Wednesday, August 06, 2008

What to do about Zimbler

David Zimbler didn’t stand a chance. Before he even crossed the threshold of the high school’s main entrance last year, he was a marked man.

His predecessor, Jim McCaffrey, was beloved by students, faculty, staff and parents alike, which may have been an unprecedented feat for a principal at Riverhead High.

Last year, when the new superintendent brought with her a new principal to replace Mr. McCaffrey, a retired principal serving as an interim, with one year remaining on his three-year contract, there was an uproar. The kids wanted no part of the new guy. I know this because I have two children in the high school, and they were as unhappy with the change as were all of their friends.

Everything Mr. Zimbler did or said was unpopular with the kids, whose opinions, I found, were often shaped by comments of teachers in the classroom criticizing the administration for this or that policy or rule. Students even started a Facebook group called something like “David Zimbler ruined Riverhead High School.” The group on the popular social networking Web site was formed within weeks of the beginning of the last school term. Talk about a rush to judgment.

By the end of the school year, while Mr. Zimbler was still no Mr. McCaffrey, it seems a lot of the skepticism and resistance his presence inspired had worn away — at least among the kids. Some teachers, I think, may be another story.

But Mr. Zimbler made a “bad decision” on June 13, as he says in his letter to the community sent to The News-Review for publication this week. (See page 8.)
A really bad decision. One of the worst decisions anybody can make. He drank alcohol and got behind the wheel of a car.

While Mr. Zimbler now faces public humiliation and possible disciplinary action, or worse — his career may be on the line — he is a very lucky man. Driving while intoxicated on June 13, Mr. Zimbler was lucky he didn’t hurt or kill someone. Anybody who drives while under the influence of alcohol or drugs without hurting or killing someone is lucky. People are hurt or killed by drunk drivers every day.

Yet people keep drinking and driving. Lots of people. People you know. People you love. People you respect. Maybe even you.

I know I’ve done it. I have driven home from parties or nights out with friends after having imbibed alcohol and might have flunked a Breathalyzer test had I been stopped by a cop. I don’t know for sure, but I’m willing to bet I’ve taken the same risk that David Zimbler took on June 13 and didn’t get caught. I, too, was lucky — not that I didn’t get caught but that I didn’t hurt someone, or take someone’s life. May God forgive me my stupidity.

Now I’m no party animal, and I don’t take risks the way I did when I was younger. But before we tar and feather David Zimbler, we’d all best look within. Even if you’ve never had a drink in your life, haven’t you ever made a mistake or done something incredibly stupid that you regret? Who hasn’t?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not minimizing the seriousness of Mr. Zimbler’s offense, or the stupidity of his action. I’m not suggesting school officials look the other way or give him a slap on the wrist. As high school principal, he is supposed to be a role model for our children. But as a human being, he’s fallible, and in his fallibility he can also be a role model — by admitting his error, as he’s done, and by talking about it very frankly and openly with his students. And if he has an alcohol abuse problem — something none of us is in the position to know right now — he can be a role model by admitting that, talking about it, seeking help and talking about that, too.

Our kids need to hear adults admit we’re not perfect. They need to learn from us how to admit to making mistakes. They need to learn from us how to face the consequences of our mistakes and bad decisions. They need to learn from us that it’s all right to seek help, if we need it, to deal with substance abuse issues.

David Zimbler has an opportunity to teach kids these important lessons. It sounds like he gets it. We should encourage him as he works through this and encourage him to be that role model in the process.

The district administration and school board also have an opportunity to use this bad situation to accomplish something good. It should break with precedent and be forthright about what the principal did and what action it’s taking to discipline him — as well as how it’s working to prevent other teachers and administrators from making the same mistake. The “no comment, this is a personnel matter” response doesn’t serve anyone well in this situation, least of all the kids.

Finally, the rest of us should be on the lookout for people who will seek to exploit this terrible circumstance to further their own agendas. You will recognize them and what they are trying to do. We should all insist — also breaking with precedent — that reason prevail in Riverhead.


Copyright 2008 Times/Review Newspapers Corp.