Why the Capital High School T-Shirt Debacle Was Lose-Lose-Lose-Lose

Recently, my community witnessed an event that, in the scheme of things, was a tempest in a tea pot. Some graduating high school seniors defied the authority of their principal in the last few days of school, lost their right to march for their diploma, then regained the right to march. This was all over some t-shirts.

I don’t struggle much to define what I think about local events, but this one threw me for a loop. The butterfly effect of a series of choices by students, school leaders, parents, school board, and the chattering class kept the whole thing a moving target.

What went wrong?

In short, everything. There were so many bad decisions in play it was almost impossible to form an opinion as it went along. Today, the kids are graduated, the graffiti is scrubbed from city property, and we have all moved on.

The problem is, we may not really be able to start over as easily as we might hope.

My eyes were opened to some of the serious issues facing any administrator at Capital High School when I attended the funeral of its first principal, Mr. Clendenen. Clendenen presided over the consolidation of two power house schools in Kanawha County — Stonewall Jackson and Charleston High — into one school with strong identity and sense of pride. Many people thought that it couldn’t be done, that bringing together these long-standing rivals was too difficult.

In short, the Sharks and the Jets just don’t get along. Mr. Clendenen and the merging student bodies had a mighty task at hand.

What I learned at Clendenen’s memorial service is that we need to never take for granted the creation of a new and successful high school out of two former enemies. The very existence of one functioning school filled with academic achievement and student pride is a gift to our community. But from a historical perspective, it just happened.

From my armchair, I think the principal at Capital High School picked an odd battle to fight to the death. There is not much public disagreement about that. There are, however, a few more issues worthy of review.

A friend of mine put it well when she said, “You know who my parents would have been angry with over this? Me. If I were told five times not to do something by the principal and then I did it and encouraged others to do it, losing the privilege to march for my diploma, they would have taken it up with me.”

Requiring 18 year olds to face the consequences of their choices did NOT happen here. Parents and community members pitched a fit and asked the school board to intervene. Never wanting to miss a chance to lead a charge into an inappropriate drama, the school board asked the county superintendent to overturn the principal. Though phrased as a compromise, the principal lost. The kids marched, and then in an entirely predictable final act of defiance threw their victory in the principal’s face on stage. The adults in the audience erupted into wild applause.

It is a good thing when conflict can be resolved in win-win situations, but that didn’t happen here.

The principal lost: He was stripped of all respect and authority by the superintendent.

The parents lost: They can expect to get several phone calls from college and beyond asking them to come clean up their kids’ messes when they disregard life’s rules because they “just don’t agree with them.”

The kids lost: Not understanding the long-term consequences of what they did, they see themselves as heroes, and to many today they are. The sad thing is they learned the wrong lesson here, and leave town with an image of immaturity and privilege.

The community lost: The adults here tore down a good man. I can’t help but wonder how many people taking jabs at the principal would survive one day leading Capital High School. Though he may have made a tactical error, it was his to make.

Adults need to get a clue and rally around each other when the stakes are high. There were so many other ways this could have ended, not the least of which could have been an after-party for the kids where they wore their shirts and celebrated on their own terms.

I applaud the students for their willingness to take risk for their beliefs. The problem is, at the end of the day, the adults took back their real glory by erasing the consequences of their actions.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote letters from the Birmingham jail. As the saying goes, I’m just sayin’.