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editorial

Boston Schools chief erred in failing to suspend tainted headmaster

Boston school Superintendent Carol Johnson badly mishandled the aftermath of last year’s arrest of Rodney Peterson, a former headmaster at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science. She could have taken relatively simple steps to protect the integrity of the school system after Peterson was arrested on June 17, 2011, and accused of punching and choking his wife. Instead, she failed to take appropriate action.

It’s not easy running an $850 million school operation. The arrest of a high-profile educator might seem to be one of the tougher challenges facing a superintendent. Actually, it’s not. Even without a written policy to fall back on, the common practice is to place the subject on administrative leave, usually with pay if the offense is unrelated to official duties. If the alleged crime is job-related, managers have the leeway to place the subject on leave without pay.

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In either case, managers gain an opportunity to catch their breath, assess the situation thoroughly, and consult with legal advisers. Placing the accused on leave, therefore, is not only the smart response. It’s the easy one. Johnson sees that now. “I made a mistake,’’ she said. “I wish I had done things differently.’’

At the time of Peterson’s arrest, Johnson says she looked unsuccessfully for answers in personnel directives of the school department. Failing to find any, she decided to let the court case proceed before contemplating future action. Foolishly, she offered a written character reference at the time of Peterson’s sentencing, compounding her error. Two months after his arrest, Peterson admitted to the facts in the case and received a year’s probation and referral to a batterer’s program.

In managing the school system’s operations this past year, Johnson has performed below expectations. The system has been marred by widespread transportation problems, sloppy adherence to state funding rules, and missteps during the consolidation and relocation of schools. But to her credit, Johnson does reflect deeply on her errors and admits them.

Now, Johnson realizes that she lost an opportunity to teach students to reject violence in all its forms. And she is especially disappointed in her actions, she said, given the prevalence of battering in the nation’s high schools.

Parents, students, and taxpayers can only hope that Johnson’s genuine reflection leads to demonstrably better decision-making in the future.

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