Friday, April 01, 2011

Banality of Evil

The NYT had a front-page expose yesterday entitled, "Abused and Used: At State-Run Homes, Abuse and Impunity" (, which documents how hundreds of employees at NY's state-run homes for disabled people have abused patients – yet are rarely disciplined, much less fired, even for crimes like rape.  Here are the first few paragraphs:


Nearly 40 years after New York emptied its scandal-ridden warehouses for the developmentally disabled, the far-flung network of small group homes that replaced them operates with scant oversight and few consequences for employees who abuse the vulnerable population.


A New York Times investigation over the past year has found widespread problems in the more than 2,000 state-run homes. In hundreds of cases reviewed by The Times, employees who sexually abused, beat or taunted residents were rarely fired, even after repeated offenses, and in many cases, were simply transferred to other group homes run by the state.


And, despite a state law requiring that incidents in which a crime may have been committed be reported to law enforcement, such referrals are rare: State records show that of some 13,000 allegations of abuse in 2009 within state-operated and licensed homes, fewer than 5 percent were referred to law enforcement. The hundreds of files examined by The Times contained shocking examples of abuse of residents with conditions like Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy.


At a home upstate in Hudson Falls, two days before Christmas in 2006, an employee discovered her supervisor, Ricky W. Sousie, in the bedroom of a severely disabled, 54-year-old woman. Mr. Sousie, a stocky man with wispy hair, was standing between the woman's legs. His pants were around his ankles, his hand was on her knee and her diaper was pulled down.


The police were called, and semen was found on the victim. But the state did not seek to discipline Mr. Sousie. Instead, it transferred him to work at another home.


Roger Macomber, an employee at a group home in western New York, grabbed a woman in his care, threw her against a fence, and then flung her into a wall, according to a 2007 disciplinary report. He was then assigned to work at another group home.


I'm sending this out because of the many parallels with big, broken school systems – not that people in schools are hitting or sexually abusing children (though this has happened in rare instances), but more broadly because of the utter lack of accountability throughout the system and, in particular, the total impossibility of firing anyone, no matter what they do.  The results of such dysfunctional systems is widespread harm to the very people who are supposed to be helped.  Nobody is deliberately trying to hurt anyone – it's just the banality of evil.  Here's background on this phrase from Wikipedia:

Banality of evil is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt and incorporated in the title of her 1963 work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.[1] It describes the thesis that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but rather by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal.

Explaining this phenomenon, Edward S. Herman has emphasized the importance of "normalizing the unthinkable." According to him, "doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on 'normalization.' This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as 'the way things are done.'"

This reminds me of one of my favorite slides from my school reform presentation (; page 75), which concludes the section showing how low-income and minority children are MUCH more likely to get the worst schools and teachers.  I ask in the title of the slide, "Why is teacher talent distributed so unfairly?" and give this answer:


I don't believe that there's someone in every school system in America that says, "Let's take the most disadvantaged kids, who most need the best teachers and schools, and instead stick them with the worst."  Instead, it's the "banality of evil."  It's just the way the system works:


·         Experienced teachers use seniority to get placed at "good" schools


·         Rookie teachers are disproportionately assigned to schools with teacher shortages (i.e., those serving low-income, minority students)


·         The best principals (who tend to attract the best teachers) tend to end up at more affluent schools


·         Affluent parents demand high-quality principals and teachers – and know how to raise a ruckus if they don't get them

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