Yesterday, I discovered an incident that occurred in a high school from my old neighborhood (Thanks to Brian Grah for sharing.). I became incensed when I read through the details, watched the video of the event, and read through some of the local reactions (one, two, and three). I tried to calm down a bit about it, failed miserably, lost most of my sleep last night, and now choose to write about it this morning. Education is what I focus on mostly, and mistakes in our education system must be highlighted. A mistake happened at Lake Central, and it continues to be perpetuated by a stubborn administrator who needs to change his stance, tone, and perspective. Lake Central High School Principal Robin Tobias can do a great deal of good for himself, his students, and his community, if he simply apologizes for his decisions and does an about-face on how he handled his school’s tragic circumstance.
Lake Central High School experienced a student suicide last week, which has become a heartbreaking recurrence throughout the state of Indiana. A decision was made to not acknowledge the death of a student at the high school, citing that acknowledgement would “glorify” suicide. The rationale: ignoring the suicide can potentially prevent further occurrences of suicide within the student population. Members of the student body wanted a simple moment of silence for their comrade, enough that they staged a sit-in, asking the principal to conduct a moment of silence. (The parents of this student also wanted this acknowledgment.) Principal Tobias initially addressed the students of the sit-in by informing them of his disappointment. One student retorted by expressing his disappointment with Tobias. Tobias instructed two police officers to arrest the student, and the young boy was dragged unceremoniously to a police station where he was processed and charged with several infractions. Tobias continued to berate the students, attempting to explain that a sit-in was inappropriate, students should be in class instead, and no moment of silence seemed to be conducted. A second student suicide occurred after this incident.
Tobias released a letter to the parents of the high school community, solidifying his position that a sit-in is not the right way to handle the situation, students cannot be properly addressed because they are too unruly, and the students should be in class. He clearly states, “[he was] not sure what the most perfect solution would have been…”. Let me assure Tobias of one thing: the way he handled the situation as principal of his school was far from the most perfect solution. In fact, the handling by Tobias was the antithesis for a solution.
I attended neighboring high school, Hanover Central, in Cedar Lake, Indiana. The student body experienced two tragedies during my attendance: one was a family annihilation, where a father shot family members, including a fellow student, before taking his own life; the second involved a drunk driver crashing into a van, taking the lives of several students, parents, and teachers. I clearly recall the sympathetic actions and gatherings of the teachers and students involved. We were allowed to ask questions, state our emotions, and cry together within organized gatherings. These were prepared by faculty members and administrators. I most appreciate the compassion displayed by our excellent principal, Joseph Fetty. Compassion is what is most missing in Robin Tobias’ address to his students.
Tobias could have addressed the students in the sit-in by acknowledging their grievance. It would have been a simple thing, and it would have avoided the need to arrest a student. He could have started by expressing understanding of a difficult situation for his student body. He could have fielded questions about the nature of death or suicide, of which his students might have plenty. He could have dealt with the confusion and grief of young people who have likely never experienced such a thing. He could have conducted a short moment of silence on the spot with a large segment of students who felt it was warranted. He could have acted like the principal educator in a high school and seized the teaching moment that presented itself.
Instead, Tobias chose to play the authoritarian. He started his address by berating the students for conducting a sit-in. He intimated students were making a joke of the situation. When a student spoke against his tactics, he used the opportunity to direct police officers to arrest a student while he stood defiantly over the student gathering. In effect, he was trying to quell the crowd by making an example of a student who expressed himself appropriately in the face of bad judgment by his so-called mentor.
Tobias has proved his incompetence several times in this episode. High school is supposed to prepare students for college, and historically, sit-ins and public gatherings are absolutely appropriate when a segment of a population wants to be regarded, whether in a school or the greater community. An “unruly mob” can be handled by an ethical leader who speaks with compassion, understanding, and guidance (and this gathering was not an unruly mob). Tobias’ assertion that students should be in class is also erroneous; those students were where they should be, and a good teacher understands that education does not always happen in the classroom. The opportunity to teach a large segment of his student body presented itself right there in the hallway, and Tobias completely disregarded that opportunity in favor of order and presumed authoritative regimen.
As a member of this community, I am ashamed by Robin Tobias’ actions as an educator. I am also ashamed by some of the responses I have read by other members of the community. Many parents are writing that Robin is a good guy, the student deserved to be arrested because he had a pocketknife, the reports don’t have all of the details, the principal is following protocol…and on and on about how order must be our primary focus. The defense I find most disgusting is that the students are at fault for their insubordination…when a fellow student dies and the students collectively demand recognition, or bare minimum an opportunity to express their grief, we shouldn’t direct our focus on the blame students should take. If my child were attending Lake Central, I would focus my blame appropriately at Principal Tobias, and I would suggest he be removed for incompetence unless he apologizes and admits his mistakes.
As an educator, the tactics Tobias employed and the stoic resistance against admitting his own fault are most offensive. An ethical role of a teacher is not to emphasize one’s authority, but to promote agency within the student populace. If I taught at Lake Central, I feel I would have sat with the student body, and I would resist Tobias’ handling of the situation. When Tobias started with “I am disappointed with you,” I would have mimicked the retort of the arrested student: “We are disappointed with you, Principal Tobias.”
As the member of a family that has experienced suicide, I cannot let go of my anger at how this situation has played out. My youngest brother, Sgt. Timothy Allan Guffey, took his own life, while a member of our United States military during the Iraq War. I was aware of his grief and suicidal tendencies, and I did talk with him about it, but I admit that my handling of the situation was dismissive, hoping it would just go away. I ignored the reality of suicide, and my brother is gone now, without any opportunity to pay more attention to the truth of potential suicide. Ignoring suicide is easier than regarding the actuality of the mental depression that leads to suicide. While we cannot prove that the second suicide at Lake Central was a result of Tobias’ intervention, we cannot disprove it either. Suicides have become epidemical, and censoring discussion of suicide does not assist prevention.
Principal Tobias, you are the one who is in the wrong. Please reconsider your stance and apologize to your community. It is the right thing to do.