Commentary: Courage to do the right thing

On Oct. 21, the Northern Virginia Daily printed Scott Rasmussen’s column “Politicians don’t lead the nation.” In the article he writes: “Politicians don’t lead the nation, they lag behind. Change always comes from outside the political process, often from surprising places.” He tells about an event on April 19, 1960, in Nashville, Tennessee, when a young black student named Diane Nash asked a question of Mayor Ben West.

Nash was part of the non-violent protest against racial discrimination, and she was one of thousands who marched silently to City Hall on April 19, 1960. Seeing West on the steps, the woman asked him, “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?”

When West said, “Yes, it is wrong,” political barriers were removed, lunch counters were desegregated, peace was restored, and merchants were again busy selling to white and black customers. Things improved.

Rasmussen points out that all of this good occurred when Nash had the courage to ask a moral question, not a political one. Also, he notes that West demonstrated moral courage with his answer. Years later West says that the question was “one that a man has to answer, and not a politician.” Moral won over political.

Rasmussen’s article causes me to think about the Shenandoah County School Board and some of its decisions in the past year. To summarize:

In January some basketball players were found guilty of assault and battery by mob, and four school employees lost contracts for coaching or other extracurricular duties. Some players were punished, some expelled for over a year.

The School Board spent hours in meetings with citizens, forming sub-committees of citizens and paying a consultant to study the shifting of school boundaries to reduce overcrowding. Does the result in the targeted schools honestly show the relief promised? The School Board is now paying the same consultant to help it devise a long-range plan for our schools. Is this good stewardship of our limited resources? I think not, and it is a moral question.

And in its latest decision, did the School Board fire a teacher/coach who ran a red light, wove into on-coming traffic, registered a blood-level content of .18, and three times denied having consumed alcohol? (By the way, did he get this drunk by himself or were other teacher/coaches in his car? Did the board ask this?) Is this person in our school teaching and coaching our children? Is this the role model we place in our schools for our children?

Yes, like all county citizens, I am saddened by the state of our national politics. However, I am more saddened by what I see as the lack of moral courage by our locally elected School Board members. This board does not appear to have the courage to justly treat each wrong act. Its decisions lead me to believe that if a wrong-doer is a student or employee of little status, then the heavy hammer falls. The board seems to believe it’s just to give out a one-year suspension when an adolescent makes a first-time mistake in judgment or succumbs to peer pressure. In dealing with students and adults, this board utilizes what I call the “shotgun approach” – scatter enough lead and you’re bound to hit someone – which appears to be some of its reasoning in connection to the basketball team sadness. (For instance, how can a driver supervise students when driving on West Virginia roads?)

All of this leads me to think that Shenandoah County needs at least one, but I wish many, Diane Nashes to ask moral questions of the elected School Board. And we need at least one board member to say, “Hey, what would we do if a student had registered a .18 level of alcohol, had run a red light, and had swerved into on-coming traffic?” Our system is full of injustices and must be changed for the good of our children.

Mayor West, as Rasmussen writes, had the moral courage to act as a human being, not an elected official. The decision he made, in the days of Jim Crow, had to have been difficult and dangerous for him as a person and politician. Yet, he rose above politics and led his city to a better time. Should we not expect and demand the same of our six elected School Board members?

Roger Barbee is an Edinburg resident.