from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Students should have First Amendment Rights 

crossposted at dailykos, myleftwing, teacherken.blogspot.com

It might seem like a simple statement, but if our schools are preparing our students to be citizens, we should as afar as possible give students in schools the same rights citizens have in society at large. Such has not been the case. Prior to Tinker v DesMoines students were not guaranteed the First Amendment right of freedom of speech, and even though the decision in that case recognized freedom of speech, it was a 2-edged sword in that it contained the basis of the limitation of rights. The decision recognized the obligation of schools to maintain a safe and orderly learning environment, and on that basis subsequent Court decisions have limited student rights, especially 1st Amendment rights, to something less than the full span.

We live in a time where many question whether the Press has been aggressive enough in pursuing wrongdoing in our corporations (because of possible loss of advertising) and our governments (because of fear of loss of access). If students do not begin to learn the craft of journalism as early as possible, including the aspects of investigative journalism, we might well worry about the future of our press. That is why education writer Michael Winerip’s column in today’s NY Times, entitled Given the Freedom, Tireless Reports Excel is so worth the read.

Winerip is writing about the superb school paper at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring Maryland. The school is both a science and tech magnet with highly competitive admission and a geographical high school. It is an award-winning paper, as Winerip notes
Six times in the last decade, Silver Chips has won the award for Maryland's best student paper; twice in the last four years it has won the National Scholastic Press Association's top award.

The beginning of the piece catches your attention:
CHELSEA ZHANG, a senior at Montgomery Blair High, is an ace reporter for the school's Silver Chips, one of the finest student newspapers in the country. In a recent issue, Chelsea had a front page article on the growing bureaucratic demands taking up teachers' time. The article quoted six teachers criticizing new policies being imposed by the Blair High principal and by Montgomery County officials. All six teachers were quoted on the record, with their names, a journalistic feat many grown-up reporters would have trouble matching.

"Chelsea's relentless," said Maureen Freeman, a journalism teacher who is adviser to the paper. "She's relentless in a good way. It's a positive relentlessness. For two weeks, everywhere I went, there was Chelsea interviewing some teacher in the back of a classroom."

That was nothing compared with Chelsea's next assignment: Find students who have had sex in school.

n most schools such provocative material would not appear, and restricting it would be entirely within the authority of the principle, an authority established in the landmark case of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.

But Montgomery Blair is fortunate in who their principal is. Read the following:

But most important, to produce a great student paper takes a principal who believes in free speech, including the freedom to criticize the principal. Phillip Gainous has been principal at Montgomery Blair for 22 years, and in that time he has never asked to see an article before publication, say the two teachers who have been Silver Chips advisers, Ms. Freeman and John Mathwin.

The advisers say his support is so subtle, it's often invisible. In the 1990's, a Montgomery County superintendent tried censoring Silver Chips. The county concocted a regulation prohibiting articles that did not reflect community values.

"We were not supposed to do stories on subjects like student drug use," Mr. Mathwin said. "We'd do it anyway, and put a little warning, 'This story violates county regulations.' All Mr. Gainous had to do was signal to me that this wasn't the way to go, and I'd have stopped. But he didn't. He'd just say, 'Boy, this is a good story.' "

Indeed, Mr. Gainous did not seem too eager to be interviewed about his subtle support for his award-winning paper. It took two visits to his office by this reporter, and a half-dozen calls, before he called back. Asked why he had stood up for the paper against the superintendent, all he said was, "I thought the kids were right." He said he had always trusted the paper's advisers. "The only thing I ask: if a story's controversial and will provoke calls from the central office or parents, that I'm given a 'heads up' so I can be prepared."

The article is not behind the subscription wall, although the Times does require free registration for access. I am n ot going to quote more because I am under time pressure to leave for school, and I want to offer a few thoughts of my own.

I believe one basic problem with our schools is that they are structured so that they encourage neither responsibility nor democracy. For all of our student governments and clubs, they are quite circumscribed in their ability to exercise the rights we expect of our citizens. Far too often the rules within which they operate, and which are the structure of most of the school day, are totally imposed by adults with little input from the students. We know from research that when given the opportunity to exercise responsibility many if not most children can learn to do so successfully. And yet within the confines of a school that is a mandatory part of their lives we give student so little opportunity to take responsibility except in very limited ways that it is probably not surprising how many turn out to be more inclined towards conformity than towards greater exercise of freedom.

Read what I am saying carefully -- even the rebellious behavior in music and clothing that is so highly evident among our adolescents tends very much to be conformist with some peer group.

More directly related is that if students cannot learn in school how to question authority why would we expect them to do so as adults? If the message is that there are people with power who will slap you down if you question them, and that these people have inordinate control over your lives, we will be creating yet another generation that will be reluctant to challenge government and other institutions even when those institution may be quite erroneous if not downright venal in the actions they do and the decisions they make.

The lack of opportunity in school to learn to exercise freedom has bothered me since my own adolescence, which is one reason that an article like the one that provoked this column grabs my attention. That’s why I thought it worth running a bit late in my morning. I think it was certainly worth using my one dailykos diary.

I hope some readers find it of value.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
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