Students Get Mixed Messages On Whether Protesting Will Get Them In Trouble (NPR.org)
School Bans Students After Gun Violence Protest (Newsweek via msn.com)
It certainly made for a good media spectacle. Shortly after being sworn in as the first Democratic mayor of New York City in twenty years, Bill de Blasio indicated that he would move quickly to stem the tidal wave of support for charter schools in the Big Apple that his predecessors, particularly Michael Bloomberg, had rammed down New Yorkers’ throats for over a decade. The resulting counterstrike shortly into de Blasio’s tenure saw not just charter school supporters, but thousands upon thousands of charter school students as well, rally to protest de Blasio’s initiatives to place more emphasis on restoring and reinvigorating New York City public schools. Like all well-attended protests, the images from the gathering caught many people’s eyes, and conservative media outlets were all too happy to crow about what seemed, on its surface, to be a stinging rebuke to the new Democratic mayor.
For those of us who saw this gathering and smelled a rat, though, it didn’t take long to figure out how disingenuous the alleged “show of support” for charter schools was. Sure enough, charter schools had bussed in the students themselves, cancelling classes and having students as young as five years old — many of whom probably couldn’t have told you the difference between a charter school and a public school, let alone been able to describe the highly-problematic nature of New York City charter schools as outlined in Diane Ravitch’s excellent The Death and Life of the Great American School System — hold signs in the frigid cold, all for the sake of a photo-op. Needless to say, these little tidbits didn’t get any mention in the breathless right-wing media stories about the protest; instead, all the usual talking heads crowed about the “civic spirit” of the young “protesters” against the evil, evil Democrat.
A very quick thought experiment — reverse the polarities here, and say that public school teachers had cancelled classes and made their students attend a pro-teacher union rally — should be all it takes to realize the hypocrisy on display here. Since long before I was born, conservatives have been all too eager to praise young people who extol right-wing ideology as “civic leaders” and “exemplars of the community,” while denouncing left-wing youth as heretics and examples of the public education system “brainwashing” and “indoctrinating” their students into liberal thought. Now that right-wingers have created such a thorough and all-encompassing media bubble, they can do things like blatantly manufacture protests, like the anti-de Blasio rally, and shamelessly promote them as genuine outpourings of conservative spirit on the part of America’s youth, because so much of their base will accept anything they’re told without a second thought.
This is why, on one level, it’s important to separate the issue of gun control from the broader issue of schools punishing, or threatening to punish, students for engaging in political protest. Regardless of the issue, or the stance on an issue, taking punitive action against students for engaging in free speech is downright chilling. Civic engagement, regardless of the age of the people participating in it, is something that should be celebrated, particularly if we Americans are supposed to keep patting ourselves on the back for being a putative democracy. Attempts by school administrators to silence certain political expressions are detrimental not only to the development of the students speaking those expressions, but to the functioning of our country as a whole.
Sadly, the recent wave of threats made against students opposed to gun violence is only the largest, and most visible, example of school administrators trying to quash student expression of political opinions. These actions have a very long history which, contrary to the spin put out there by right-wing media outlets, predominantly targets left-leaning students. Conservative students have certainly been the targets of similar actions before, and it’s no more right for them to be intimidated by their teachers and principals than it is when it happens to liberal students, but a search of actual news sources for stories of students being suspended, or expelled, or not being allowed to march in graduation, or having their diplomas held, for engaging in political expression will yield a plethora of stories of right-wing school administrators trying to hurt students for expressing left-wing views. As evidenced by the recent story of a Texas baseball coach rejecting a high school prospect from Colorado because of Colorado’s “liberal politicians” legalising marijuana (when it was actually Colorado voters who passed marijuana legalisation by referendum), sometimes the students’ motives or politics don’t even matter; they just want to hurt anyone remotely connected to political beliefs they disagree with.
Positions of power at schools have a tendency to be filled by petty dictators who love to lord power over the children on campus; not only are kids easy targets, but their legal rights often exist in a grey area that makes them even easier to take advantage of. A good part of the reason I became a teacher is because I was a regular target of so many of those teachers when I was younger, and not only do I want to help my students heal from the kind of damage that those teachers can cause — not a semester goes by when I don’t meet students whose early school experiences were far worse than mine — but I want to help them develop the skills to cope with those kinds of assholes, skills that I desperately could have used back in the day.
There are some teacher-inflicted wounds, though, that are far beyond the capacity of any other teacher to heal. One of the more memorable episodes of my high school career came when one of my teachers assaulted and concussed me, merely for suggesting a story to the student newspaper that he didn’t like. (To give you an idea of how much antipathy the administrators of that school felt towards me, the teacher in question got off with a verbal warning.) Needless to say, I’m fairly certain that if the teachers at that school had been allowed to carry guns, then either that teacher, or another one, would have threatened to shoot me at the very least, and possibly even pulled the trigger. As a quick search of social media these past two weeks will show, I’m far from the only person who feels like there’s a good chance that one of their teachers might have killed them if their teachers had possessed the ready means to do so.
This is why it’s ultimately impossible to separate the issue of guns from the current attack on students’ free speech, because the current rush to arm teachers is not only horribly misplaced, but it would give tyrannical teachers the ultimate means to silence the students they don’t like. Never mind the teacher who barricaded himself inside his school and shot a gun for some reason; too many of us know of at least one teacher in our past (or, in my case, dozens) who would have taken advantage of having a firearm at their disposal to further harass and intimidate students into uncritical submission, if not worse. There is little doubt in my mind that many of the school administrators threatening retaliation against their pro-gun control students right now would, if given the opportunity, point guns at those same students to “keep them in line” and scare them into silent submission. Lots of their teachers would probably do the same thing as well, if they were allowed to carry guns on campus.
Make no mistake about it: Attempts to arm teachers, and essentially militarize our schools in the process, are nothing more than an extension of the creeping authoritarianism that’s become more and more endemic in this country under the current administration. Even if voters consign the current wave of Republicans to the rubbish bin of history, they will leave behind them a traumatized generation that will be even more receptive to the scare tactics and unequivocal hate-mongering on display right now. To those right-wingers, the imagery of kindergartners being walked from classroom to classroom by rifle-toting police officers is far less shocking than the images of young people protesting America’s lax gun laws. If we want a future where our children aren’t growing up in self-perpetuating fear, we need those young people, and the rest of us as well, to keep gun control protests in the news, and in the front of America’s consciousness, until right-wingers retreat from their apocalyptic plans to indoctrinate our children, and through them our entire nation, into silence.