Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Tin-Horn Dictatorship Buries Write-In Vote

Comment from earlier post:

"Where can I get one of those shirts, and how much do they cost?"
Posted by Darth Vader | 5:12 PM

Letter To The Editor

In Region 10, at Lewis S. Mills High School (LSM), a Civics class is required for graduation. The course description states, in part, "…this required course is designed to provide our students with a practical knowledge and understanding of our American Government and its direct connection to them…students [will] reconnect with democratic behaviors and institutions as citizens of the United States…" The lessons of the class are meaningless when basic democratic principles are abandoned by the school administrators who have treated the First Amendment rights of LSM students with disdain.

Student leaders frustrated with scheduling issues around the annual Jamfest solicited help from parents via a polite, well written email (4/24). This strategy appears consistent with LSM's published mission, "… encourage creativity, initiative, and problem solving." An onslaught of support for the students occurred. The administration's position was that the students had been disruptive and did not want to respect the reality of the limits to use of the auditorium. I think it's great that they wrote in an attempt to affect change and gather power. Learning how to work with the system and simultaneously challenge the system is an important life lesson, one that I do not expect high school students to have mastered. We should be proud of kids who are active, involved, and care about events - the refinement will come with practice. My daughter, Avery, was a signatory of the Jamfest email. On 4/24 Avery had the misfortune seeing Ms. Niehoff (principal) shortly after the email onslaught. Ms. Niehoff told Avery that Mrs. Schwartz (superintendent) was very upset and as of that moment, Jamfest was cancelled. Frustrated by the situation, Avery documented the events in her Live Journal (LJ). The LJ was not distributed at LSM or in any way affiliated with LSM.

I am proud of Avery's initiative and her consistent contribution to multiple endeavors at LSM. She is 16 and has a long way to go in terms of learning how and when to express herself. In addition to very poor punctuation, the LJ entry stated, "So basically Jamfest is cancelled due to the do**** b*** in central office." Avery has apologized for the rudeness both publicly and privately. In generations past such griping would have been on the phone, in a diary, or in person. This is the first generation to have this very public medium (which feels so private) of blogs. The students will need to learn how to moderate writing and institutions will need to develop reasoned responses to the complexities online writing presents.

On 5/17 Avery was called in to Ms. Niehoff's office where she was presented with a printout of the LJ entry. Ms. Niehoff demanded three things of Avery:

a) An apology to Mrs. Schwartz (the presumed target of the epithet)

b) That Avery show the entry to her mother

c) That Avery withdraw her candidacy for election as a class officer for next year

Avery agreed to the first two demands but refused the third. Consequently, Ms. Niehoff administratively removed Avery as a candidate for class officer elections. Ms. Niehoff stated that Avery's action was comparable to that of a student who purposely clogs a toilet. She said, "That is not the type of student we want as a student leader." In a subsequent meeting with me Ms. Niehoff stated repeatedly that her mother would not have tolerated such behavior. More nuanced reflection than, "My mother…" is warranted and should be expected of school administrators.

Niehoff made clear that extracurricular activities are a privilege, not a right. However, the eligibility for accessing the privilege needs to be uniform. Should all student blogs be subject to scrutiny? Avery was withdrawn from the election based on a, "failure of citizenship." Is everyone who has mouthed off in frustration a bad citizen? I suggest that those who are unwilling to challenge the status quo, unwilling to risk dissent, the apathetic and uninvolved are much worse citizens than someone who is passionate enough to get her ire up.

Avery, ineligible to run for class secretary via Niehoff's totalitarian coup, was a strong write-in candidate. A handful of students went to LSM on election-day sporting shirts that said, "Team Avery" on the front and, "Support LSM Freedom of Speech" on the back. Niehoff forced the kids to remove the shirts (in direct conflict with Tinker vs. Des Moines - Google it). Then, after sitting on the ballots over the long holiday weekend, the 'winner' was announced with no mention of the write-in campaign. Imagine if this were the election practice in a third world country. The US might invade to secure democracy!

In 1964 Justice William Brennan said, "Debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open…it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." Rather than the imposition of punitive measures, Region 10 should take pride in having produced students who are active in the democratic process, who are willing to protest. This event should have been a teachable moment to move Avery toward more refinement in her discourse and the student body toward a greater understanding of living democracy. Perhaps the administration should sit in on that required Civics class.

Lauren Doninger


kevinessdack said...

Thank you for this well written observation of what is clearly a continuing over-reaction to an uncomfortable situation. This is truly a teachable moment for the young lady, the student body and the school administration and not necessarily in that order.

Anonymous said...

Since when is this kind of name calling protected speech? What about the other teachable moment in which you take the high road in your fight and not the gutter. The lack of respect shown by this young girl to is secondary to the carelss manner in she claims this kind of speech is protected. It clogs the court with an unnecessary legal action in the name of protecting the first amendment. Let's be real, you were rude and someone punished you. The issue is the punishment-not the speech.