Column – Good judgment is better than a policy

Published 3:38 pm Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Legislating morality and decency isn’t easy.

I’ve got battle scars from the time I tried to do so 30 years ago. I offer it as a cautionary tale to the Isle of Wight County School Board, which is trying to fulfill a voter mandate to rid public schools of “divisive” and “sexually explicit” content.

The owner of the newspaper I managed at the time tasked me with rewriting the office dress code, which was vague and, in his mind, not encompassing of the inappropriate attire he was observing, especially on female employees. “Add some detail to cover all contingencies,” he told me.

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And off I went down a rabbit hole for the next 12 months, creating a new problem with every fix of a current one. Mary, who liked to wear her newly prohibited “dressy shorts” on sweltering summer days, protested that Sally’s still-legal skirt was actually shorter and more revealing than her shorts. The sports editor, who could no longer wear his favorite baseball cap in office, whined that the society editor – yes, we still had one of those at the time – still was allowed, by policy, to wear her flowery spring hats.

After the new policy reached about 300 words, with fashion changing and new conflicts still popping up every day, I told the boss that the old policy might not have been so bad after all. It simply said that we were committed to a professional office culture, that attire should match that standard and that possible violations would be reviewed by a three-person committee and addressed directly with the employee.

We went back to the old policy, everybody started dressing better and I returned my full management energy and focus to excellent journalism and advertising sales.

Isle of Wight’s School Board will return to its own attempt to legislate morality this week, already bruised by the experience. Turns out that their tiffs with former Superintendent Jim Thornton were easy compared to tangling with bright, motivated high school students whose college credits and scholarships are at risk from adult-fought culture wars.

Windsor-area School Board member Jason Maresh observed, correctly, during a recent board meeting that the problems parents were experiencing a year ago with objectionable materials have been largely rectified. In other words, the current system is working, thanks to the common-sense leadership of new Superintendent Theo Cramer and faculty and administrators who have a heightened sense of awareness. 

Parents object if they see something they don’t like, their child is quickly exempt from using it and, if deemed egregious enough by administrators, such as with some sexually explicit stuff linked on a middle school website last fall, it’s removed entirely.

That’s a much more efficient process than attempting to foresee, describe and block every “divisive” and “explicit” book or instructional aid that could come down the pipe. Last time I checked, the proposed policies were pushing 2,000 words and getting more confusing by the minute.

The School Board, should it take the plunge, will regret going down that rabbit hole. Take it from one who tried.


Steve Stewart is publisher of The Smithfield Times. His email address is