Educators like to talk about “teachable moments,” times when circumstances dictate a period of reflection and reform. The Fife School District is having one of those right now.
In May of last year, four female teachers at Surprise Lake Middle School compiled a list of grievances against their principal, alleging that on several occasions he engaged in inappropriate touching, gender discrimination and physical intimidation.
The complaints set in motion an outside investigation, the second of its kind against Principal Jim Snider; the first was in 2016. The inquiry could not corroborate all the teachers’ complaints, but it found most of them credible.
Here’s part of the investigator’s findings: “A majority of the female staff members whom I interviewed similarly reported feeling as though Mr. Snider had engaged in aggressive and/or manipulative behavior towards them after perceiving them to have disagreed with him and/or taken a contrary position to him on some issue.”
His pattern of impropriety toward women included hand stroking, repeated dinner invitations and references to three teachers as “garbage,” according to the findings.
And yet after Fife administrators reviewed the report, they concluded Snider’s behavior “did not rise to the level of misconduct or a violation of district policy.” (Although it did lead to an undisclosed corrective action.)
It took nearly six more months, after the teachers appealed to the elected five-member school board, to finally win acknowledgment of a hostile work environment.
It’s not our purpose to litigate a harassment case in a 700-word editorial, but we read the same report reviewed by district administration and found nothing ambiguous about the conduct of the Milton school’s principal.
We realize things can be complicated in the realm of long-tenured, unionized public officials. Even so, the delayed action in Fife illustrates why the #metoo movement was and still is sorely needed.
This ongoing revolution makes clear there’s only one sufficient response to sexual harassment and gender discrimination — and that’s a zero-tolerance policy.
Before #metoo, making a remark about a female subordinate being young and pretty might have been viewed as impolite but would likely not result in serious discipline. The earlier investigation of Snider, for example, concluded he made a teacher feel uncomfortable by comparing her in age and appearance to Mary Kay Letourneau, the infamous Seattle-area teacher convicted of child rape in 1997.
Thanks to #metoo, when it comes to gender dynamics in the workplace, the gray areas are shrinking.
Gray areas include behavior that seldom warrants a trip to the Human Resources department but falls into the cringe-worthy category. Most women can recount a time or three when they’ve been interrupted, had ideas overlooked or discounted, or endured a mansplaining session that went on far too long.
These petty displays of dominance, some unconscious, can be found behind fast food counters and in corporate boardrooms. Academics call them “micro-aggressions.” Most women call them insensitive and move on.
They’re hard to prove and hard to pin down. And they’re a far cry from the criminal behavior of a Harvey Weinstein or a Bill Cosby.
It seems that Fife administrators put Snider’s behavior into a gray area. But the four Fife teachers refused to give up, because when a boss exploits a clear power differential, the repercussions are almost always black and white.
As one teacher on the receiving end of Snider’s unwelcome hugs told the investigator: “He’s my evaluator and I’m afraid of him.”
Last month, their fears were addressed, their complaints validated. In a May 15 letter, the school board said Snider engaged in “conduct or communication of a sexual nature that interfered with the employees’ employment performance and created an intimidation, (sic) hostile or offensive environment.”
As of this writing, he hasn’t been disciplined; though reassigned to duties outside the middle school, he retains his principal title, salary and benefits.
But that’s not the main takeaway here. What’s most important is that those who hold power to adjudicate and administer justice learn from this teachable moment.
All the better if it causes Fife and other districts to stiffen policies on inappropriate behavior among staff and supervisors. When the space between the teachers’ lounge and the principal’s office is riddled with gray areas, nobody benefits.