We take as the text for today’s sermon “Angels With Dirty Faces.”
It’s a gangster movie, made in 1938, considered by some the peak of James Cagney’s acting career. It begins with two tough kids from a bad neighborhood running from the police. Jerry climbs over a fence and escapes. Rocky is caught.
Jerry turns his life around and becomes a Catholic priest (which, in 1938, is the personification of goodness). Rocky goes to “reform school" (which reforms nothing) then to prison (which reforms even less) then on to fame as a notorious gangster.
Near the end, Jerry (Pat O’Brien) is the priest who accompanies Rocky (Cagney) to the electric chair. At the end, Jerry tells the next generation of tough kids from a bad neighborhood that they should say a prayer for “a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.”
Today, they call that the “school to prison pipeline.”
And, as far as we have been told, it does appear that the principal of a Salt Lake City high school is in trouble for trying to keep a couple of Jerrys from turning into Rockys.
Ford White is the principal of Salt Lake City’s West High School. It is a place that serves smart kids from all over town, attracted by, among other things, its International Baccalaureate program. And that is home to a lot of students of color from the city’s west side. (Not that a lot of the students don’t fit both profiles.)
We are told that two of the latter — 17-year-old girls — were doing something pretty bad, guzzling rum out of a bottle, on campus, making themselves particularly ill. And, we are told, White thought that the logical thing to do when encountering people in such a state was to drive them home to sleep it off.
But White is now on administrative leave from his post because, it seems, that performing what would in normal circumstances be an act of common decency was a violation of district policy.
He wasn’t supposed to wait for them to finish barfing and help them get home safely. He was supposed to call the cops on them.
And who, we may ask, would have benefited from that?
There may be more, maybe a whole lot more, to the story than we have been told. School districts, like a lot of public and private entities, are often struck dumb by matters of personnel. And it should raise concerns whenever any administrator of a public agency plays fast and loose with official policy.
But we should not forget that the reason for having an official policy is mostly to make sure that similar people in similar circumstances don’t face wildly divergent consequences.
The fear in cases such as the one before us is that principals will do favors like the one described for white kids, football stars, children of the rich and connected, while casually throwing the book at kids of color and of no influence.
There is a history across this nation of black and Hispanic kids in schools being wrestled to the ground and handcuffed for minor infractions. Of schools having a hair trigger in punishing, suspending and expelling poor and black kids, kids who may have already been on the margin — or on the verge of a full-ride scholarship to the Ivy League — often ending their formal education and tossing them onto the street, into the criminal justice system and, sometimes, a life of crime.
These are the young people who can wind up as the victims of sex trafficking, living on the streets, eking out a living delivering drugs. All because some person in a position of authority called the cops.
As I say, there may be a whole lot we don’t know about this incident, these people, everyone’s history and reams of confidential personnel and student records.
And our juvenile justice system has evolved somewhat since 1938. There are judges and probation officers and counselors working to see that, at least some of the time, an encounter with the law does not turn a young person who made a bad choice into a Dead End Kid.
Whether White gets his job back tomorrow or disappears forever, it is possible the whole story will never be made public. Which means that the rest of us will never be able to judge who was right and who was wrong and whether the district’s policies need to be strictly enforced or radically changed.
Remember the old memory trick that is supposed to help us know when to spell it “principle” and when to spell it “principal.” The principal of your school is your pal.
And a pal helps you out when you have been stupid.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, was standing in the hall of his high school holding a Budweiser can when his principal walked by. It was a prop for a sketch he was doing in English class. Really. email@example.com. Twitter: @debatestate