Two news stories caught our eye this week, both out of Florida, both involving students who were punished by school officials for acting on their principles.
Amber Hatch’s story hit the headlines after she brought suit against her high school. The 15-year-old claims she was suspended last year for participating in the Day of Silence, a national Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) sponsored observance in protest of discrimination and harassment against LGBT students. Hatch communicated her intent to participate in the Day of Silence to the DeSoto County High School administration and was told that peaceful protests were “against district policy.” After losing multiple appeals to the school board, Hatch decided to exercise her First Amendment rights. She arrived at school on the Day of Silence with zipped lips and in a T-shirt that read, “DOS April 20, 2012: Shhhhh.” She didn’t make it past third period. The dean of students removed Hatch from classes and she spent the rest of the day in the “intervention room,” isolated from peers.
Stormy Rich is a Umatilla High School senior who lost her bus privileges after intervening on behalf of a developmentally disabled peer who, she says, was being bullied. Rich claims she informed the bus driver and school officials but that nothing changed. After addressing the student instigators directly, Rich herself was accused of bullying and ordered to stop riding the bus.
Clearly there are multiple sides to both these stories. In both cases, however, the young people in question made efforts to communicate appropriately with school officials prior to taking action. They thought carefully about their situations and moved forward based on feeling that their schools were not honoring basic rights to free speech and safety. Yet both students were ultimately punished for demonstrating compassion and seeking justice, values we hope most educators want to instill in their students.
When it comes to being labeled “subversive” for taking a stand, Hatch and Rich are certainly in good company historically. But there are consequences when schools try to silence these day-to-day expressions of student activism. Schools don’t just teach facts; during their K-12 careers students learn social norms, practice interacting with peers and authority figures, and absorb daily messages that influence the adults they will become. Both Hatch and Rich were told they had violated school policies; the conversation now must focus on what happens when policies are poorly interpreted or potentially illegal.
Stringent policies and punitive reactions to student activism pit students against schools. Hatch is suing her principal, dean of students and school board. The actions of passionate young people may be uncomfortable or inconvenient at times, but when adults silence students for attempting to improve school climates, everyone loses.
van der Valk is associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.