Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Powell Rips

School Boss Bullies

Translation Of School Policy:

"Shut up, kid, and think
and speak as you're told, or else!"



Sometimes schools teach best what they don't mean to teach at all. Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington now is teaching about liberty -- inadvertently, by punishing a student for insulting the school administration outside of school.

It's now a federal constitutional case, with soon-to-be-senior Avery Doninger suing her principal and the Region 10 superintendent.

Doninger was secretary of the Class of 2008 until she complained in a posting at an Internet site about the cancellation of a musical event at school. In doing so she used a mildly derogatory term about school administrators generally. Her lawsuit says the principal removed her as class secretary, forbade her from seeking class office again, and ordered her to apologize to the superintendent and tell her mother (which she did) and resign from the student council. Doninger and her friends also were forbidden to wear to school T-shirts with inscriptions supporting freedom of speech.

It all will be a nice counterpoint to the next recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag at Mills High School, what with its proclamation of "liberty and justice for all."

If there still is "liberty and justice" for all, Doninger will end up owning her high school, or at least the house of her principal, whose own conduct should be of much greater concern to the regional school board than Doninger's. For federal court precedents well may favor the student.

The rights of students to free expression in school are not the same as the rights of everyone out of school, but the restrictions on student expression that have been legitimized in court involve what is called the disruption standard. That is, student rights to free expression in school end where disruption of school business begins. If, as Doninger claims, her Internet posting took place outside school, it may be hard for the school to sustain a claim of disruption. As for the supposedly disruptive T-shirts, their inscriptions read only, "Support LSM Freedom of Speech."

But the legalities aren't as important here as the ironies.

Its "statement of purpose" says Mills High School means "to develop responsible, confident citizens who are prepared to function in and contribute to our ever-changing society. ... Students will develop and demonstrate ... knowledge of processes and an awareness of rules and responsibilities of citizens in a democratic society."

As in "Shut up, kid, and think and speak as you're told, or else!"

School officials aren't talking about the Doninger case now, but last month the principal was quoted by WVIT-TV30 in West Hartford as maintaining that Doninger's punishment was meant to uphold "certain standards of behavior" for class officers. That this is nonsense can be established just by wondering what would have happened if identical criticism and insult had been posted on the Internet not by a class officer but by a teacher. Of course the school administration would not have dared to act against him. For in addition to the constitutional rights he shares with students, the teacher would have had union representation and maybe even tenure.

No, this wasn't a matter of "standards." It was a matter of bullying the seemingly powerless, mere retaliation for criticism.

The punished student caused no disruption at school. There was only what the school administration perceived as an insult and a small challenge to its judgment -- insult and challenge that were infinitely magnified by the administration's totalitarian reaction. Administrators confident in their judgment and respectful of democracy and individual rights would have borne it lightly or ignored it or laughed it off. Instead they revealed themselves as officious bureaucrats terrified by clumsy mockery from a 16-year-old.

And that is what the school has just taught, not just to Doninger but to all its students and to people everywhere.

"We call our schools free," Robert Frost wrote, "because we are not free to stay away from them till we are 16 years of age" -- which is another reason schools are obliged to tread as lightly as possible on the rights of those in their custody.

If the law requires free people to be somewhere, as in school, they either keep their basic constitutional rights or they become slaves. (There's something in the Constitution about slavery too.) And little could be more degrading than to be slaves to people who delight in lording it over children and who insist on calling each other "Doctor" not because they spent years in medical school studying how to heal humanity but because they once wrote an overlong and incomprehensible essay.


Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.


Moe said...

Powell is right. How come "educators" insist on calling those that obtain doctoral degrees doctor?

Is it some sort of compensation issue? Frankly, even medical doctors are overrated. Worse judges and politicians (down to dog catcher) are called "honorable."

Can't we all just get along.

They didn't make it FIRST AMENDMENT for nuting!!!

a rose is a rose said...

the ONLY miskake avery made was to apologize for calling them douche bags. they are and MUCH worse

Anonymous said...

>> How come "educators" insist on calling those that obtain doctoral degrees doctor?

They're called "doctors" because the doctoral degrees (like Ph.D. and Ed.D.) bestowed upon them, entitles them to that prefix.