Clinton's Troubles a Tough Issue for Teachers
Each weekday, in the middle of the night, a videotape recorder at Skowhegan Area Middle School in Maine automatically whirs to life and records a classroom news show produced by the Cable News Network, to be shown to students later in the day.
Many times in recent weeks, teacher Kathy Evans has wondered what the show, "CNN Newsroom," would have to say about the allegations that President Clinton had an affair with a former White House intern and lied under oath to conceal it.
"I asked my kids, 'What do you think they are going to open with today?'" she said last week. "The kids all say Clinton."
Ms. Evans, a language arts teacher at the school in central Maine, has tried to steer her discussion of current events away from the more salacious aspects of the story toward such issues as presidential character, honesty, and due process in the judicial system.
"They have understood from day one that none of these allegations are proven," she said of her 8th graders. "They seem to be very open-minded and not judgmental."
An independent federal counsel is investigating the allegations that Mr. Clinton had a sexual liaison with Monica Lewinsky and that he committed perjury and obstructed justice in trying to conceal the affair. The president has strongly denied the allegations.
All over the country, educators and parents have worried about how to deal with children's interest in the unfolding story. The essence was captured last week by the comic strip "Doonesbury," in which a school brought in a "scandal facilitator" to counsel 3rd graders. The punchline was that the supposedly confused youngsters already knew all the intimate details.
"It's the kind of story you just can't avoid dealing with," said Carvil Day, a history and government teacher at Renton (Wash.) High School.
"First, I asked them what they heard," he said of his students. "Part of it was the sexual improprieties. I tried to separate that from the allegations of obstruction of justice."
Educators and others say that if dealt with properly, the matter can be the basis for a "teachable moment" to address such issues as presidential character, the legal system, and the power of the news media.
Richard Diem, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies and an education professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said he asked his teacher education students, "How do you teach kids about controversial issues?"
At first, he said, they said they would be uncomfortable addressing the allegations in the classroom. "But after a discussion, they were ready to tackle it," Mr. Diem said.
TV and Magazines
Teachers are getting some help in tackling the story from a variety of classroom media. While many young people are undoubtedly hearing some of the details from their parents and from perusing grownup news sources, others are getting the news right in the classroom.
Ms. Evans, the teacher at Skowhegan Area Middle School in Maine, said the "CNN Newsroom" program has been responsible in its coverage of the matter.
"They've dealt with it honestly," she said. And while the story has dominated the news for nearly a month, the half-hour, commercial-free daily show has not dwelled on it every day.
Meanwhile, the producers of the advertising-supported classroom show Channel One said last week that they had barely mentioned the story in the preceding two weeks, after doing several stories when news organizations first reported the allegations.
"We have stayed away from the world of rumor and innuendo," said Andy Hill, the president for programming at Channel One. "Most of the news business has been so caught up in the frenzy to be first."
Mr. Hill shared a letter from a classroom teacher who thanked the producers for not "jumping into the media feeding frenzy" surrounding the allegations.
Channel One is a 12-minute daily program aimed primarily at high schools. It is owned by New York City-based Primedia Inc., formerly K-III Communications Corp.
The story has also been handled delicately by classroom publications, which have taken different approaches depending on the age group of their readers.
My Weekly Reader, the venerable news magazine for elementary school children, has not run anything about the matter and has no plans to do so.
"We chose not to do anything until there is a resolution as to whether there is truth being told," said Sandra Maccarone, the editor in chief of Weekly Reader, which is also owned by Primedia.
She said parents she consulted were emphatic that they did not want their children to read about the allegations in one of the nine versions of Weekly Reader publications.
Editors at Scholastic Corp. heard pretty much the same thing from elementary school educators and child-development experts, so they have left the matter out of elementary editions of their news magazines.
They did publish advice for teachers and parents on dealing with children's questions. One piece of advice: Some younger children aren't looking for a detailed explanation of allegations they may have heard. A short answer to their questions may suffice.
"At the secondary level, our advisers told us differently," said Ernest B. Fleishman, Scholastic's senior vice president for education. "They said our kids need information on presidential scandals."
So this week, the new edition of the high school magazine Scholastic Update includes an article that discusses Watergate and other White House scandals of the past.
"One of our concerns is that as kids get hammered with scandals, they may become cynical or apathetic," Mr. Fleishman added. "We want to remind them that public service is still admirable and important."
The most recent entrant in the field of classroom publications is Time For Kids, a junior version of Time magazine. Time For Kids Editor Claudia Wallis worried in an essay in the regular version of Time about her 11-year-old son's question about oral sex, a term that has been ubiquitous in the news coverage of the allegations.
While she provided her own child a brief explanation, she wondered in print how all the allegations should be addressed for the 1.7 million young readers of her magazine.
Because they did not want to be the ones to introduce the topic, the editors left any discussion of the allegations out of their primary-grades edition, which goes to 2nd and 3rd grade students.
But in the main edition, which goes to 4th through 6th graders, Time For Kids ran a short sidebar about the allegations next to a recent cover story about the president's State of the Union Address.
The story on "Presidential Problems" briefly discussed the reports that Mr. Clinton "had a young girlfriend named Monica Lewinsky."
"We felt we should do something short, simple, and clear," Ms. Wallis said in an interview last week. "The word 'girlfriend' can sound as innocent or suggestive as a kid can want it to be. It is a familiar word. There were a lot of words we didn't use. We didn't use adultery. We did not mention sex."
Michael Berger, a 4th grade teacher at St. John the Baptist School in Northampton, Pa., said he felt lucky that his students at the Roman Catholic school have not had a lot of sex-related questions.
"The kids didn't really push it," he said. "One of the things we did talk about was the fact that these were allegations and they weren't all necessarily true."
Teachers have been able to use the story to discuss broader themes about government and the presidency, as well as examine the role of the news media.
"It's important for teachers to shift it to the constitutional issues like due process," said George Cassutto, a social studies teacher at North Hagerstown (Md.) High School.
Like several other educators interviewed, Mr. Cassutto said many young people do not seem concerned about the allegations that Mr. Clinton was unfaithful to his wife.
"There is a very liberal view about personal affairs," Mr. Cassutto said. "That may be a reflection of the fact their parents are from the baby boom generation."
Such attitudes concern some social conservatives.
"Truth-telling, respect for the law, and respect for marriage--these are important things for young people to learn in school," said Bob Morrison, an education policy analyst with the Family Research Council in Washington. "We definitely think that private behavior is illustrative of a person's character."
Thomas Lickona, a professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland, said the matter provides an excellent opportunity for teachers to discuss presidential character and moral leadership with their students.
"A class could be engaged in what qualities are important in a president," said Mr. Lickona, the author of Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility.
"A president has to set a good example for the rest of the nation," he added. "If he acts in ways that are dishonest and unjust, that tends to lower the whole moral standard by which people behave."
Another advocate of character education in schools, Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University in Washington, said no one can expect the president to be "inhuman."
"Assuming certain things about the facts, the question is did he show the right amount of self-control," said Mr. Etzioni, a sociologist and an organizer of several White House conferences on character education that have been held during the Clinton administration.
In fact, he is currently planning the next such conference, which is coming up in June. The allegations about Mr. Clinton make for an awkward circumstance, acknowledged Mr. Etzioni, the founder of the Communitarian Network, a group that has worked to foster what it sees as a better balance between individual rights and responsibility to the community.
In contrast to many calls for the president to be more forthright in responding to the allegations, he said people should empathize with Mr. Clinton.
"When you ask a person to be completely honest about the most intimate part of his life, are you not pushing him into lying?" said Mr. Etzioni, who is a longtime acquaintance of the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"I think the American people have shown remarkable self-control" in judging the president, he added. "We're not going to chase him out after a few weeks of trial in the media. Not rushing to judgment is very important as an ethical person. Children should understand how important that is."