The thought police strike again – Amanda S. Green
Recently, a story hit the media in the DFW area about a local high school student being disciplined by his high school for “racially insensitive” comments made in a group tweet. The comments are alluded to but the context in which they were made remains a mystery. (At least I have been unable to determine what they might be.) I have seen nothing describing who might have been taking part in this group text, whether the student in question sent the tweet while on school grounds, while taking part in a sanctioned school activity or while representing himself to be a member of or representative of an organization associated with the school.
Then there was an earlier incident that took place in the same school district – but at a different high school. In that case, students at a pep rally held up a large sign which said “colleyville is going to TRUMP trinity tonight.” It also said, “paid for by Trinity” and had been designed to look like a wall. Few looking at the sign could mistake the message. The more affluent Colleyville Heritage High School students were throwing down on the more racially mixed, lower income Trinity High School, a major football rival, from the neighboring Hurst-Euless-Bedford School District.
Then there was the situation that arose when a 19-year-old student from TCU in Fort Worth was initially suspended from the university and who later had his suspension lifted but was still placed on disciplinary probation. Why? The student had tweeted comments about Islam that the university deemed offensive.
On the surface, each of the cases appear to be similar and, in some ways, they are. They each involved students, whether they be high school or college students. They each took place in the DFW metroplex. (This isn’t something that is exclusive to DFW. If you do a google search, you can find similar situations occurring not only throughout the country but around the world.) They each have led to either new rules or to disciplining of the students involved or both.
So what are the differences and why am I up in arms?
Let’s start with the TCU case first. For those of you not familiar with the university, Texas Christian University is a private, religious-based university. That means it can set rules about how its students behave that publicly funded institutions might not be able to get away with. It also means there is a student code of conduct which will be much more restrictive that you will find with most public universities. A code of conduct that is enforced. So, while I applaud the university for backing off of the suspension, I can’t argue too much about it keeping the 19-year-old student on probation. He had violated the school’s code of conduct.
Now, that doesn’t mean I agree with the code of conduct but the student chose to go to TCU. That means he agreed to the code of conduct and either didn’t read it or didn’t think the university would enforce it.
My issue comes with public schools, especially junior and senior high schools, that become thought police. I’ll admit that schools have the right to enforce rules of conduct when students are on school district property, when they are taking part in officially sanctioned activities or when they are representing the school in some “official” capacity. By that, I mean I have no problem with school districts disciplining band members on a trip to a competition who trash their hotel rooms or cheerleaders in uniform caught drinking alcohol or football players hazing new members, etc.
My issue comes when school districts start trying to police what students say or think when they are NOT representing the schools. In the latest case, yes, the student was foolish for posting a tweet that contained racially “insensitive” language. But, if he wasn’t representing the school or wasn’t on school grounds at that time he sent the tweet, does the school have any right to discipline him?
In my mind, no.
Let me give another scenario. When my son was in elementary school, there was another kid who kept picking on one of my son’s friends. His friend was a great kid, lots of fun, but he was smaller than some of the others in their class. This other kid took to picking on the friend, trying to get him to throw the first punch. But, my son’s friend was smart and remembered the zero-tolerance rule.
However, the day finally came when my son’s friend had enough. This time, however, the bully wasn’t smart enough to pick the fight on school grounds. They boys were almost a block away from the school. He pushed and picked at the friend one too many time and the friend wound up wiping the floor with him.
That should have been the end of it but nope. The school had to get involved. Why? Because an assistant principal had seen the fight happen. It didn’t matter it was well off the school grounds. It didn’t matter that the friend didn’t throw the first punch or that he – and his parents, as well as other students – had reported the bully time and again. Nor did it matter that the school had done absolutely nothing to stop the bully. Oh no. Punches were thrown and the bully’s feelings got hurt and his nose bloodied. So the friend was even more at fault than the bully was.
And remember, this took place off school grounds.
The administration immediately took action against both boys, giving them in-school suspension. For an action that took place off school grounds and under absolutely no conditions that could tie what happened to the school or the administration. It took the friends’ parents threatening to sue not only the district but the administrators involved to have the kid’s suspension lifted. Even then, they were told it would be best if they moved their son to another school.
That’s right. The kid who had been the victim and who only stood up to protect himself, was being told to leave the school. For something that took place off school grounds. And for something that could have been avoided if action had been taken before blows were thrown.
The only reason the admin wasn’t able to get away with it was because the action took place off district property and at a time when the students weren’t taking part in anything associated with the school or the district.
So, getting back to the policing of thoughts and words by schools, I also have no problem with Colleyville Heritage disciplining those students who put up the “wall” sign at the pep rally. Why? It was an officially sanctioned school activity. It took place on school property. Except, well, there is one little problem. At that time, there were few, if any, rules in place in the school or the district governing what signs could say. There was no official committee with guidelines that had to approve signs before they could be shown at school activities. Therefore, if the students received anything more than unofficial counseling, the school and the district overstepped.
What about the tweet?
This is where things get a bit more difficult to come up with a firm response. There have been few details about the context given. We know it came after a basketball game. But I haven’t seen how long after the game or, as noted earlier, where the student was when he made the tweet. We don’t know if there is anything about his Twitter handle that associates him with the school, etc.
Where do we draw the line? If schools are going to start disciplining students over what they post on Twitter, etc., are they also going to patrol their parking lots and make sure students aren’t listening to “offensive” music? Can you imagine the uproar if there were monitors going around, telling students they can’t listen to rap music because it has the reputation of using “offensive” language and for denigrating women? The uproar won’t come from the students, although they will be sure to let you know how they feel about it. Nope, the uproar will come from adults who will be screaming racism because most rappers are not white, Anglo males. Yet, if you are disciplining students for tweeting racially insensitive comments, why are you allowing them to sit in the parking lot, blaring out music that does basically the same thing? (Not all of it but enough that the genre has that reputation.)
Are schools going to start policing what is said or done in the privacy of a home? (Remember, there has already been at least one school/district that had the laptops sent home with students set so video ran and teachers could check to see what was happening in the home.)
What I’m seeing is an attempt to police what our kids are thinking and saying. It isn’t teaching them anything but how to resent authority. It is an attempt to quell free speech. Does this mean I think students, or anyone, should go around spouting racist comments? Hell no. But I also don’t believe it is something school should be trying to combat when students AREN’T AT SCHOOL.
One of the strengths of this country is that we have the freedom to say or think pretty much whatever we want. However, that is quickly eroding and that scares the hell out of me. I may not like what someone says but I have the option of either walking away from them, ignoring them or trying to have a discourse with them. That was easier back in the days before social media. Maybe that’s why we see more and more about schools and employers, etc., taking steps to make sure people associated with them don’t do bad think.
However, where do we draw the line? Sure, an employer has the right to protect its brand. But does that give them the right to punish an employee who says something offensive even if the statement cannot be associated with the employer? For example, say a person is at a football game and gets caught up in what was going on and shouts something about a player that comments on race, religion or sexual orientation and that comment is shown on the jumbotron. That person is dressed in team colors for the home team. There is nothing about them that identifies them as working for Company X. They aren’t high enough in the organization that no one outside of those they work directly with know who they are and who they work for. Does the company have the right to punish the worker for what they said, especially if there is no company code of conduct in place?
I say no. Again, if the company is really worried about it, an unofficial counseling might be called for. But even then, it isn’t any of the company’s concern – as long as the person involved doesn’t act that way when doing their job and doesn’t act that way in such a manner that it calls attention to the company.
The same thing applies to students, in my opinion. In fact, there is something else we need to consider here. Do we really want to stop our younger generation from speaking its mind? Sure, some of the stuff coming out of their mouths will be objectionable. But how do they learn if they don’t make mistakes. Believe me, they will remember the lesson a great deal better if they are told by their peers why what they said crossed the line than they will if an administrator lands on them with both feet. It’s called peer pressure and it goes to what matters most to a teen.
Schools need to remember that their role is to educate and not indoctrinate. Parents need to remember that their role is to parent and guide. Somewhere along the way, too many parents forgot that and schools, with approval from the local, state and federal governments have become more indoctrination camps than institutions of learning. It’s time we either turn that clock back or we find alternatives. Otherwise, we are going to find ourselves having to wonder what new unwritten rule our kids – or ourselves – have violated and how that will impact the student’s ability to get into college, etc.
I may not agree with what someone says but, as long as they aren’t yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater, I’ll fight for their right to say it. Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves and to learn from it.