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Walking the Tightrope: How superintendents respond to challenging "rights" issues and the role of law

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(Thesis) Ed.D.
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This study describes how two superintendents understood and responded to challenging ‘rights’ issues within the context of two prominent cases - Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36 and North Vancouver School District No. 44 v. Jubran – which raised important questions about the purpose and expectations of schooling, as well as the limits of tolerance and respect for difference. This study confirmed the importance of collaboration in education, and found that the superintendents’ leadership was most effective while the issue was evolving within the district. Superintendents may have a dual role because often they are mediators of different viewpoints as well as a party to the issue – roles that require different orientations to conflict. As a party, they use law strategically in the best interests of the district, but as a mediator, they may use the law to enhance their understanding of the issue through practices that encourage communication. Thus, superintendents are constantly moving between the collaborative practices that support the relationships that comprise school communities, as well as strategically negotiating the best position for the district. This is a constantly iterative process. The experiences of the superintendents were analyzed using law and the theoretical perspectives of Jurgen Habermas, and law and society scholars. This analysis suggeststhat law has the capacity to provide substantive and procedural tools to superintendents to assist them in their communication and decision-making as a mediator between facts and norms, and between the cultural lifeworld and the systems imperatives that comprise public education. It also appears that law may be more constitutive in public education than acknowledged. Superintendents must communicate instrumentally to meet their legal responsibilities, but they must also communicate for understanding because their work is situated in an environment that values the transmission of social and cultural norms. The philosophies and practices of mediation and restorative justice provide resources for communicating in conflict, and share the collaborative problem solving orientation of the superintendents in this study. Understanding the influence and capacity of law, both substantively and procedurally, may assist superintendents to communicate and make decisions that are morally and legally defensible.
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