I was in my third year as a middle school vice principal when I learned a very valuable lesson that forever changed my style of dealing with students, and for that matter, anyone I deal with.  If this hadn’t happened to me, I am not sure I would believe it to be true

Setting the Stage

A very upset teacher brought a grade 8 student to my office and insisted I suspend her for theft and remove her from his class for the rest of the school year. I asked what had happened. He told me that his class was currently alone in the classroom, so he would be brief as it was a clear cut case of theft of another student’s belongings. The accused girl with him, I will call Jane, had taken two music cd’s from a boy, I will call John while the class was in the library doing research. The teacher explained that John had the cases for the two cd’s so they clearly belonged to him and that John was a very nice boy; while Jane, was ‘different’ and that she had the two stolen cd’s inside the pages of her math text book. Jane sat quietly and said nothing and showed no emotion.

Understandably, the Teacher’s Point of View

I turned to her and asked her what had happened. Before she could answer, the teacher stood up and on his way out of my office said, “just suspend her and take her out of my class, I have done all the investigation necessary, she simply stole from John, so don’t waste your time asking her!”

Seemed Straight Forward Enough

With just Jane left in my office, and for a reason I will explain later, I again asked her what had happened. She said, it doesn’t matter, just suspend me, I am use to it. “Use to what?” I asked her. I am use to being blamed for things I didn’t do and now I have a reputation, so go ahead and send me home, it’s okay with me. “Did you take John’s cd’s?” I asked. “No, I didn’t”, she replied. I suggested that she looked guilty, especially if John had the cd covers to match the cd’s. She responded, “I know, but I didn’t take his cd’s”.

One last Chance Jane

I asked her where she got the two cd’s and why were they in her math text. She told me that she had just bought them on the weekend while shopping with her mother at a local store, and she keeps them in her text book because they are easier to carry around that way. I asked her if it was okay if I called her mother to confirm her story. She agreed and I called her mother. I asked the mother if she had purchased two cd’s and if so, did she recall the name of them. The mother confirmed they had been shopping and indeed named the two cd’s. . Jane’s mother wanted to know if she was in trouble. I told her I wasn’t sure but she had been accused of stealing the two cd’s from another student and I was attempting to find out what happened. She said she could bring over the two cd cases and receipt if necessary. I told her that I would let her know later if that would be necessary.  I found it strange that the mother then said, “thanks Sir, she has been sent home in the past for things she didn’t do, but because she is so quiet and now has a poor reputation, she just accepts her fate and doesn’t speak up to defend herself – so I appreciate your efforts to get the truth”.

Wow, are You Kidding Me!

After all of this, Jane still didn’t tell me all she knew, so I simply asked her, “do you know what happened in the library?” To my amazement, she said, “I think so”. I asked her to tell me. “Well Sir, as you know we have a round computer pod in the center of the library where we were all sitting, and John and I both got up to go get some library books off the shelves. When I got my books and came back to my seat, John was sitting where I was, so I moved to a different spot. I then heard John tell the teacher that someone had taken his two cd’s from his station. The teacher asked if anyone knew where John’s cd’s were and a student blurted out that she saw me put them in my text book. The teacher then checked my text book and when he found them, brought me up to you.”

Let’s Check it Out Jane

I told Jane we needed to go to the library. When we got there the class had gone back to the classroom. I asked her to show me where John was originally sitting. We then opened the disc drive and found the first cd and then found the other one under the disc drive, right where John had left them! I couldn’t believe both Jane and John had the very same two cd’s! What are the odds!

Apology Needed?

I explained the situation to Jane’s teacher and the class, as I thought it was owed to Jane and that it was indeed one of those teachable moments. I also apologized to Jane for the past experiences she had that led her to believe that she didn’t deserve her day in court. I must say, I was very disappointed that the teacher seemed so indifferent to the outcome – I guess I expected the teacher to also tell Jane he was sorry for jumping to a quick conclusion, even though she looked so guilty.  I always thought it was innocent until proven guilty!

What Students can Teach us if We Give Them a Chance

I learned so much that day! As I went on in my career, I spent most of my time dealing with our so called at-risk students and I always assumed they are innocent until I know for absolutely sure that I know differently.  Sadly, so many of these students, and their parents come to me with similar experiences where they feel they were not heard.

Why did I Give Jane so Much of My Time when She looked so Guilty?

So, what was the reason I decided to ask Jane what she thought happened? Well, of course I now believe it is the only fair thing to do, but at the time, I was very busy, it looked like a clean cut and closed case, and the real reason was that many years earlier, I had dated someone who told me that although she was a top academic student, she hated school because of a situation where she was falsely accused in grade 9 by the vice principal and subsequently disciplined for something she didn’t do and was never given a chance to defend herself. That situation had impacted her so much that she hated the rest of her school days. Jane physically reminded me of this person I had dated, and when she was brought to my office, although I honestly thought she was guilty, I decided to ask her what she thought had happened in the library, just in case. I am so glad I did!

A Lesson for Us All

On a personal note, I too know, like so many of us, know what unresolved false accusations feel like and even how it can create an unjust reputation which can cause more doubt and accusations.  It  changed my life/career and even cost me a dear friendship. In fact it has hurt me more than anyone will ever know, and I would have loved nothing more than just a chance to be asked if I knew what had happened, or at lease be considered innocent until proven otherwise. People have been unjustly treated throughout the ages and all I can do is make sure I remain fair to everyone I ever come into contact with – indeed I pride myself in this to the point where it is the reason I never spoke out to defend myself in the first place – strange, but what are the odds!