This story, about a 5-year-old Oklahoma City boy who got into trouble for wearing a University of Michigan T-shirt, is the latest of a long-list of stories about schools freaking about otherwise innocuous things their students are wearing or saying at school. Yesterday, there was this story about the high school valedictorian, also from Oklahoma, who was refused her diploma for saying “hell” in her graduation speech. A few months ago, my friend the Devil’s Advocate had a post about the high school student forced to leave school for wearing a T-shirt that said “life is wasted without Jesus”.
What the hell is wrong with our schools and their administrators?
There’s the obvious free speech issue. None of these these stories involve behaviour on the part of students that it in the least bit offensive, incendiary, dangerous or otherwise worthy of censure. This raises the awkward little problem that the actions of the schools in these stories likely violate the constitutional free-speech protections afforded by US and Canadian law, respectively. Hey, constitution, schmonstitution, am I right? Given that part of the role of public schools is to impart on their students an understanding of their society’s civic values (like freedom of expression) and a passing knowledge of our government and its institutions (you, know, like the constitution), it wouldn’t hurt if the people in charge of those schools had some minimal familiarity with those values and institutions and made some effort to honour them in practice. Is that too much to ask?
But the bigger issue, for me, is what the school’s actions in each of these cases say about the modern governance of public schools and the judgement of the people responsible for administering them. Take the University of Michigan T-shirt story. According to the article, the school district’s policy was that you couldn’t wear sports related clothing from non-Oklahoma colleges and was, apparently, implemented as part of a strategy to discourage students from wearing gang colours and gang paraphernalia (the theory being, I suppose, that no self-respecting gangster would be caught dead in a Oklahoma state t-shirt). While there’s no arguing with the objective of that policy, surely it was predictable that this ban would catch all sorts of people and clothing having nothing to do with gangs. Maybe Oklahoma City’s a tougher town than I think, but I don’t see this 5-year-old popping a cap in a someone’s ass.
To my mind, that’s a symptom of one of the major problem with modern schools. Rather than trusting to their teachers and principals to exercise good judgement in how they maintain order in their schools, they enact across-the-board zero-tolerance policies, which policies inevitably make them look stupid when they’re predictably applied (sometimes by ass-clown teachers and principals) in circumstances where they are completely inappropriate (and I have an old rant that I’ll put up this evening highlighting the absurdity of one such situation). To their credit, it sounds like the Oklahoma City Public School district (now) recognizes that the policy is overly broad and they’ve said that they’ll rework it, but this should have been obvious to them in the first place.
And, let’s be fair to the administrators. Part of the reason they implement zero-tolerance policies is that, too often, teachers and principals fail, often spectacularly, to exercise good judgement in maintaining order. The story of the valedictorian who said “hell” is one hell of an example. Other than making himself look like an ass-clown and inviting a possible lawsuit, what exactly did the principal think he was going to achieve? Even if the student’s saying “hell” was so outrageously offensive to him (and why the hell would it be?), wouldn’t he have been further ahead to take her aside after the ceremony and express his disappointment with her phrasing, rather than to abuse his last remaining power by withholding her diploma. Isn’t that how a thoughtful, responsible, adult would handle the situation? Hell, the student probably would have apologized without a second thought.
Meanwhile, while dim-wit teachers and principals are busy monitoring t-shirts, and making ass-clown decisions in the process, it’s getting to a point where it’s well-nigh impossible to hire a high school graduate who’s functionally literate. Maybe if they spent less time worrying about what the hell people are wearing and more time making sure Johnny can read, our schools might be able to do something about that particular problem.