Look, I don’t want Joel Ward to score another series-winning goal this playoff season. No. Not at all. And if he did, I would probably be very upset and vent my frustration on Twitter.
The reason why? Well, Joel Ward plays for the Washington Capitals and I … well … I’m a New York Rangers fan.
If you don’t know why I brought this up, I suggest you check out this piece on Deadspin: “Here’s How Racists on Twitter Reacted to Joel Ward’s Series-Winning Goal Against Boston.”
Joel Ward is a light-scoring winger for the Capitals, who was in the right place and the right time to put home the overtime series-winner to send Washington past Boston in game 7. Completely unrelated, for most of us, is that Ward’s parents were Barbadian immigrants to Toronto. So there were a good number of viewers who didn’t see a Capital, or an unlucky rebound, or the heartbreaking flukiness of the playoffs—they saw a black guy.
More relevant to our particular conversation here is the fact that some of the people Tweeting racist sentiment in the direction of Ward and his accomplishment happened to be high school students who are now suspended for their Tweets (“Students who made racist Twitter posts face sports suspensions, more” –Gloucester Times, 5/4/2012 and “High School Students in New England Face Suspension From Team Activity For Racist Joel Ward Tweets” –Deadspin, 5/5/2012)
According to the Gloucester Times story, the superintendent of schools justified the suspension, saying:
“I want to state how profoundly disturbing such remarks area att any time and in any context,” Safier said. “The racial epithets expressed were compounded by their publication on a national sports website. We take this issue seriously. Such misconduct contradicts the values and standards of Gloucester High School and the Gloucester Public Schools as a whole.”
In contrast to the Gloucester story is this one out of Tennessee: “Tennessee High’s Yearbook Advisor Slammed for Allowing ‘It’s Okay to Be Gay’ Student Profile” (Huffington Post, 5/4/12). In this case, a student wrote an essay in his high school yearbook about being openly homosexual and several people including a school board member, are being intolerant:
However, one person who is not OK with the article is Loudon County School Board member Van Shaver, who is calling for a criminal investigation of the yearbook’s faculty adviser, James Yoakley.
“Some might think I’m intolerant toward homosexuals but that would be wrong,”Shaver wrote on his blog. “If an individual wants to be a homosexual, that’s their own decision and they will have to live with the consequences of that decision. What I am intolerant of is an adult, a teacher no less, inflicting their personal beliefs and sexual orientation decisions on impressionable students.” He concluded, “I know many other parents and members of our community expect a full and open investigation by school administrators and law enforcement into this issue and to hold accountable any and all those who had a hand in this despicable act.”
(btw, you can read the entire essay here)
So what does one have to do with the other? Well, they’re seemingly unrelated, which is why you have a blogger like me innovatively stringing them together for material. Both cases do have to deal with students’ expressing themselves but in the first case, the students expressing themselves need to be taught a lesson and in the second case, the school board member needs to be taught a lesson. Both lessons involve the First Amendment and tolerance.
Let’s take the Tennessee case first and Van Shaver, who takes time in his own blog post to remind his readers that it is the duty of boards of education to ”dismiss teachers, principals, supervisors and other employees upon sufficient proof of improper conduct, inefficient service or neglect of duty.”
He quotes that directly from on-the-books code. But I’d like for him to consider that the yearbook adviser had probably followed a code of conduct and did his duty as has been more or less dictated by Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. Most advisers are aware of that particular decision which says that a principal’s authority can supercede that of the First Amendment, so they usually put in place a vetting process for any material printed in a school publication. Simply put, it’s very likely that the yearbook adviser’s principal looked at the essay in question and had no problem with it going to print. Yes, I realize that a school board member can “pull rank” on a principal and call for the firing of the teacher, but when a teacher is doing what he can to fully represent the entire student body in a way that is not only insightful but respectful, how is that “improper,” and if he is vetting the yearbook spread through a higher power, how is that “neglect of duty”?
I’d also like to know how you can launch a criminal investigation into something like this. I mean, I never went to law school, but how is this criminal?
As for the racist Tweeters, the outcry is rightful and punishment there needs to be. If the school or school district is not within its legal right to punish these guys–from what I read, they were saying this stuff on Twitter while they weren’t in school–then their coach needs to step in and carry out those suspensions as planned because while I am sure they have a right to their opinion and all, they also have the right to know that such opinions have consequences.
There seems to be a lot of contradictions when it comes to our role as teachers in our students’ rights to express themselves. On one hand, we are encouraged to get them to think and challenge the world around them so that their minds grow; on the other hand, we don’t want to offend the delicate sensitivities of the community. On one hand, we want them to use their best judgment and make sure that they know what they say in any forum–school or not–may have consequences; on the other hand, there are some people who would say students are within their rights to be racist online because the government should not have the authority to tell people what to do (even though if it were my Twitter account, I probably would have been fired).
So what, exactly, is our role here as educators? If we’re supposed to encourage but not encourage or punish but not punish … what DO we DO?