Distractions and Disruptions: Misguided Parents, School Officials Campaign Against Women and Free Speech

Distractions and Dress: Hitting the Wrong Target

183336575The deadly denials of autonomy for women that played out recently in California and India provide the shocking headlines. They reflect a mind set that, unfortunately, underpins another campaign to which young women are increasingly subjected in the U.S. and Canada. Its result is also denial of autonomy. I refer to the effort to deal with “distractions” in high school classrooms and at school events. To the extent that there is any legitimate problem demanding action, which I doubt, the effort to address it is far too often focused on the wrong target: girls.

Thankfully, this mistaken school policy does not include the horrific violence that brought those headlines. When its underlying assumptions appear in the judicial system, however, they clearly foster violence against women. One of many recent examples was the Dallas, Texas, judge who sentenced a man to probation for rape, saying, “she wasn’t the victim she claimed to be”. The evidence was uncontested that the girl said “no” numerous times. Like the Indian stories, wrong target: girls.

DressHere in Victoria, BC, there will soon be the 2d annual SlutWalk. The event started in response to remarks by a Toronto police officer that women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized. Wrong target. Apparently this sentiment was not confined to Toronto. SlutWalk became an instant international movement to change the conversation about sexual assault to the right target: men.

The prize recent example wrong target for schools is a homeschooling prom in Richmond, Virginia, a town whose culture I know well.  A 17-year-old girl was bounced from the dance because one of the fathers present concluded that her dress was too short, and would evoke “impure thoughts.”

A senior girl, arriving at her prom in Alabama was similarly barred and told that her dress was too short, and (Heavens!) there was cleavage!

article-2645139-1E60597300000578-1_634x635Canada appears to be even more up tight. Several Newfoundland and Ontario students were sent home because bra straps showed. In Nova Scotia, a student was disciplined because her shorts were deemed too short. Another student in Quebec who was humiliated when she and her classmates were required to stand up in class and measure whether their shorts met the dress code (Hers did).  One student was suspended because she had the nerve to speak truth to power. She put up posters around school with this message: “Instead of shaming girls for their bodies, teach boys that girls are not sexual objects.” Right target! Within minutes, the posters were down and she was in the principal’s office.

The position expressed by the adults responsible for the school events described here is so lame I will not embarrass them by repeating it. This is not CNN. I don’t have to claim that there are two equal sides to every story. Instead here is some advice, one adult to another:

* Admit that you know this is not about distractions from education. It is about sex, and your fears on that subject

• Adolescents will always to a greater or lesser degree be a distraction to one another. Part of the distraction will sometimes be “thinking impure thoughts”—AND THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT THIS.

• If you are a HS teacher and you are the one distracted, do some honest introspection.

• If you are a HS teacher and genuinely concerned that distraction will become disruption, first consider trying to improve the quality and creativity of your teaching to a level that will minimize that risk. Every class on any subject is a competition for attention.

• If you are a teacher or, say, a parent chaperone, and you think you simply must act on a distraction, DEAL WITH THE “DISTRACTEE,”,who will almost always be a male. The girl with the posters in Quebec had it right.

• If you are at all like the father at the Richmond prom, please, please, review the relative “purity” of the thought process that put the phrase “impure thoughts” in your head!

Distractions, Disruptions and Speech

The fate of the brave young woman who put up the posters in Quebec illustrates another way schools use the smoke screen of distraction and disruption against both girls and boys: to stifle the exchange of ideas.

Tinker et al v Des Moines Independent Community School District et alYears ago, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with John Tinker, the teenage Petitioner in Tinker v. Des Moines Iowa School Board, 393 U.S. 503 (1969) and his family. You may recall that John and four other students were suspended for standing silently wearing black armbands as a statement of opposition to the Vietnam War. The school’s justification was, you guessed it, disruption. Justice Fortas wrote for the court: a prohibition against expression of opinion, without any evidence that the rule is necessary to avoid substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others is not permissible…under our Constitution, free speech is not a right that is given only to be so circumscribed that it exists in principle but not in fact. For a while after Tinker, I naively assumed that students had rights. Wrong.

Since Tinker, courts have allowed schools to use the distraction/disruption ruse to abolish free speech for students while once again reacting against the wrong target. God (the Christian one, of course) forbid that students should engage in a vigorous exchange of opposing ideas and positions!

The Tinker court noted that it was not prohibiting dress codes. So, conflating apparel and speech, schools have used the former to ban the latter. Students have been suspended for wearing shirts portraying everything from music groups, to the National Rifle Association logo to the American flag. In the flag case, a California school got court approval for rounding up students wearing American flag tee shirts on Cinco de Mayo, because the officials decided that this was insulting to Hispanics.

Katie Sierra, 15, takes oath before testifying at hearing in Kanawha Circuit Court, Charleston, W.Va.

Katie Sierra, 15, takes oath before testifying at hearing in Kanawha Circuit Court, Charleston, W.Va.

Third graders, no less, give us one of the best examples of this perverse civics lesson. A Pennsylvania school scheduled a field trip to a Shriner’s Circus. The school stopped a student from obtaining signatures on a petition reading: “We third grade kids don’t want to go to the circus because they are cruel to animals. We want a better field trip.”

The ultimate example is probably the West Virginia ordeal of Katie Sierra, though she did prevail in court—in the amount of $1. She was 15 and a student at a high school near Charleston in 2001 when she actively opposed the bombing of Afghanistan in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks that Americans still can’t seem to get over. She also made a request to start a Pacifist-Anarchist club, with a charter that expressly forbade tolerating hate or violence, and had a stated goal of dispelling myths that anarchism was chaos and destruction. Other activities were to include discussion groups and community service. For these actions, she was harassed, mocked, and physically assaulted by other students. Some of them threatened her further with “West Virginia Justice.” So who was penalized? That’s the easiest question in this quiz. Permission for the club denied. Katie suspended.

What was the school’s position in the lawsuit? Right again— “The mere suggestion of an anarchist club resulted in significant disruptions in the classroom and congregations in the halls.” Her English teacher testified that Sierra had caused a “simmering feeling.”

The education of Katie Sierra, child of a military family, was continued through the performance of two more adult role models when she attended the school board hearing. The president of the board asked, “What the hell is wrong with a kid like that?” Another board member accused her of committing treason.

I was glad to learn that John Tinker emailed encouragement to Katie and attended court. John would be in his 60’s now. I wonder if he thinks his own ordeal was worth it.

Munich American School 1960Thankfully, there are many parents and many school officials who are not doing this damage to young people. May their numbers increase. I am also a child of a military family and went to an American HS in Germany, long, long ago. This fall, I will again join a wonderful group of fellow students for a reunion. But drink from the fountain of youth and go back to HS today? There is not enough $ on the planet to convince me to do that.

Bad policies. Wrong targets. If I could send a tee-shirt to every HS student, it would read: QUESTION AUTHORITY!

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