r. Riordan, there are no stupid, dirty girls
On July 1, the Secretary of Education was caught on videotape publicly making an inappropriate and mean remark to a young student. At an event to promote summer reading in Santa Barbara, a six-year-old girl by the name of Isis asked Riordan if he knew her name meant an Egyptian goddess. His response, which he later claimed was a joke, was that Isis means "stupid, dirty girl." Profuse apologies followed. I guess when he heard his own words he realized it wasn't a nice thing to say! Riordan claimed he was just teasing the girl.
Let's apply some No Child Left Behind logic to California Secretary of Education Richard Riordan. We can begin by assessing the need. Should we hold our educational leaders to high standards? I think we can agree on this one! Should we sanction education leaders who blurt out ugly remarks to students?
Riordan's open-mouth-insert-foot remark might be forgivable. Some respond, "To error is human, to forgive divine." The mother of Isis has made a statement that she and the girl are over it and do not intend to sue for therapy expenses. The girl apparently took the remark in stride and did not cry, simply reiterating, "No, it means an Egyptian goddess." To that Riordan replied, "That's nifty." I imagine the mom and the girl just want this to go away. Riordan probably does, too.
Put yourself in the shoes of that little girl. Do you remember any hurtful remarks or ugly events that happened to you especially when you were young and impressionable? A child can easily internalize such an event and cringe for years without expressing the pain. I would imagine that Isis might also have difficulty forgetting the incident, although she may not complain that it hurts. Will she ever again proclaim with pride the meaning of her name?
Perhaps some of the sanctions for schools that do not make NCLB targets should be applied to the Secretary of Education. NCLB sanctions become increasingly more punitive year after year. As schools fail to achieve mission impossible, the punishments imposed grow. Let's take a look at the NCLB sanctions for schools that have not met their growth targets for several consecutive years. Here are examples: 1.) Turn the school over to the State; 2.) Replace school staff; 3.) Offer parents choice to transfer to another school; 4.) Provide supplemental services; 5.) Appoint an outside expert.
Good heavens. Please do not appoint Richard Riordan to save our schools! We don't need that kind of assistance. Transferring to another State? That remains a possibility. Supplemental services would be therapy, which has already been declined. In this case, sanction #2 may be called for. Our governor may be wise to replace this Secretary of Education.
An interesting aspect of the story is that there was some confusion regarding whether or not the remark was racially motivated. Civil rights organizers were preparing a protest under the assumption that the girl was African-American. Turns out the girl is a blond Anglo, which apparently lead to civil rights organizers dropping their concerns.
It seems that the color of the girl's skin was not a trigger for the errant remark. What was the trigger? Her age? Her size? The teasing of a six-year-old girl by a grown man, especially a powerful, celebrity stranger, meets the definition of bullying. I think it would be appropriate for civil rights leaders to continue to be concerned no matter what the race of the child.
Bullying is simply not acceptable in our educational leaders. Teachers are trained to be sensitive to their students' emotional well-being and self-esteem issues even though for most teachers this training is completely unnecessary. Teachers know that it matters what words they choose to use with their students.
A year ago, in this space, I wrote about "words, the coin of the educational realm." Researchers had discovered kids from affluent families heard encouraging remarks 32 times an hour, while children living in poverty heard encouragement less than 5 times an hour. Poor kids were reprimanded more than twice as often as rich kids. This research finding is an example of how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Teachers know this and it is one of the reasons that teachers use encouragement rather than reprimands to motivate students.
Words remain valuable currency. The right words applied at the right time can be priceless. The wrong words can wreak havoc on the developing self-confidence of a young person. Now I ask you, what educator would use teasing a child about his or her name as a way of being witty?
Things that we blurt out are not always insufferable offenses, but these unfiltered comments do say something about character. Not everyone should lose his job over an insensitive remark, even one made to a child. But surely the Secretary of Education should be held to a high standard of kindness to young people. Accountability should be applied at the top of the educational pyramid at least as fiercely as it is applied to schools and students.
Sandra Nichols is past president of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 19,000 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist with Santa Cruz City Schools, and was recently appointed by the Board of Supervisors to the Santa Cruz County Children and Youth Commission. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.
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© Sandra Nichols 2004