Poor Dan Ward.

Surely the suggestion that the interim Memphis City Schools superintendent should appear on Bill O’Reilly’s national cable show was groupthink gone terribly awry.

Surely, nobody in the Memphis City Schools communications office or on its leadership team really thought this was a chance for the district to shine. After all, the subject was the “rape dance” video that was taken at Mitchell High Schools and that’s been so widely played on WREG-TV.

More Than Image Problems

The irony didn’t escape us that a few hours before Mr. Ward’s appearance, Memphis City Council was killing off Memphis Police Department’s appearances on A&E’s “The First 48” because of concerns that the series cast our city in a bad light. It’s always interesting how one city – say, Baltimore – can be the location for some of the most disturbing crime dramas on television, and another one like ours thinks that controlling the image is the same as controlling the problems depicted in them.

City Council Member Wanda Halbert was quoted as saying Memphis isn’t much different from other large cities in the amount of violence here. First, we need someone to send her the data, because she is badly misinformed. That said, we actually think the A&E show painted a positive portrait of MPD and the homicide officers that spend so much of their lives in the underbelly of our city seeking justice for murder victims. Based on the program, our opinion of MPD actually rose.

Unfortunately, Councilwoman Halbert seemed to suggest that it’s all just an image problem. She was quoted in The Commercial Appeal as saying, “Right now, I think Memphis needs to focus on cleaning up the image of our city.”

Actually, we’d be smarter to focus on changing the reality. The image will follow.

Positive Thinking

While we believe that Memphis needs to have a more positive self-image and about what makes it distinctive, we are admittedly troubled by the notion it’s all just a marketing problem that we need to solve. All the bumperstickers and slogans in the world will count for nought unless we accompany it with measurable improvement in some troubling indicators, and that’s why we are encouraged by the city’s high-tech Real Time Crime Center (if city government can walk the thin line between crime prevention and Big Brother).

But back to Mr. Ward. Actually, we feel for him. He’s much too old school, mannerly and measured in his approach to have a chance with cable television’s biggest blowhard, Mr. O’Reilly. Not that anyone trying to explain the outrageous conduct at Mitchell High School would have done any better. In the end, Mr. Ward looked like a man taking a beating for the good of the team.

The Spin

The O’Reilly website summed up his appearance this way:

“Students at a Memphis high school dance simulated various sex acts as teacher ‘chaperones’ stood by and did nothing. Memphis Superintendent of Schools Dan Ward entered the No Spin Zone and gave his reaction: ‘We have 112,000 kids and this activity is certainly not indicative of what they do. But it is a disaster and I’m not making excuses for anyone. We’re dealing with it, and we expecting the principal to get the situation to where that never happens again.’ The Factor urged Ward to mete out appropriate punishment to school officials. ‘Teachers and administrators were watching overt displays of sexuality, and it looks like there is no discipline at this school whatsoever. There is something fundamentally wrong in the school.’”

This incident is despicable on so many levels, but we have no real grievance with Mr. Ward’s official statement on it: “To say that we are troubled…would be an understatement. We are shocked and disappointed by the behavior of students shown in the video clip. These images demonstrate a serious issue that educators, parents, and community stakeholders alike must focus on – the need for a more productive partnership between schools and homes to ensure children understand how to act as responsible, mature young adults with a sense of self-respect.”

Losing Ground

The district didn’t do as well with a second official response: “Pop culture, the Internet, and mainstream media greatly influence the activity and behavior of today’s youth. We trust that our partners in education – parents, guardians, and school families will continue to reinforce to children the appropriate way to conduct themselves before, during, and after school hours.”

The good done by Mr. Ward’s outrage was eroded in a party line that seemed determined to point the finger at everybody but the principal and administrators of Mitchell High School. However, this was an issue that wasn’t going away, especially at this ratings-conscious time for our TV news teams, so in time, the Mitchell HS principal, John Ware, issued a statement accepting “full responsibility for inappropriate content in one of the acts in a talent show, and understand we should have taken immediate action and ended that performance.”

For now, however, it appears that the district’s communications strategy is to weather the storm and stonewall the media, but we predict that this storm is headed to hurricane status until and unless administrators are held as accountable as the students who were disciplined as a result of the “rape dance.” Mr. Ware has acted professionally in accepting “full responsibility,” and now, he has to accept the discipline that goes with it.

Paying The Piper

We loathe the fact that this places us on the same side of an issue as Mr. O’Reilly, but surely this is one that knows no political differences or partisan positioning. It was simply wrong, and if no action is taken against administrators who saw the “dance,” it is tantamount to sending the message to the 16,000 employees of the district that no one is ever really held accountable for their actions in Memphis City Schools.

We don’t believe that is the intent of Mr. Ward or the Board of Commissioners, but in the end, they have to prove it if this controversy has the chance of ending in an instructive way for the district.

Otherwise, it only validates Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton’s contention that the district can only turn itself around with a Joe Clark-style tough guy who is willing to make the tough decisions that are needed right now.