Description of Concrete Experience: Those of us who work in high school education know that, day-to-day, ethics is a main area of concern. Obviously there are some ethical issues that are purely school-related -- like copying a homework assignment, or cheating on a math test. These are against the rules of academics, but they are not illegal. However, when ethical issues in a high school environment venture into a territory that involves violations of the law, those of us who work in high schools can sometimes feel out of our depth. This is what happened to me, when I had to confront issues related to widespread underage drinking in the inner-city high school where I work. However, although this was an experience that was part of my job, a large portion of this experience took place when I was off the time-clock in my actual workplace -- it reflects, I think, my involvement and commitment to the community of people, adults and students, that I work with day in and day out. Although I would like to retain my humility, I would like to think of this as a story about how I helped to save a young man's life. But the truth is that this is merely a story about underage drinking gone wrong, and tragedy averted for a number of reasons -- it involves a drunk driving accident, but it is very fortunate that there were no fatalities. But for me, as the adult who was ultimately invited by the students to serve as their advisor when they got into trouble, this is a story about an important aspect of ethics: balancing justice with mercy. I am not about to condone underage drinking, but I am also not eager to see a promising young life upended by jail time for a mistake that too many young people make.
Reflection: Although the events that will be narrated in this experiential essay happened several years ago, and although I will change the names of all students and other persons involved, nonetheless this incident is as fresh in my mind as though it happened yesterday. Very often we regard certain forms of ethical restriction as a way of simply impinging on people's personal happiness, particularly when the unethical behavior does not violate any laws. But we have ethics for solid reasons, and one of the most salient reasons we have ethics is for safety. Do young people in our society have too easy an access to alcohol despite the official age restrictions on drinking? Of course they do. But what happens when young people have access to alcohol? The simple answer is that the age restrictions are there for the safety of the young people, even if they do not often realize that. Young persons may not know their limits, their inexperience may make it more difficult to gauge their level of intoxication or impairment, and most importantly there is a crucial window of time -- from age sixteen to the twenty-first birthday -- when a young person is not legally allowed to drink, but is legally allowed to operate a car. These are not issues that stem from a desire to prevent the young from having a good time. They are issues that stem from a desire to prevent the young from dying young. There is a reason the word "toxic" lurks in the word "intoxication" -- my colleagues in the science department at the high school where I work could explain the precise amount of alcohol required for alcohol poisoning, but this is a real phenomenon. We are dealing with something that is regulated because it is dangerous.
Generalization/Principles/theories: Underage drinking belongs to a specific category of ethical problem, of what is referred to by some as a "scofflaw." The idea is that this is a law that is basically unenforceable and routinely violated, and people apply this sort of terminology to various activities ranging from jaywalking to marijuana smoking. But when a person works in an educational environment, as I do, these laws are nothing to be scoffed at. I don't know that I have ever seen a student jaywalking, and I certainly don't know that I would report him or her to authorities if I did -- perhaps I would, if only for that student's own physical safety. But an issue like marijuana should not seem like a "scofflaw" to anyone -- in this case it could very well be my job that is on the line if I were to look the other way. But I have never had to look the other way when it comes to drugs, because I think the students who encounter me are wise enough to understand I'm the sort of man who would have a zero-tolerance policy on the subject. However, alcohol laws are regarded as "scofflaws" because alcohol is actually a legal substance -- it is just regulated, and those regulations involve age restrictions.
Testing and Application: The experience that I had -- in which I served as an advocate for a young man from my high school who had been behind the wheel in a drunk driving accident -- is one in which a lot of lessons can be learned. But I think the chief application of this experience is about our laws and our legal system, and how they relate to our own sense of ethics as a society. In my opinion, it is not only foolish but also unethical to seek a legal solution, like imprisonment, when a more ethical solution exists, like treatment. For those who have a worse problem with alcohol than any students at my high school ever have -- for people who are alcoholics, in other words -- it is routine to understand alcoholism as a disease. A disease requires treatment, not punishment. However, the ravages that such a disease can wreak upon families and upon society at large should not be underestimated. I know this because I grew up as a teenager with an alcoholic stepfather. The problems that my students had, in drinking illegally and engaging in behavior that was reckless and downright stupid, were not problems that I had, because I understood firsthand that heavy drinking was a dangerous thing. I knew what effects my stepfather's drinking had upon my mother and myself. But as an adult, and especially as an adult working in a high school, my goal is to embody responsibility in myself, and teach responsibility to the young people I come in contact with. I think ultimately I managed that, in this particular experience. We all face ethical problems in our professional lives. This is one where I am proud of the way I handled it.
Subtopic 2: Competing Values
Description of Concrete Experience: I work in an inner city high school with a largely African-American and Latino population: it's a tough environment. Most of the kids I work with do not have an easy path through life; they are not born to privilege. And indeed most of the students I work with on a daily basis are classified as "at risk" youth. This is not an easy environment, and to a certain extent the experience that I am describing in this essay is on the mild side for some of the stories that you can hear from the student population I work with. However, through my work as a football coach -- where I have coached on the collegiate level and indeed participated in the NFL Minority Fellowship Program, where I actually coached the big boys during the preseason for three weeks in the summer -- the students that I work with have come to understand that I'm an approachable person. There is a different vibe between coaching -- where in some sense you learn to get the best out of someone by talking person to person -- and teaching, where very often you are viewed as an authority figure. My students know I am an authority figure who brooks no nonsense, but they also come to see me as a coach in their lives -- the kind of adult to whom they can turn for advice or support. Nonetheless, it came as a surprise, several years ago, on a Friday night in October, at about 10:30PM, when I got a call at home from one of my students. In general, high school students cherish their weekends as a chance to escape from the faculty members -- I don't get a lot of calls from my students during their free time, although with at risk youth, I very frequently make my phone number available simply to allow the students to feel like they have a stable person they can contact if they need one. And this is what happened. An 18-year-old high school senior from my class, whom I will refer to as William (due to his resemblance to Chicago Bears legend William "The Refrigerator" Perry), called me…