ark

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