Mark Hyatt webRUNNEMEDE, N.J. – SATURDAY, OCT. 6, 2012 – (Associated Press) — A student at Triton High School went to (the) principal six months ago with a disturbing story: She believed another student was involved in a sexual relationship with a teacher, and she had seen explicit text messages the two exchanged. At that moment, prosecutors say, a cover-up was put in motion that unraveled Thursday when (the principal), an assistant principal and three [male] teachers were charged with offenses ranging from child endangerment to sexual assault and official misconduct…

Yes, the crime blotter once again has much to teach us.

Having spent my entire K-12 school student experience not far from Runnemede in southern New Jersey, I have been paying close attention to this developing scandal. As the head of a nonprofit now focused on building young people’s character, I also feel compelled to follow it. So far, I find myself shaking my head over the dearth of administrative leadership on display and I worry what lessons students everywhere may be learning from the adult behavior at Triton High.

Having served in the role of school superintendent for 10 years, I know from personal experience that it is not easy to deal with problems of this nature. Soon after I took the helm at a 1,000-student school system in 2002, I started picking up on signs that something was grievously wrong at our high school. When I took the job, no one had bothered to tell me that, just days before I started, a teacher had been asked to leave. Little by little over my first two months, I uncovered bits of information suggesting that our student body had been seriously traumatized. As I soon learned, the departing teacher had “groomed” three of his 15-year-old female students by meeting them individually at the local library after school. Once he found the one most vulnerable, he initiated and perpetuated a sexual relationship with her.

I was shocked, especially when I realized that the only action my predecessor had taken in response to this criminal behavior was merely to ask the teacher to leave. So the police were immediately called and then I convened a meeting with the victims and their parents. It soon became apparent that both groups needed intensive counseling to process what had happened to them, and that the entire school also had to deal with this situation. All parties needed assurance that steps were being taken to make sure these crimes could never happen at our school again.

Incredibly, at the teacher’s trial, the sordid tale got even worse. The accused was 38 years old, with a 28-year-old wife and three children. Testimony revealed that his spouse had at one time also been his student and that he had victimized her, as well. Somehow, this disturbing fact had been covered up because no one at their school ever had the courage to come forward. So the pattern of behavior was allowed to continue. At Triton High School in New Jersey, it now appears there was similar administrative cowardice, and once again, it has led to disaster.

In the military, in which I served for more than 28 years before my life in K-12 education, we had a term for such inaction: “dereliction of duty.”  In civil society, it occurs when “acts or omissions rise to the level of criminal negligence.”

Unfortunately, such omissions are not rare. In fact, they hang heavy over the recent sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University, where the former assistant football coach this month was sentenced to 30 years in prison. There, loyalty and tradition trumped truth and consequences. Ironically, it appears that most, if not all, of the leaders involved at these troubled schools were upstanding citizens. But they failed miserably at their most important job—keeping their students safe.

Where was character in all of this? Sorely absent, I’m afraid.

Being a school leader is not easy. I know. To help me have the courage to do the right thing every day, I commit in my heart that, when confronted with these types of dilemmas, there is no doubt what I will do. I’ve learned to trust my instincts and do the right thing, no matter how tough or painful. Even with this, I don’t always make perfect decisions—but at least I set myself up for success.  Certainly, many other difficult situations have tested me since my experience as a school administrator, but I have always strived to honor that silent pledge to myself.

If we as leaders look the other way at the very moment that our leadership is most required, then we inevitably create schools, communities, businesses and societies that run from responsibility and tolerate the intolerable. Is it any wonder then that many students may not find the courage to stand up when it is their turn in the saddle of leadership?

“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” says Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Indeed, leadership is not for the timid. It requires character and consistency, even when the path forward seems impassable. With character as our compass—if we just pledge to do what’s right—we should be able to find our way through even the densest of ethical thickets.

To learn more about leaders of integrity, and the network of New Jersey Schools of Character (as well as other states), join us for the 19th National Forum on Character Education.