Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Racist Speech, Student Protest, and Institutional Responses

When students first began protesting the fact that names like Woodrow Wilson appear on a building at Princeton and William Saunders on a building at UNC, I had my misgivings.  Yes, the students were correct about the history--these individuals have racist legacies--but the details of the buildings matter.  Was the name placed there to honor the racist legacy?  Was it put there because the family actually donated the money for the building?  Was it because of the alum's political fame?  Is there even a continuing message being sent if no one knows who the person is?

These building names cannot be conflated with confederate memorials, at least not on a wholesale level.  The confederate memorials raise far clearer problems.  The motivation for them has most often been racist and their continuing symbolism can be harmful. Thus, removing them implicates a different analysis.

Nonetheless, I eventually recognized that I am probably too old to have an opinion on what young people do or do not protest about.  I will probably get it wrong.  It is the youth who push us to see the world anew--more clearly--not purported wise elders.  "Wise elders" should offer perspective, but forceful direction is probably more a hindrance than help. 

In retrospect, we should now see that those protesting students elevated a conversation that would have been missed without them.  They have forced a reevaluation of numerous assumptions on main campus.  We owe them thanks.  And we probably owe them deference in the future.

I offer that as backdrop to a student protest at Lake Oswego.  Local news reports that:

Lake Oswego Junior High students staged a walkout at 9 a.m. Monday in response to racist behavior at the school. An estimated 200 students took part in the walkout that lasted a little over and hour. Students could be heard cheering at speeches mode over a megaphone.

More than a week ago, three white students handed a note to another student who is African-American. The note had the N-word on it. The Lake Oswego School District told the boy's mother that two of the three students received "in-school suspensions," but she said not enough is being done.

The mother, Jennifer Cook, said her son has heard the N-word at the school before. She said she was proud of the students for doing the walkout.

"I think it’s incredible, I think it’s great to see the support that the children have for him and their response to this is going to be way better than the school’s response," said Jennifer Cook just prior to the walkout.

The school sent an email message to parents saying they are aware of student plans to walk out Monday. They said they support the students' right to express their opinions and hope to provide a safe environment.

"There will be additional adults including our counseling team on hand, and outside groups will not be allowed on campus," the message said.

According to the Lake Oswego Review, a Facebook post on their site that in part outlined what the mother described as the punishment to the students was shared over 1,800 times.

Sources have told that newspaper that the student who actually passed the note received a one day suspenstion. Two other students were given detentions on campus.

According to the paper, the school and the district office was peppered with angry emails and phone calls. Many were angry over the punishment and or demanded a "zero-tolerance" policy.

The district has issued the following statement on what it intends to do next.

I imagine there a lot of proud parents in Oswego.  I know I would be, but the call for "zero-tolerance" toward the offending students gives me far more concern than the call to take names off of buildings two years ago.  Zero tolerance can be defined in many ways.  It can mean not tolerating a particular type of behavior under any circumstances, but that definition can leave upon the question of what the particular punishment will be.   It could be minor or serious punishment.  Or zero tolerance can mean not tolerating the behavior at all and mandating a severe punishment, such as suspension or expulsion, when it occurs. 

It seems the angry emails to the district in Oswego are calling for the later.  In-school-suspension, to them, is not harsh enough.  

That is a hard position to countenance.  Save situations when a student has intentionally brought a gun to school with a bad purpose in mind or is selling drugs, zero tolerance policies that automatically exclude students from school are a bad idea, if not unconstitutional.  First, they do not actually stop the misbehavior in the long run.  They often make it worse. Second, they impose an enormous harm on the student.  Third, they ignore circumstances that are really important--the age of the child, the seriousness of the behavior, culpability, intent, etc.  When schools ignore those things, they act irrationally and do not do anyone any good.

Does that make the calls for zero-tolerance in Oswego wrong?  That is a tougher question.  A school that adopts such a policy is wrong, but the protest may still be of value.  When society treats issues of race gently, it tends to perpetuate the problem.  When students (or parents) protest, even if their specific demand is misplaced, the spirit of the protest is not.  And regardless of the demand, they force a reevaluation that helps stop perpetuate the problem.  

So maybe the lesson is to separate the protest from the institution being protested.  The protest calls for aggressive behavior.  The institution's job is to listen and then make a reasoned decision.  The two need not--and probably should not--be on the exact same page.

We would also be wise to remember that the zero-tolerance movement began a few decades ago to make sure our children were safe at school.  It then morphed into a system that suspends and expels over three million students a year, little of which has to do with safety.   The vast majority (eighty to ninety percent) of those exclusions are for relatively minor misbehavior.  And African Americans have suffered far worse than any other demographic group.  They are excluded at two to six times the rate of whites (depending on the jurisdiction).  It would be ironic indeed if those policies were once again ratcheted up, but this time in the name of racial justice.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/education_law/2018/02/racist-speech-student-protest-and-institutional-responses.html

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Comments

Great article, points to an urgent need for anti-racism training in every school & classroom. There are resources to guide schools beyond short- term punishment to long-term change. Start with Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance for free, effective resources https://www.tolerance.org/classroom-resources

Posted by: Mary Beth Tinker | Feb 9, 2018 8:28:09 AM

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