Principals are trained in all kinds of legal matters including how to conduct investigations. I left one such training asking about how this would be applicable or appropriate for elementary schoolchildren. I didn’t get an answer. But I guess if we are going to conduct investigations, we should know how to do it well. And, as I think about it, students can get into serious fist-fights and that sort of thing, requiring finding out the details so the principal knows how to proceed with proper consequences for those involved. One wants the truth before deciding. And do we really want the police involved in these matters when we are dealing with minors? Probably not–unless we are at the point of scaring them straight.

On the other hand, we have to be careful we don’t overuse this training as administrators. Let us not get an investigation going when the circumstances don’t call for it. First do no harm. Settle things within as small a scope as possible called for by the situation and as appropriate for the age and understanding of the children involved.

As an administrative intern, I was told by one of my principals that I had to complete a “threat assessment” on a kindergartner because he said to someone at the water fountain, “I’m gonna kill you.”  I did not want to be insubordinate, so I attended the meeting with the counselor where we tried to carry out the assessment.  The child could not even understand the words we were using; surely legalism is going too far in cases like this one.

I witnessed a case of this overuse of investigative prowess in a middle school as well—against a teacher this time. An elective teacher sent out progress reports on his students. One of his prize students received a negative attitude report from one of her core teachers, and complained about her class. Disgruntled, the elective teacher went to the principal complaining that the teacher who had given the report might be unfairly treating this student, and perhaps not using the best judgment with his students in general.

The principal dove into “investigation” mode. The next day, the core teacher was out, but the principal went ahead with her investigation to get at the truth of whether this teacher was offending students and whether she was perhaps being insensitive to their needs and misjudging their attitudes. The principal wanted to conduct a “good” investigation, so she was sure to pull several students from every class this teacher taught. The other teachers on this academic team were not informed nor included and were mystified.

Not surprisingly, the whole school was buzzing with rumors about this teacher and her classes. To add fuel to the fire, the core teacher was pulled out of her class the next day (to her complete surprise as she knew nothing of the previous day’s events) to discuss the findings of the investigation with the principal. She was accused of being insensitive, choosing inappropriate teaching materials, judging attitude on subjective grounds, and was told a memo of correction was going to her personnel file at Central Office about her lack of adequate lesson preparation. This was despite the evidence given by her teaching assistant (the only witness of the classes other than the teacher) who told administrators that the class was just fine, and in fact, well managed with good lessons.

Central Office supported the principal. It reminds me of Nothing But the Truth, a novel about how a good teacher is removed from her job because she carries out her duties conscientiously, but the truth gets distorted through various reports, memos, political ambitions, etc.

It is harder and harder for teachers to do their jobs without trust and support. It is nearly impossible when they are treated like criminals.

How do I know the story of the middle school teacher? I conducted an investigation!