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I Refuse.

Teachers in Maine revolt against fingerprinting

I've been teaching elementary schoolchildren in central Maine for the past twenty years. We have an unstated bargain between us: I help them grow a little older while they help me stay young. They've kept their side of the bargain, and I've tried to keep mine. But I may not be able to keep it much longer.

I am one of 47,000 Maine school employees currently required to submit to fingerprinting and FBI criminal history records checks as part of a hysterical state attempt to expose and root out supposed pedophiles. If we refuse to comply, we lose our certification and our jobs. I, and at last count fifty-six other teachers representing 1,050 years of experience in education, refuse to comply.

Why would teachers from all across Maine take such a radical step--one that will force us to abandon our jobs, our careers, and the work we love? Because we believe we have no moral choice. We see the law as a clear violation of our rights. This obscene and ineffective law strikes at the heart of the constitutional guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure. We must choose between abandoning our jobs and livelihoods and professional passion, on the one hand, and abandoning one of our most deeply held principles on the other: presumed innocence. It is no choice at all.

It all began in 1997. No one seems to know who initially proposed the idea, but with virtually no notice the Maine Legislature unanimously passed "An Act to Provide Record Checks of Elementary and Secondary Education Employees and Applicants." But due to the state's unpreparedness to implement the law, it did not finally begin to take effect until this summer. Last winter and spring, a significant number of teachers waged a campaign that finally convinced the legislature to amend the law by exempting all existing school personnel from having to be fingerprinted. The bill went to Governor Angus King's desk for his signature in late April.

For the dozens of teachers who were refusing to submit, it was a hopeful moment. But after all of five minutes of consideration, King vetoed the new bill. He thus left in place the original draconian law requiring the fingerprinting and checking of all teachers, administrators, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, coaches, secretaries, custodians, even contractors like electricians and plumbers and staff development consultants who might come in contact with children, no matter how fleetingly.

The governor's veto sealed the professional fate of the fifty-seven of us, plus many more who may be leaving without making public declarations.

Now that the politicking is all over, we continue to refuse.

We arrived at this position by different routes. Suzanne Malis-Andersen, a middle school teacher, was the very first to publicly refuse. She was raised for the role.

"My strong sense of liberty comes from my father, who emigrated from Poland with his family in 1920," she testified at a hearing before the Education Committee in February. "He was determined that his children would never take for granted our constitutional rights. I can vividly remember him reading those first three words `We the People' and explaining that our government is made for us, by us, and answerable to us. He instructed us to defend these principles by standing firm for them." She recalled how he took her and her siblings on a ferry to show them the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where he had arrived in America. Suzanne has since had his name inscribed in the Immigrant Wall of Honor there.

I took a while longer to come clear about what I had to do. Back in February of 1999, I began investigating what struck me as a totally nonsensical law. I asked the state leadership of the Maine Education Association where the data came from that showed there was a problem of pedophiles in the schools. They admitted that there was none, that during the committee's hearing on the bill there had been only a few anecdotes offered. Still, the Maine Education Association had caved in and supported passage of the law in 1997.

I also called all the various state criminal records agencies. Amazingly, they had no data, either. Where, exactly, was this problem no one could document? Finally, on October 1, I sent a letter to the Portland Press Herald challenging the effectiveness and constitutionality of the law and asking what other educators thought. The Press Herald managed to lose the letter twice, so it did not appear until November 26. It was followed by virtual silence.

But Suzanne's great personal courage finally got things rolling. When her picture and declaration of refusal appeared on the front page of the Bangor Daily News in early January, I hurriedly phoned her school during my lunch break that day and left a message for her to call me, a perfect stranger, at home that evening. So, apparently, did a couple of dozen other teachers from around Maine. An organizational meeting followed shortly thereafter, and then the issue caught fire. It was as if Rosa Parks's bus had been driven to Maine and Suzanne had gotten off. We called ourselves Maine Educators Against Fingerprinting (MEAF) and had a web site up within weeks (www. mainemarketplace.com/fprint).

Still, my own realization that I had to refuse took time to incubate. My uncertainty caused me faint embarrassment sometimes in Suzanne's and several other refusers' bold presence. Under Maine's five-year recertification cycle, they were facing dismissal as early as July 1. I was not up until 2003, which lent me more time to weigh my options.

But it all came perfectly clear one afternoon after school as I was driving to a work session of the Education Committee in Augusta. Once again, I was running through the scenario of fingerprinting in my imagination: walking up to the state troopers, who were coming right into the schools to "process"--oh, that word!--us, submitting the required identification and the filled-out processing form, stepping before the armed trooper with the ink pad and the fingerprint cards ... and then suddenly I felt physically sick. It was, I recognized with a chill, the same feeling of guilt one has after lying to or betraying somebody. Except the person I was betraying was myself.

For some, the decision whether or not to refuse to submit has become a nightmare. Ann McHugh, who gave up a college position to come teach history at the Maine School for Science and Mathematics, struggles daily with the unthinkable position the state has put her in.

"I, too, am trying to imagine actually being fingerprinted," she says, "and I, too, am having trouble with that last step. It is all so ominous, and so few people understand. I don't know whether I can do it. Is this 1930-something? Am I to report with my identity card and be registered? People are so apathetic to what this fingerprinting, urine testing, et cetera, really means.... Yet I have responsibilities to others beside myself. Can I chuck aside my home and leave us virtually nothing for retirement? This is a heartbreak. And how can I keep teaching my students that `democracy only works if you participate,' when I've just been shown that it often doesn't work even then? This is not the Maine I remember from twenty-five years ago. But then, this isn't the nation I remember from then, either."

The emotional fallout from Governor King's veto has been overwhelming for many of us. Maybe we are naive idealists; it takes something like that to endure as a public school teacher, anyway. But now we've been at the very center of a whirlwind that impacts people's lives with severity and injustice, and we've seen up close how flawed the system is. We've watched as the chief of the Maine State Police and the chairperson of the Education Committee supplied the Maine House of Representatives with blatantly misleading information, and we've noticed how our elected officials shrugged off the deception when we pointed it out to them.

Thursday, one sleepless night after the veto, I came home sick from school at 10 a.m. The next day I made it to 11:30. By Saturday, I had persistent stomach cramps and felt so dizzy I occasionally lost my balance simply trying to walk. Monday, after a day at school spent struggling to find some reason, any reason, to teach, I stopped by my doctor's office. Maybe he could give me something to help me sleep, I thought, or anti-depressants.

Roger is a friend as well as my doctor, and he has seen me through crises before. He asked me a checklist of questions that quickly ruled out the two things I thought might be wrong: microbial illness or rolling depression. And then, from his experience as a gerontologist, he offered the following interpretation of my hapless condition: "You're not depressed," he said. "You're suffering from a major loss. Your symptoms are exactly the same as those experienced by my older patients who have just lost a spouse."

What a demonstration of the mind-body connection, I thought, that the loss of a mere idea, an abstraction like "freedom from unreasonable suspicion," should produce such a cascade of physical symptoms! Weeks later, the symptoms have lessened but dependably still ruin part of almost every day.

In June, both the Maine Civil Liberties Union and a high-powered Bangor law firm we had been talking to rendered the same opinion of our request to challenge the constitutionality of the law in court. It would be futile, they said. The judge would not look at the merits of our particular case, at the data we had researched showing that the law will have virtually no impact on child abuse, that the nearly nonexistent possible gain from the law is overwhelmed by millions of dollars in expenses, the destruction of numerous careers, the loss of many of Maine's finest teachers, the sowing of massive distrust of teachers in the public's mind, a false sense of security about preventing child abuse, and on and on.

What would they look at then? we asked. At precedent, came the answer. In effect, a judge who is asked to weigh the constitutionality of a law looks only at what other judges have said before. Precedent is everything, and we have no precedent on our side. Yet the specific constitutionality of mass fingerprinting of teachers as a strategy to prevent child abuse has never even been argued in court. Any judicial precedent is therefore merely tangential at best, we thought. But we did not prevail.

And so right now we are in full retreat. Some of us have already resigned; others, including me, wait on a kind of Recertification Death Row. The English teachers among us mention Catch-22 and Brave New World. The math teachers wonder why they have been teaching data-collection and creative problem-solving all these years. The history teachers recall ruefully that the U.S. Constitution is one of the great settings of precedent of all time. And Suzanne, as she tried to do in front of the Education Committee only to be gaveled into silence, points to the state's vaunted curriculum goals. In the section for Middle School Social Studies, these call for students to learn how to articulate and defend the constitutional principle of individual liberties.

Elementary teacher that I am, my private hell is now the classroom, where I often no longer believe there is any enduring purpose to my teaching. What is the point, I keep asking myself, in teaching little children to think clearly--to gather valid information, to consider alternative viewpoints, to search for solutions that treat people with respect--when all around us the adults remain apathetic about these ultimate tools of civilization?

Bernie Huebner lives in Waterville, Maine. He has taught for the last twenty years in the public schools of Maine, and until recently was never suspected of anything worse than leaving school a few minutes early on a Friday. Huebner and the other members of' Maine Educators Against Fingerprinting were recently awarded the Maine Civil Liberties Union's annual Roger Baldwin Award for Defense of Civil Liberties. Huebner can be reached at bhuebner@mint.net.
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Title Annotation:the fingerprinting of Maine school teachers brings protest
Author:Huebner, Bernie
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1U1ME
Date:Aug 1, 2000
Words:2041
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