These are difficult days for schools as they try to figure out how and when to discipline students for misbehavior, disruption, bullying and other actions. Social media has further complicated the matter, blurring the lines between behavior on campus, where schools clearly can set rules, and behavior off campus, where it is not so obvious that they can. As unclear as the lines might be, though, several recent cases show a disturbing willingness among schools to leap over them:
— In Houston, a student was suspended last fall for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. That’s just ludicrous in this day and age; it’s been accepted for decades that students should not be compelled to participate in the pledge against their will. The student is suing, and we hope she’ll win.
— In Nevada, a high school student used foul language during a phone call to a congressman’s office to argue for stronger gun control. The office then complained to his school, and the boy was suspended. But what right does the school have to punish a kid for speaking his mind, even rudely, on a public policy issue when he’s not in school?
— In New Jersey, a school district adopted a policy that banned students from being in possession of guns — off campus as well as on. But really, shouldn’t it be obvious even to strong supporters of gun control that a school can’t punish students for engaging in a perfectly legal activity — such as going to a firing range with their parents — after school hours? After an outcry involving two students who supposedly did just that, the school district said this week that it is modifying the policy so it no longer covers legal gun use off campus.
What could these school officials be thinking?
Then there’s a whole separate series of controversies over clothing. In 2015, a school pulled a student from class and reprimanded her for wearing a T-shirt saying, “Nobody knows I’m a lesbian.” The school argued that the shirt was “offensive and distracting,” before being forced — rightly — to back down. Still, the next year, shortly before the 2016 presidential election, a student at a Florida school reportedly was told she would have to change out of her anti-Hillary Clinton T-shirt or go home for the day. She chose the latter.
Schools (and occasionally courts) appear to need repeated reminders that students have a right to express their opinions, including unpopular ones, in school and out. It can get complicated because schools do have a right to step in when the language is truly threatening or disruptive. But school administrators too often have confused controversy with disruption. Some students might not like what they see on another student’s T-shirt. They might even find it offensive. But they don’t need to be sheltered from controversy or offense. Chances are they’ll talk about it, debate it, argue over it — and that’s a good thing.
School authorities also should keep in mind that girls are not being “disruptive” by wearing leggings to school, and it is not their job to prevent boys from being “distracted,” an excuse that many a principal has used over the years to place restrictions on clothing. Schools have a right to set dress codes within reason, but pretending that girls are responsible for the behavior of boys sets an unacceptable double standard.
(Then there was the Houston school that threatened kids with three days of suspension if they joined students across the country in walking out of class for 17 minutes in response to the school shootings in Parkland, Fla. That may not have infringed on any constitutional rights, but it was certainly an excessive reaction.)
Even more dicey are situations in which students misbehave off campus. A Bay Area high school rightly disciplined students for being involved in racist posts in which photos of students at their school, all female and almost all people of color, were shown with nooses drawn around their necks. These images go beyond expressing opinions or simply being offensive; even though they were created off campus, they are intimidating, if not downright threatening, to people at the school.
But it’s difficult to believe that the New Jersey school district mentioned above thought it had the right to regulate students’ target shooting off campus under completely legal circumstances. Or that the Nevada school believed it could punish teenagers for using foul language outside of class that was not directed toward anyone at the school.
There are certainly difficult decisions to be made from time to time about free speech on school campuses, but these cases weren’t complicated. School officials have a responsibility to keep their students safe and learning on campus, but no one hired them to be the police of controversial personal expression or of student morality.
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