Earlier this week, “the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments…in its first student expression case in nearly 20 years, a case involving a high school student who was suspended for displaying a banner that read ‘Bong Hits 4 Jesus’ across the street from his high school.” As silly as this case may seem on the surface, it highlights a troubling trend in schools across the country. With increasing frequency, school administratorsâ€”in an apparent effort to run a tight ship and avoid making wavesâ€”are cracking down on free expression and punishing students and teachers who stray across the shrinking lines. Consider the following recent incidents:
â€¢ In Frisco, Texas, “a popular art teacher with 28 years in the classroom” was dismissed after taking her fifth-grade class to the Dallas Museum of Art, where the students were exposed to nude art. [source]
â€¢ In Federal Way, Washington, a high school principalâ€”in response to a parent’s complaintâ€”reprimanded a teacher for showing the film, An Inconvenient Truth, to her science class and then banned its further use. [source]
â€¢ In Cross River, New York, three students were suspended for uttering the word, vagina, “in unison at a high school forum” while reading an excerpt from the play, The Vagina Monologues. [source]
â€¢ In Napa Valley, California, a middle school student â€œwas escorted to the principalâ€™s office by a uniformed police officer and…sent to an in-school suspension programâ€? for wearing a pair of Tigger socks, in violation of the schoolâ€™s strict dress code. [source]
â€¢ In East Allen County, Indiana, a high school journalism teacher was suspended after a sophomore in her class published an â€œeditorial urging compassion towards gay peopleâ€? in the student newspaper. [source]
â€¢ In Wilton, Connecticut, a high school production of an original play about the war in Iraq was cancelled by the principal, ostensibly due to â€œquestions of political balance and context.â€? [source]
A repressive and reactionary mentality appears to have taken hold in America’s schools, and it threatens to chill free expression and water down learning. Students invariably benefit when they are given the opportunity to encounter a diversity of materials and viewpoints and are challenged to experience the world and themselves in different and even provocative ways. But, for many school administrators, provocative has seemingly become synonymous with disruptive and dangerous. Anything that might cause a stir or offense is to be repelled or punished, lest anarchy somehow prevailâ€”or, worse, lest a disgruntled parent or community leader loudly complain. Administrators face more than enough demands and pressures these days without burdening themselves with worry that something might rock the ship they helm. They need not fret. The ship can take some rocking. Indeed, it makes the ship more seaworthyâ€”and the crew and passengers more sea wise.
Education founders in an environment that stifles or dilutes expression and exploration. To censor and censure those who dare to sail choppy or uncharted waters is to create an atmosphere in which individuals begin to censor and censure themselves and so turn away from new horizons. That is not healthy for a child’s development or a democracy. The voyage of learning should be rich and rewarding, varied and challenging. Schools must ever strive to ensure that the travels of their young passengers are nothing less and that they embark not just safely but in the right directionâ€”fully prepared for the world that awaits them.