Unless you’ve been living under a rock, pun intended, you’ve probably read this story about how Traverse City West High School principals Joe Esper and Assistant Principal Charles Kolbusz got in trouble for taking matters into their own hands and burying the West Middle School spirit rock. While Esper and Kolbusz usually dish out the suspensions, now they’re on the receiving end as Traverse City Area Public Schools Superintendent Paul Soma handed down unpaid suspensions for three and five days a piece for the excavation escapade.
All of this over West High School’s spirit rock. It was a large rock that sat near one of the entrances to the school. Students painted it. Some of the messages were inspirational, and others were indisputably inappropriate.
In an episode that not even the writers of Vice Principals could have scripted, the principals had enough of policing the controversial rock, and they decided to take matters into their own hands, literally. Lacking a better way to dispose of the rock, the principals took a backhoe to the rock and buried it. It was as effective as it was hilarious.
Digging a Hole For Themselves
Superintendent Paul Soma claims that the principal pair violated Michigan law by failing to call Miss Dig before they buried the rock. (“Hello, school principal here. Sick of the giant the rock the kids are always painting swear words and body parts on. Just let me know where I can bury it, anywhere will do.”) Miss Dig is a government entity that helps identify utility lines before people dig so that they don’t damage the lines as they dig. Soma also claims that the two didn’t answer honestly when he asked them what happened to the rock.
What the Law Says
Michigan law 460.725 says that excavators must give at least 72 hours notice to Miss Dig before they dig. Yes, a vice principal with a backhoe burying a giant rock meets the definition of an excavator, I checked. It’s true that the vice principals broke the law.
However, a read of MCL 460.731 reveals that there isn’t a penalty when it’s a government agency that breaks the law. Miss Dig can’t even fine the principals or the school for what happened. It’s a violation of law but not a crime or even a civil infraction. Miss Dig could authorize a complaint against the principals if they had caused damage. Since they didn’t, it’s violation of law without a real penalty. It’s a case of no victim = no crime.
So did the vice principals violate the law? Yes, but they violated a law with no teeth to it. The law doesn’t even allow Miss Dig or a civil court to point a finger of shame. If you break a law without a penalty, is it a crime?
What about lying?
Soma says the principals conspired to figuratively cover up the dirty deed by lying to him about what happened. The vice principals dispute the account. We’ll have to leave that disagreement to the trier of fact.
First Amendment Violations?
As for free speech arguments, there aren’t any. The government has the right to place reasonable restrictions on the time and place of free speech. Surely the millions of other high school students without access to a decoratable rock aren’t lacking for first amendment protections.
Where Does It Go From Here?
Did the principals break a law? Sort of. Should they have told the truth? Probably. Does it rise to the level of discipline that’s drastic by TCAPS standards? No.
Building principals do tough work every day. They should have the authority to solve their own problems without having to worry about second guessing from administrators who don’t have boots on the ground. The principals buried the rock, and Soma should bury the hatchet, and we should try to put TCAPS on the map for the achievement of our students.