In light of the recent harassment and intimidation of a student at Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, we look back and note the craven nature of despotic school administrators.
Law & Justice In Everyday Life, 2nd edition
Chapter 6, Civil Rights And Freedom Of Speech
Enclave Of Totalitarianism
June 11, 2001
This week's Bertrand Russell Award is shared by the knuckleheads who run the Stonington Public Schools.
Russell, the eminent British philosopher, defined an intellectual this way: someone who has been educated beyond his intelligence.
From the Stonington High School suspension monitor to the assistant principal, the principal and the superintendent, there is a common thread of incompetence that insults the Three Stooges and their prime back-up, Shemp.
At least the students are getting a taste of the real world. They won't be as shocked, coming out of Stonington High, when they find that merit, fairness and justice aren't necessarily hallmarks of the workplace.
Our story begins with what might have been an innocuous event, the campaign for student government. Advisers to the student government refused to sign papers authorizing one youngster to run. His friends and supporters, naturally upset, displayed signs proclaiming, "Let Tristan Run."
The unauthorized candidate, Tristan Kading, was threatened with a 10-day suspension, "for inciting a riot."
"I was just sitting there," he told his mother.
School officials decided an apology was in order - not from them, but from the student they had threatened. Young Kading submitted a written apology for trying to participate in the political process and having a few supporters.
Punishment is pretty high on the totem pole of imperatives at Stonington High School. Still higher is humiliation. Free speech and civil rights, well, that's OK if it's confined to a certain course of study. Depends on who you are, too, just like in real life.
It all hit the fan when McDonald's came to Stonington High. There was a mandatory assembly, a movie about how great it was to work at McDonald's and even a chance to fill out job applications for free coupons. This is the way School Superintendent Michael McKee, Principal Stephen Murphy, Assistant Principal John Jones and suspension monitor Bill Garraty prepare students for life.
During the assembly, a star athlete talked about playing with himself, drawing rounds of applause. He was not disciplined.
During his interview, Tristan Kading told the McDonald's representative he hated large corporations like McDonald's that destroy South American rain forests to raise beef and falsely advertise beef-flavored French fries as vegetables.
Suspension monitor Garraty told Kading he was a "disgrace" to the school. This harangue went all the way up the food chain. Kading was coerced into reading an apology over the public address system in which he admitted: "If I was a teacher, I'd hate to have me as a student because I am bad."
Once they find the right lawyer, the Kading family might syndicate their own version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire."
Shame on you, school board lawyers, for being shills for petty oppressors and school-yard bullies who have advanced degrees. Will you really condone this for a price? Will you twist your interpretations of Supreme Court rulings to silence victims and placate your paymasters?
Now is the time for good people to rise up and throw the bums out of the Stonington school system.
Wrong On Education, Wrong On Law
June 18, 2001
Looking for some truth and beauty? Try the Connecticut constitution and the Connecticut Supreme Court's free speech ruling in the 1995 Linares case.
"Our state constitution bestows greater expressive rights on the public than that afforded by the federal constitution," the Connecticut Supremes wrote in State of Connecticut v. Linares. "Our state constitution is an instrument of progress, it is intended to stand for a great length of time and should not be interpreted too narrowly or too literally so that it fails to have contemporary effectiveness for all our citizens. This concern for contemporary effectiveness would be undermined if we followed federal forum analysis, which affords the most rigorous protection of speech only at traditional forums and narrowly defines traditional forums to exclude modern public gathering places often otherwise compatible with public expression."
Clearly and overwhelmingly, the Linares decision rejects the public versus non-public forum distinction that is used under the U.S. Constitution.
"I doubt whether one in 100 students know about the Connecticut constitution; few lawyers know about it either," said attorney Wesley Horton, a constitutional expert.
Attorney Tom Mooney, who wrote the book "Connecticut School Law," told me he was unfamiliar with the Linares decision and its implications. The Connecticut constitution gives oppressive school officials very little room to move when they silence students and abuse their civil rights, as happened recently in Stonington. In squirming to justify their totalitarian tactics, Stonington officials have cited the forum issue incorrectly.
Stonington High drew national attention in recent weeks after forcing a student to read an apology over the PA system. The student's crime: During a mandatory assembly and mock interview with McDonald's, he said he hated corporations that destroy rain forests to raise beef and falsely advertise beef-flavored French fries as vegetables.
"The student's comments are less of an issue than the method in which they were done," Schools Superintendent Michael McKee told me in an interview.
On the blowing smoke scale, I rate this a four out of a possible 10. The next two McKee comments get a 10 and a 100; respectively.
"The manner in which the student was presenting his views detracted from the educational mission of the school … There was a disruption, not a squelching of speech."
The school created the forum, student Tristan Kading's comments were pure political speech and only the administration interfered with the educational mission. Young Kading's comments actually enhanced the discussion before the administration tried to crush him by coercing his apology as punishment.
"The administrators definitely stepped in it," said Stonington Board of Education member Dale King, an attorney. "I think the board is going to make it clear that this kind of conduct by administrators is not acceptable."
King characterized the mandatory assembly and forced apology as "ridiculous."
"The student was not disruptive," King said. "If administrators cannot turn something like this into an educational experience, then they're missing their mark. This had better be a learning experience for the administration."
Why not continue the dialogue? Invite McDonald's back to explain how a corporation deals with public criticism. Or would that be too scary, too real, for a school system that values compliance and regimentation over backbone and the free exchange of ideas.
Law & Justice In Everyday Life by Andy Thibault at Amazon.com
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