Case Status: Victory. New York appellate court ordered immediate reinstatement.
McConnell v. Le Moyne College
- Freedom of Speech
Favor the rod, get the ax
College expels student who supported corporal punishment
By Patrick D. Healy
The New York Times, March 10, 2005
SYRACUSE, As a substitute teacher in the public schools here, Scott McConnell says students are often annoyed that he does not let them goof off in class. Yet he was not prepared for the sixth grader who walked up to his desk in November, handed in an assignment, and then swore at him.
The profanity transported him back to his own days at Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Oklahoma in the 1980’s, when there was a swift solution for wiseacres: the paddle.
“It was a footlong piece of wood, and hung on every classroom wall like a symbol, a strong Christian symbol,” said Mr. McConnell, who is 26. “Nobody wanted that paddle to come down.”
He said he had been a disruptive student, and routinely mouthed off until his fourth-grade teacher finally gave him three whacks to the backside. Physically, it did not hurt. But he felt humiliated and humbled.
“I never wanted that again,” Mr. McConnell recalled. “It was good for me.”
Supporting corporal punishment is one thing; advocating it is another, as Mr. McConnell recently learned. Studying for a graduate teaching degree at Le Moyne College, he wrote in a paper last fall that “corporal punishment has a place in the classroom.” His teacher gave the paper an A-minus and wrote, “Interesting ideas — I’ve shared these with Dr. Leogrande,” referring to Cathy Leogrande, who oversaw the college’s graduate program.
Unknown to Mr. McConnell, his view of discipline became a subject of discussion among Le Moyne officials. Five days before the spring semester began in January, Mr. McConnell learned that he had been dismissed from Le Moyne, a Jesuit college.
“I have grave concerns regarding the mismatch between your personal beliefs regarding teaching and learning and the Le Moyne College program goals,” Dr. Leogrande wrote in a letter, according to a copy provided by Mr. McConnell. “Your registration for spring 2005 courses has been withdrawn.”
Dr. Leogrande offered to meet with Mr. McConnell, and concluded, “Best wishes in your future endeavors.”
If the letter stunned Mr. McConnell, the “best wishes” part turned him into a campaigner. A mild-mannered former private in the Army, Mr. McConnell has taken up a free-speech banner with a tireless intensity, casting himself as a transplant from a conservative state abused by political correctness in more liberal New York. He also said that because he is an evangelical Christian, his views about sparing the rod and spoiling the child flowed partly from the Bible, and that Le Moyne was “spitting on that.”
He is working with First Amendment groups to try to pressure Le Moyne into apologizing and reinstating him, and is considering legal action as well as a formal appeal to the college. He says Le Moyne misconstrued his views: he believes children should not be paddled without their parents’ permission. He said that even then, the principal, as the school’s head disciplinarian, should deliver the punishment.
“Judges live in the real world, and I think they would see that Scott got an A-minus on his paper and was expressing views on a campus that supports academic freedom,” said David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group based in Philadelphia that is supporting Mr. McConnell. “It’s hard to see a court looking kindly on Scott’s expulsion.”
Dr. Leogrande did not respond to telephone messages. Le Moyne’s provost, John Smarrelli, said the college had the right as a private institution to take action against Mr. McConnell because educators had grave concerns about his qualifications to teach under state law.
New York is one of 28 states that ban corporal punishment; most of those that allow it are in the South and West. Most states did not ban corporal punishment until the late 1980’s, after parents, educators, and other advocates began pressing for the laws. More than 342,000 students received corporal punishment in the 1999-2000 school year, in the most recent figures from the federal Education Department.
Because it has an accredited school of education, moreover, Le Moyne officials said that the college was required to pledge that its graduates will be effective and law-abiding teachers who will foster a healthy classroom environment.
“We have a responsibility to certify people who will be in accordance with New York State law and the rules of our accrediting agencies,” Mr. Smarrelli said. In Mr. McConnell’s case, he said, “We had evidence that led us to the contrary.”
Mr. McConnell said that he had been only conditionally admitted to the graduate program; typically, such students earn full admission by earning good grades and meeting other requirements. Mr. McConnell added that he had earned mostly A’s and his fate rested largely on his November paper.
Mr. Smarrelli said that the paper itself was “legitimate” and “reasonable,” because the assignment sought Mr. McConnell’s plan for managing a classroom. Yet Mr. McConnell’s views were clearly not in the mainstream of most teachers’ colleges.
For example, many educators focus on nurturing students’ self-esteem, but Mr. McConnell scoffed at that idea in his paper. He said he would not favor some students over others, regardless of any special needs some might have.
“I will help the child understand that respect of authority figures is more important than their self-esteem,” he wrote.
Some professors and college officials were also concerned that Mr. McConnell wrote that he opposed multiculturalism, a teaching method that places emphasis on non-Western cultures.
In an interview, Mr. McConnell said he disliked “anti-American multiculturalism,” and gave as an example a short story on the Sept. 11 attacks intended for classroom use. The story, published in a teachers’ magazine in 2002 by the National Council for the Social Studies, was about young American boys teasing an Iraqi boy named Osama.
Mr. Smarrelli said Le Moyne had to ensure that its students had the judgment, aptitude, temperament and other skills to succeed in challenging their students.
But Dr. Smarrelli acknowledged that Le Moyne had not warned students like Mr. McConnell that they could be removed for expressing controversial beliefs, nor had the college said that education students must oppose corporal punishment or support multiculturalism.
Joseph P. Frey, the assistant commissioner for quality assurance in the New York State Education Department, who monitors colleges and graduate schools, said he could not offer an opinion on the McConnell case because he did not know the specifics.
Mr. Frey said: “One valid question is, ‘Is the paper an academic exercise in terms of theories of education, or is it a belief that this is how Mr. McConnell will carry out corporal punishment in the classroom no matter what?'”
Mr. Frey added, however, that private colleges have broad latitude in accepting or rejecting students. And he said that graduate education schools might face a threat to their accreditation, or legal action by school districts, if they produce teachers who fall into trouble.
During an interview at the kitchen table in the comfortable suburban home he shares with his wife, Liz, a dentist, Mr. McConnell said he had wanted to instill civic virtues in students in the same way his teachers had in him.
As a child, he moved from Texas to Florida and then to Oklahoma as his mother pursued failed marriages to “bad men,” he said. Teachers became a source of stability and life lessons. They taught him to read, to respect others, and to serve his country by inspiring him to join the Army.
“Because I didn’t talk and think the same way that Le Moyne did, because I didn’t drink their Kool-Aid, I received the ultimate punishment,” Mr. McConnell said. “Corporal punishment is nothing compared to this.”