Even over the telephone, Superintendent Carol Johnson’s pain is palpable.
“I’ve done a lot of reflection and soul-searching,” she says. “I made a mistake. I’m troubled by it, and it’s not something you apologize for, then it’s over. You worry about it a while, after thinking how you got to that place.”
The place Johnson got to has been much talked about since Sunday’s Globe story about how she mishandled a headmaster’s arrest for domestic assault. Instead of suspending Rodney Peterson after his arrest last year, Johnson allowed him to remain in his job, and renewed his $126,000-a-year contract. Worse, Johnson went on to write a glowing reference to the judge sentencing him.
Mystifying stuff. It’s a no-brainer that a guy who is supposed to be a role model for kids should be yanked while the judicial system is deciding if he’s an abuser. Especially when a whopping 14 percent of those kids have been victims of dating violence, according to annual surveys.
Johnson, who has slept poorly and apologized more or less full-time over the past few days, still seems a little mystified herself. It’s not like she’s unaware of the scourge of domestic violence. She has friends who have been in unhealthy relationships. “As a woman, I am particularly troubled,” she says.
She and Peterson were not friends. Though he worked in Memphis when she was superintendent there, Johnson doesn’t remember him. But she liked what she saw of him here. She was struck by one graduation at which Peterson seemed to know each of his seniors well enough to praise their specific abilities. Parents told her he’d rescued their kids from failure.
Maybe that’s why she was more sympathetic than she should have been. Johnson cannot disclose what Peterson told her at a Saturday meeting just after he was arrested, but apparently it convinced her there was little merit to the charges, or at least that it was a matter best handled by the courts alone. (Peterson later admitted to the abuse.)
“At that moment, I was thinking . . . ‘A person is innocent till proven guilty; let’s let the courts take their course,’ ” she says. “But that shouldn’t have prevented me from putting him on leave. I don’t know, I’m disappointed at the steps I took.”
So am I. Johnson has done some terrific things here. Thousands of kids now get arts education they didn’t have before. Enrollment in summer programs has doubled. The graduation rate, though still a troubling 64.4 percent, is higher than ever. Dropouts are down. She knows what schools need to succeed.
But too often, Johnson has had to change course when parents or teachers made it clear that her plans — especially plans to close or move schools — were poorly thought through. And there has been a string of administrative failures, such as the school bus chaos.
She deserves credit, of course, for owning her mistakes. In that appealing humility she has little company in public life. But Johnson, her own most astute critic, knows that this Peterson thing is different — that there are no two sides to this matter as there are in, say, a school closing: “On . . . this, it’s hard to see that there was more than one answer.”
She blew it. This failure goes not to Johnson’s views on education, or management style, but directly to her judgment. And that gives me pause about whether she is, in the end, up to this cruelly demanding job.
Johnson can recover from this, particularly since the mayor is standing by her. But she has put herself in an impossible position: This very human superintendent can’t afford any more mistakes.