Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Case of the Morton West High School: Who Really Should be Punished?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
~1st Amendment to the US Constitution

The 1st Amendment represents the most fundamental right that every US citizen believes is inalienable. Regardless of whether they have studied their civics: kids know about freedom of speech and freedom of assembly - it is what being American is all about.

According to the New York Times, on November 1, 2007, the students at Morton West High School in suburban Chicago, staged a peaceful anti-war protest in their cafeteria. By the time it was over, more than a dozen students were suspended and they now face expulsion. There are two versions of the story. In a statement by the superintendent, the 1st version is as follows:

the students were informed by school administration and Berwyn Police that their actions constituted a disruption to the school day. They were afforded the opportunity to take their protest outside where they would not be impeding the educational process and, if they did so, they would face no disciplinary action. Several members of the group elected to return to their classes. Other members of the group locked arms and refused to move from their location.

After some time and negotiation, the students ultimately moved from the cafeteria to an area of the hallway adjacent to the principal's office.

The Student version continues:

Students report that they were promised that there would be no charges besides cutting classes if they took their protest outside so as not to disturb the school day. The students complied, and were led to a corner outside the cafeteria where they sang songs and held signs while classes resumed.

In either version, the students eventually complied and continued their protest in their designated space. What followed is most disturbing. Apparently school deans, counselors and even the Superintendent himself tried to change the minds of a few of the students, particularly those with high GPA’s. The school called the parents of many of the protesters, but not all of them, and offered them the opportunity to pick their students up before the close of school guaranteeing a 3-5 day suspension, the rest, 37 students were given 10 day suspensions and expulsion papers. And even worse, students, whose parents complained, were offered reduced punishments only if they signed a confession that singled out the student as the organizer of the protest.

This scenario, although much more serious in its implications, is not all that different than one that occurred in our local high school. The students, acting on reliable information, staged a sit-in in protest to a change in policy at the school. With a video camera running, the principal immediately asked the assembly to disburse. Outraged, he gathered student leaders, who had no involvement in the sit-in and threatened their leadership positions if they did not identify the protesters. The students refused to comply. Nobody was expelled but four students were suspended. Although this story was rather insignificant compared to the Morton West High School incident, there are some striking similarities.

Students should be prepared that a sit-in or protest, unless certified or organized with the administration’s support, could result in some consequences. Certainly in the case of the Morton West high school students, expulsion is definitely extreme. However at least they were given an alternative place to gather, our local students were flatly told to disburse. However, the real disturbing facts are what occurred after both of the incidences.

In both cases, students were being pressured, almost bullied to “finger” the perpetrators. The administration dangled a reward of a reduced punishment
in the case of the Morton West students, and a threat in the case of our local high school students. Where is it written in any administrator’s job description that he/she may brandish their positions of authority in such an irresponsible and a repressive manner?

Furthermore, in the case of the Morton West students, how narcissistic are those administrators who felt compelled to play “God” by protecting the reputations and records of those higher achieving students by warning them that it would be in their best interest to disburse? Whose idea was it to call some parents and give them a head’s up to their sons’ and daughters’ potential punishments if they didn’t collect them by a certain time? What kind of system is at play?

It is impossible to take an administration seriously when the leader can wantonly create rules to fit his/her needs? Are these the lessons we want our children to learn? The basics like 1st Amendment rights to Free Speech and Freedom of Assembly are no-brainers, we expect our kids to learn about this in school, and if they experience it first hand, all the better. These lessons fall under an academic heading such as social studies or civics.

But how do you categorize the finer nuances of a learning environment that are equally important, such as fairness, truthfulness and integrity - qualities that as parents we expect our teachers and administrators to not only model for our kids through their own actions but to expect in every student that walks the halls of our schools? There is no purer laboratory than a classroom or school environment in which to teach these concepts. Yet, it seems that in both cases, the schools failed miserably and our students walked away with learning an entirely different lesson and not a lesson any reasonable person would be proud of.

Issues like Free Speech and Freedom of Assembly are protected by our Constitution and there are legal avenues when these rights appear to be violated. Classrooms have historically been venues where these issues are often raised. However, there is obviously no Constitutional right to expect fairness, truthfulness and integrity from our teachers and school leaders, only a moral compact and a code of ethics that parents have entrusted in them and an expectation that they will act responsibly, fairly and in the best interest of each and every student.

1 comment:

Carol said...

And now I've discovered YOUR blog -- and added it to my reader! It seems we share quite a few similarities!