Public School Battles: May Dispatch

NEAL MCCLUSKEY, CATO INSTITUTE

Some people want schools to have lighthearted, warm environments. Some want them to delve into social commentary, even if it is uncomfortable. Some students just want to wear what they want to wear. And some people either don’t want any of those things, or disagree when lines have been crossed. Here come the battle trends for May.

  • Lighthearted or Wrong-Headed? “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye” is a warning I heard a lot when I was a child. But it turns out we don’t all agree when fun and games turns into something more serious. In May we saw three conflicts that revolved around when someone trying to have fun may have crossed lines, and public school authorities punished them. In South Carolina a white teacher was recorded in a viral video standing on the desk of a sleeping, African-American student and pulling his hair, among other things. The district reportedly forced the teacher to retire, to the consternation of many parents and even the student’s father, who said he “felt like the incident was done in humor.” The teacher was reinstated after her lawyer and district council met to discuss the matter. In Texas, a principal had a tradition of having children come to her office on their birthdays to receive a voluntary, symbolic spanking. It elicited at least three objections, and the principal discontinued the practice. Parent Heather Redder liked the tradition, and said some people are “not used to a small town community… People that move here from the big city, they don’t realize, and they’re not used to this.” Finally, a senior prank went wrong in Independence, Missouri, when a student posted a Craigslist ad selling his high school“due to the loss of students coming up.” The ad was referring to graduating students, but district officials saw it as a potential threat and punished the prankster, forbidding him to walk at graduation. The ACLU came to his defense. “In the hometown of U.S. President Harry Truman and in a place named after one of our nation’s key principles, ‘freedom,’ we hope that the district reconsiders its position and encourages the freedom of speech of our nation’s next generation of leaders,” said ACLU Missouri legal director Tony Rothert.
  • Social Commentary, Or Promoting Violence? Since the horrific Parkland school shooting, gun violence has become a scorching political topic. But where is the line between commenting on violence and promoting it? Two districts saw division over the appropriateness of art commenting on gun violence. In Leander, Texas, some parents objected to the middle school showing the video for the social commentary song “This is America” by Childish Gambino, in which among other targets Gambino is shown shooting a church choir. One father said, “a lot of stuff that’s shown is true but it’s just not right to show to a middle school environment.” In Tacoma, Washington, a principal who is also a rapper was the focus of conflict over lyrics that some thought promoted school shootings. “Give me a reason just to load up a rifle, Pull the fire alarm in the lobby of my high school,” went some of the words. “Leave the halls bloody like a high noon tycoon.” Objected one parent: “No one in a position of authority who is mentoring or monitoring our children, my children, anyone’s children, should be glorifying shooting up a school.” The principal said he wasn’t trying to glorify violence, but to tell a “story of something that happened to a young person that inspired and caused him to commit acts of violence.”
  • Dress Codes: Contending over what is acceptable to wear in school is constant, and remained so in May. In two states we saw officials telling girls to cover up lest they be distracting to boys, or maybe just not live up to community norms of propriety. We also saw a student get punished—and subsequently sue his district—for refusing to remove a t-shirt that read, “Donald J. Trump Border Wall Construction Co.” and “The Wall Just Got 10 Feet Taller.” The shirt violated the dress code prohibiting “clothing decorated with illustrations, words, or phrases that are disruptive or potentially disruptive, and/or that promote superiority of one group over another.” Said the student’s lawyer, “If people are offended by his shirt – that’s their right to be offended. But it’s also his right to have his opinion, as well.” In Montana, there was a lengthy standoff over a Confederate flag sweatshirt. Finally, May saw a battle over a student who had enlisted in the Army and wanted to wear an Army sash at graduation. The request was denied, but not without a struggle. It came down to the student’s pride in her accomplishments and country versus a school’s need to maintain order. While defending the district’s patriotism, the district superintendent said “the rule is in place to prevent student’s writing the silly ‘Hi, Mom’ on the hat and goofy things. We’re trying to keep our graduations somewhat dignified.”

As always, the monthly battles weren’t restricted to these trends. We also witnessed trouble over revolutionary themed prom tickets, disposing of pest animalsevolution, and more. And we had two surveys on our Facebook page. The first asked whether pulling the sleeping student’s hair was “OK” for the teacher to do. 21 percent of respondents said yes, 79 percent no. The second asked about constantly contested territory, the student vaeldictory speech that exalts God, stemming from this skirmish. We asked, “Should valedictorians be able to thank God in a public school graduation speech?” Three quarters of respondents answered yes, one quarter no.

Back in a month with the June Dispatch, then maybe the fighting will subside during summer vacation. Maybe…


Used with permission. Cato Institute / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0