Dear Prudence answers readers' questions live at Washingtonpost.com.

Dear Prudence answers readers' questions live at Washingtonpost.com.

Dear Prudence answers readers' questions live at Washingtonpost.com.

Advice on manners and morals.
Feb. 1 2010 2:39 PM

The Pervy Principal

Prudie counsels a school worker whose boss trolls Internet porn on the job—and other advice seekers.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. A transcript of this week's chat is below. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. Let's get started.

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Phoenix: I work as a computer technician in a high school. One day last week when I was working late, I accidentally dialed in to the principal's computer, which is one digit off from our server's address. He was scrolling through pornographic Web sites. I didn't even realize whose computer I'd connected to until I went back to check the address. I have always been annoyed by the fact that, during my daily monitoring of the network, I would see that he spent a large portion of the school day on sports Web sites. Now I'm really irritated if this is what he's doing when people assume he's so dedicated to his work that he stays those extra hours. He knows that we monitor the network during the day, but I don't think he figures anybody looks at what goes on after hours, which we usually don't. More disgusting is the fact that the girls on these sites are probably not much older than his daughter, who is a student at this school. If this were a student or a teacher, the principal is who I would report the occurrence to. I've never had to report a student or a teacher for anything like what the principal is doing. So, do I report him, and if so, to whom? At the very least, I feel I need to have the Web sites he was viewing blocked so students can't get into them. Sites like that are usually blocked anyway, so I don't know how he was able to find those that weren't (he's not a very technology savvy). If I ask the district office to block the sites, it will want to know how they were discovered. Being female myself, it can get a little uncomfortable reporting these kinds of things to the group of men who run things at the district.

Emily Yoffe: I am not defending porn, but as a society I believe we have gone too far in the direction of ruining people's lives because of their viewing habits. In particular, prosecuting teenagers and labeling them lifetime sex offenders for "sexting" is itself a crime. A school principal has a few dozen screws loose if he thinks scrolling porn at work is a good hobby. (And porn sites show young women; you don't say he's looking at child porn.) However, if you report him, it almost certainly will mean the end of his career. If you don't want to end his career, as uncomfortable as it may be, you should tell him that in the course of your duties, you found that he was looking at porn on school servers. Tell him this is something you probably should report, but you wanted to give him a (ahem) heads up, and that if it stops, you will not say anything. However, you should perhaps preserve the evidence in case he is a true jerk and turns on you.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: I think I need to break up with my therapist, and I'm not sure how to do it. She's helped me a lot in the past, but I think she's trying to move me in a direction that doesn't work for me. My life has changed a lot recently (job changes, etc.), and I'm not happy with her. The thing is, she can be really intimidating, and I know she will try to coerce me into staying. What do I do?

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Emily Yoffe: A therapist who is intimidating and tries to coerce you is not a good therapist. Even a relationship with a wonderful therapist can run its course. But if you're afraid to be honest with your therapist, that says the therapeutic relationship is dead. You can call and cancel your appointments and say you're going to stop coming. Or you can show up for your appointment and say this is your final one and you'd like to use it for "wrapping up." If she starts making you uncomfortable, cut her off, pay your bill, and leave. You can tell her one thing therapy has done for you is to enable you to stand up for yourself better.

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Rockville, Md.: I've been (for the most part) happily married for several years, and I'm not sure how much weight to give the following issue. My husband and I share a lot of inside jokes. He's a naturally goofy person, and I usually enjoy this aspect of his personality. However, when I'm trying to discuss something, I would say nine times out of 10, he'll interject with a stupid joke (particularly if I inadvertently use a word from one of our "inside jokes"). Most of the time, it's merely a nuisance, as I'm just recanting a story from my day. But he'll also do this when I'm discussing a serious topic, like an illness of a friend or a family issue that's been troubling me.

It makes me feel like he doesn't really care about what I have to say. I've told him that this bothers me and why, but he hasn't made any serious effort to change. (Sometimes, instead of making the joke, he'll just make an exaggerated face that indicates he's suppressing the joke. Not much better.) I've halted my story in the middle of it, which only serves to frustrate me, as I'd really like to be able to go to my husband for support. If I go ahead and finish the story/discussion anyway, he'll listen, but his attention span is short, and I don't feel like he's really listening anyway.

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Any suggestions on how to handle this better, or should I just get over it? Am I overreacting here?

Emily Yoffe: Private jokes and teasing are wonderful—they are a great way of cementing intimacy. But as you know, they can also be a way of distancing yourself from true emotional closeness, which is what your husband is doing. Tell him you need to have a discussion about how you discuss things and the ground rules of this discussion are: no "inside jokes." Explain that you love your private language in its place, but you two need a way to have more serious discussions without ruining the mood. Tell him you need a way to signal that you want some joke-free time. Maybe by saying perfectly straight-forwardly, "Babe, I need to talk about something with you—joke-free for now." If he can't do it, then tell him you want to see a counselor to help you two establish some better ways to communicate. (I know the therapist in the letter above has some free time—but don't go to her.)

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Indianapolis: My ex-fiance and I were engaged for nine months before we broke up. We'd been together for a long time and as the wedding approached, we gradually realized we were getting married because it seemed like the next step, not because it was something we really wanted to do. We ended things on pretty good terms a few weeks ago, and she has moved into her own place.

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So what about the ring? I spent a lot of money on it, and while I was happy to do it at the time, the engagement has ended, and it would be really nice to have it back. I don't work in a recession-proof industry, and I'm facing some job uncertainty. Is it appropriate for me to ask for the ring back or is that something she is supposed to offer?

Emily Yoffe: You should have already gotten it back. The ring was not just any piece of jewelry, but an announcement of your engagement, and since you aren't getting married, the ring reverts to you. Since she hasn't given it back, you might have some trouble getting it back. If you run into a problem, you can cite any number of etiquette books to back you up. But if she won't budge, you probably don't want to take her to small-claims court. If she's intransigent, comfort yourself that the cost of a ring is a small price to pay for being released from marrying the wrong woman.

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Principal Porn: Um, Prudie, depending on the rules of the county where that tech works, she may be required by law to report what she's found. If she doesn't, she could be fired herself. And besides—this man is the leader of a school, and he is using school resources to follow this prurient hobby. This is completely unacceptable, and it is TOTALLY worth turning him in. Whether it ruins his career is his own problem, though in my school district, people with problems like this usually get removed from their schools and given jobs downtown in the school board's building for more pay and more responsibility. It is very hard to get fired once you're embedded in a school system.

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Emily Yoffe: I knew my answer raised its own issues and perhaps was indefensible. I agree his behavior is unacceptable. If she knows that she is required to report any such activity, she should have gone ahead and done it. I do have a gripe with the fact that we have criminalized so much behavior that people don't have a chance to be warned and fix their lapses in judgment; they just get tossed into career-ending (or potentially life-destroying, as in sexting kids having to register as sex offenders) legal proceedings. Thanks for the perspective and the cynical laugh about what prompts some school administrators' promotions.

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About Phoenix: I must say I disagree with the computer technician keeping her mouth shut about finding the PRINCIPAL of a HIGH SCHOOL viewing porn AT SCHOOL!! If anyone else finds out what she knows, she can easily lose her own job as well. Why should she protect this pervert? If he was at home, whatever. But the fact that he's doing it at school suggests he either has some kind of an obsession/compulsion about it, and/or he's trying to hide it from his wife. Not someone I want to give the power of guiding my children's future. She needs to gather her evidence, take it the superintendent, and then let it go. If nothing happens to the loser, well, she did what she could and can move on from the incident. Then she's protected if it does come out in the future.

Emily Yoffe: OK, as Ann Landers used to say, I deserve to be lashed with a wet noodle (unless that refers to an extremely deviant porn site). I didn't say she should keep her mouth shut. She said she recently discovered he had viewed such sites after hours. I am absolutely not defending him—there's no defense! I was torn between immediately turning him in and letting him know this needs to stop immediately. But I'll accept that he doesn't deserve a warning, and she may be required to simply report him.

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Tell the Principal???: Uh, no. Hold on to the evidence, and pull it out if you ever need it.

I had a similar situation where I saw the dean at my institution engaged in the same activities. I saved the logs and held onto them. Then one day my girlfriend, a T.A., caught a student plagiarizing. Turns out the plagiarist was a university favorite and his family had given much dinero to the school.

When the dean said the plagiarism thing needed to go away, my girlfriend said, "No it won't." She then walked the dean through the logs as he turned ghost white. Never have you seen such a principled stand on the part of an academic dean against the "malignancy" of donations undermining academic integrity!

So, you know, pocket those logs. They could turn out to be very helpful some day.

Emily Yoffe: This sounds like screenplay material! And actually it supports those who are criticizing me for my original answer. It's better not to get involved in blackmail, although your case had a delightful twist outcome.

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Principal Porn: Don't back down so easily, Prudence!! I know his behavior is wrong, but I agree that we are too quick to criminalize and label lapses in judgment. He should be given a chance or a warning to fix the problem. And, people, he's not looking at child pornography!! Most women in that industry look young.

Emily Yoffe: This is the original point I was trying to make—and I am getting some late-breaking defenders. (Thank you for clicking off the porn sites to come to my rescue!) I still think in many cases people should be given a chance to correct their behavior. But I agree that I made a mistake by using a high-school principal as my civil-liberties test case. There is no way this guy doesn't know that porn on school servers is very bad news and is reportable. But I will stand by my point that we have criminalized so much behavior that we have taken away the ability to make humane individual judgments about lapses.

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Washington, D.C.: I am in a bit of a situation. I'm a 37 year old professional woman, and I have just discovered that I am pregnant by my live-in boyfriend of three years. At the heart of the matter, we are in a loving, stable relationship; the baby is frankly a bit of a miracle to me, and we are well-set-up with good careers to make a go of this. On the surface, however, I am an unwed Jezebel who has to figure out how to tell our friends and families that there will be a quickie wedding sometime in the spring and a baby sometime in the late summer/fall. Any advice on how to approach the telling? When should we start telling people, and is there a stigma attached to this sort of thing? Is there any way we can pull this off with grace and humor? I'll find out my due date at the end of this week. We haven't figured out a wedding date, or whether we will have a reception.

Emily Yoffe: A stigma? If you look at the statistics (40 percent of children in the country are born to unwed mothers), a large percentage of the population unfortunately thinks that marriage is too precious and difficult an institution to enter into simply because a couple is having a child. That you two are getting married and reproducing in short order will only delight your friends and loved ones. Do not be defensive and embarrassed. You unexpectedly find yourself expecting a cornucopia of happiness, so go ahead and celebrate, even if it's obvious at the reception that you two are already a threesome.

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Phoenix: I am a high-school principal, and I have agreed to serve on my district's task force aimed at fostering safer and more productive Internet use among our students. One unpleasant aspect of this work is that I have to visit a number of distasteful sites where our students have reportedly visited—generally pornographic Web sites. I've stayed late to do this work so that it won't interfere with my regular duties.

The problem is that one of our computer technicians seems to be taking an unhealthy interest in what I'm doing. It's almost like I'm being stalked. Should I speak to this person, or just ignore it?

Emily Yoffe: Thanks for the laugh. Actually, someone else quite seriously just wrote in that his legal work once required him to look at porn sites, the IT person raised questions, and he was able to show it was because of research for a lawsuit. The reader response is running about 50-50 right now.

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Engagement rings: The poster brings up a valid topic. What is it with engagement rings costing so much? I'm a woman, and personally, when I see a super large engagement ring, I think "house down payment."

I may be in the minority, and I'm single, so what do I know about marriage; but if I can choose between a big ring and a happy marriage, I'll take the happy marriage!

Emily Yoffe: I'm with you on the rocks. If you've got the cash to pay for one, it won't affect your other budgeting decisions, and it really matters to both of you, fine. If you're buying a ring on a payment plan, and it's a stretch, then get something out of a box of Cracker Jack to show your love. For the record, I only wear a gold band and don't feel deprived. (OK, my now-husband did say when we got engaged, "You're not really a jewelry person, so you don't want a stupid engagement ring, right?" Maybe I'm just bitter.)

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Baltimore: There is totally ZERO tolerance when it comes to kids breaking rules: pre-schoolers get suspended for long hair, elementary kids suspended for drawing stick figures with guns, high schoolers get kicked off of athletic teams because a picture showing them at a party where drinking was involved shows up on Facebook. The administration should be held to at least the same standards. My personal feeling is that we have taken all of this witch-hunting way too far. But since it is there, let's at least be fair across all lines.

Emily Yoffe: The chat got hijacked by porn, today—but there have been so many interesting reactions that it was worth it. I agree with the point you're making that there's a mass insanity of zero tolerance that should be stopped. But how do you stop it by saying, "If the kids are being treated unfairly, so should the principal." But in this case a high-school principal looking at porn at school (even if after hours) is not some kid making a foolish mistake. A part of me does still feel people generally should get the benefit of the doubt. But I understand those who say a high-school principal who does this has serious judgment problems—and then he's going to punish others for their lapses!

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Anonymous: Tech girl here. As far as I know, there aren't any legal rules toward reporting his "activities." I don't think it's something they really planned to need rules for. If it were a student, they would most likely have Internet access on their account suspended for the school year, since they sign a technology agreement saying privileges can be taken away if the rules are violated. As for his job position, our district also has a way of trying to hide these types of things from the public. By moving the "problem people" to the (higher paying) jobs at the district office and away from student or public interaction, they feel they can hide the issue and not make themselves look bad. BTW ... in case you're wondering, I'm not using work time or hardware on this chat. It's my lunch break and my personal computer, off campus.

Emily Yoffe: Thanks for clarifying why I shouldn't report you for writing to this chat. So "Tech Girl," you've read the pros and cons—what are you going to do?

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Porn Surfing Principal: The technician should alert her supervisor of her discovery. Surfing porn at school is not a crime per se, but it certainly is against the district's acceptable use policy, which presumably the principal is bound by.

Most districts will not fire an administrator for a first offense like that as long as it is an isolated incident; more likely he'll get reprimanded, maybe suspended without pay for a time, and the tech department will be asked to monitor his surfing history more closely.

In fact, I just attended a Webinar last week about this very subject: "Forensics: Identifying, Investigating, and Prosecuting Online Misconduct in Your District." Google it.

This tech should watch the Webinar, then speak to her supervisor, or to someone at the district level.

Emily Yoffe: Here's some advice for dealing with the porn principal from someone in the know. No wonder our schools are failing our kids—all the administrators are otherwise engaged!

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Unwed mother: Do we seriously have to use this term any more—it seems pejorative. You never hear "unwed father." And as for the institution of marriage being "too difficult" to enter into for the sake of children? I just met the mother of my boyfriend's child, and let me just say that I respect him more for NOT marrying her. Perhaps he shouldn't have made a baby with her, but marrying her for the sake of their (lovely) child would have been disastrous all around.

Emily Yoffe: I've heard "unwed father," but since in these cases the bulk of the child rearing usually falls to the mother, you hear "unwed mother" more. I prefer "unwed father" to "baby daddy," which is widely used and makes it sound all cuddly and cute. I agree that reproducing with an unsuitable person is a poor idea.

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Principled: The problem with zero-tolerance rules/laws is that they're applied to populations who haven't had the chance to develop good judgment.

But school principals, church pastors, and a variety of other professionals aren't supposed to be picked from that group. They're hired to exercise good judgment, and once they've demonstrated a major failure in that area, they're no longer entitled to serve in that capacity. Doesn't mean they're necessarily criminals, or should be considered unemployable—even by the organization that caught them out. Just not in that capacity.

Emily Yoffe: Well, it's time to wrap up, and I haven't heard back from the tech about what she's going to do. As for these observations, you make a good point that people in certain positions are and should be held to a higher standard. I would hope if the principal gets reported, he gets a serious rebuke, but that unless there are extenuating circumstances, he also gets to make amends and continue on the job. If he is otherwise a good principal (who maybe spends too much on-school time on sports sites), I hate to see one mistake be a career ender.

Thanks all for a very provocative chat.

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Anonymous: Me again. I just want to thank everyone for their input. I really didn't think this would take over the entire chat. I'm thinking I'll check with someone at the district office about what "theoretically" would happen in the case of staff not following the rules set in place for the students, then see if we can have the staff sign some sort of technology use agreement so we have rules set in place for them as well. At the very least, I want the principal to have to follow the same rules because guess who's going to have to fix his computer when he downloads a virus.

Emily Yoffe: P.S. A late-breaking update from "Tech Girl"! That sounds like a fair-minded solution. And if after all that he keeps at it, he should be looking for another line of work.