Kadner: A lesson in integrity for us all
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org May 21, 2014 6:22PM
Forty-seven seniors at Oak Lawn Community High School who falsified their community service records will not be allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony. Nor will the student who forged a signature on 45 of those forms. | Steve Metsch~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 24, 2014 7:38AM
About 10 percent of the graduating class of 2014 didn’t receive their diplomas during the commencement Wednesday for Oak Lawn Community High School students.
As you have likely heard, 47 students initially failed to fulfill a community service requirement to graduate, with many of them actually paying for forged documents to cover their tracks. At least three of them made up the work, and while they weren’t allowed to graduate with their peers, they were expected to pick up their diplomas Thursday.
The rest can complete their community service work over the summer and receive their diplomas.
A 48th student, who actually completed the 24 hours of community service, was suspended for five days for forging signatures on the community service documents. He will receive his diploma after the suspension is lifted.
“Integrity” and “pride” are words that District 229 Supt. Michael Riordan uses a lot when talking about the importance of the lesson he’s hoping to teach this year’s graduating class and the students who will attend Oak Lawn High in years to come.
“The response has been overwhelmingly supportive,” Riordan, who’s also the school’s principal, told me on Wednesday, hours before the graduation ceremony.
“I have received a few phone calls and emails from parents and people concerned that the punishment is too harsh or questioning the need for community service, but those are a small percentage of the overall communications I’ve received. I would say 90 percent to 95 percent of the calls I have received are very supportive of what we’re doing.”
One person who wasn’t thrilled by the example being set is Cook County Commissioner Elizabeth Gorman, R-Orland Park, who contacted me to say she believed the punishment was too stiff.
Gorman, the mother of four children, said teenagers often do stupid things, but her main concern was that due to their mistake the students missed an opportunity that for some could be the highlight of their lives.
“They will never have that photograph of themselves receiving their diploma and standing with their mom and dad at the graduation ceremony,” Gorman said.
“I’m not defending what these students did, it was wrong, but I think there could have been another way of punishing them without prohibiting them from going on stage to receive their diplomas. Make them do extra community service over the summer, if that’s what’s needed.”
Gorman, who doesn’t represent Oak Lawn on the county board, said she was so upset by the story in the SouthtownStar about the high school scandal that she felt the need to speak out.
“You’re not only punishing the students, but their parents, their grandparents, their families,” she said.
She has a point.
And I have always been dubious of “zero-tolerance” policies, a popular tactic used by schools to enforce discipline.
Violate a rule included in a zero-tolerance policy and you suffer the same consequences — whether you’re an honors student who always abided by the rules or a screw-up who was the class clown.
That’s not fair. It often results in bad decisions by school officials.
That said, the scandal at Oak Lawn High School doesn’t quite fit that “zero-tolerance” mold.
Oak Lawn High requires 24 hours of community service to graduate, just as it requires that students take certain core courses. If you don’t take all the classes required to graduate, you don’t get a diploma.
No one would argue that point. And if you don’t complete your community service hours, it’s the same thing.
Riordan said the requirement is mentioned repeatedly throughout a student’s four years at the school during assemblies and private meetings with teachers. Parents and students also get an update on the accumulated community service hours in each quarterly report card.
Why is community service so important?
“We’re trying to teach our students not only the importance of academic learning, but the importance of being part of your community,” Riordan said. “We want them to be better people when they graduate, and that includes a sense of community responsibility, of helping others.”
Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury told me she received only one email complaining about the high school’s action and made it clear that she supports Riordan.
“Community service is important, and a lot of schools are requiring it now,” Bury said. “We have a middle school that each fall takes its students out to rake leaves for senior citizens.
“It’s a great way to get the children to interact with the people who live in their community. The seniors come out with cookies and talk to the students. They get to know each other. That’s what a community ought to be about.”
I suggested to Riordan that after four years in his school, the 48 students apparently failed to understand the lessons they were being taught.
They not only failed to perform community service, they forged its documentation — demonstrating that “integrity,” a firm adherence to being honest and fair, is not something they understood.
“I’m not disputing that there was a failure here to adequately communicate with the students about the importance of the lessons we are teaching them and what that means,” Riordan said.
“But most of these students are really good kids. I think this is a great lesson, but a bitter lesson, for them. There are consequences for your actions.”
Unfortunately, in real life, that isn’t always the case.
Rich people get treated differently than poor people, the powerful get breaks that those without clout do not, individuals in business who break the rules often reap the financial rewards of their skullduggery.
The student who sold those forged documents may some day sit in Congress or become the chief executive of a Fortune 500 company.
But we dream of better things for the young — wanting them to be idealistic, to hang on to the fantasy that there is always hope for the future.
That’s because we know integrity is precious, rarely recognized and not always rewarded.