Tag: Public Schooling Battle Map

Public Schooling Battles: May Dispatch

Some people want schools to have lighthearted, warm environments. Some want them to delve into social commentary, even if it is uncomfortable. Some students just want to wear what they want to wear. And some people either don’t want any of those things, or disagree when lines have been crossed. Here come the battle trends for May.

  • Lighthearted or Wrong-Headed? “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye” is a warning I heard a lot when I was a child. But it turns out we don’t all agree when fun and games turns into something more serious. In May we saw three conflicts that revolved around when someone trying to have fun may have crossed lines, and public school authorities punished them. In South Carolina a white teacher was recorded in a viral video standing on the desk of a sleeping, African-American student and pulling his hair, among other things. The district reportedly forced the teacher to retire, to the consternation of many parents and even the student’s father, who said he “felt like the incident was done in humor.” The teacher was reinstated after her lawyer and district council met to discuss the matter. In Texas, a principal had a tradition of having children come to her office on their birthdays to receive a voluntary, symbolic spanking. It elicited at least three objections, and the principal discontinued the practice. Parent Heather Redder liked the tradition, and said some people are “not used to a small town community… People that move here from the big city, they don’t realize, and they’re not used to this.” Finally, a senior prank went wrong in Independence, Missouri, when a student posted a Craigslist ad selling his high school “due to the loss of students coming up.” The ad was referring to graduating students, but district officials saw it as a potential threat and punished the prankster, forbidding him to walk at graduation. The ACLU came to his defense. “In the hometown of U.S. President Harry Truman and in a place named after one of our nation’s key principles, ‘freedom,’ we hope that the district reconsiders its position and encourages the freedom of speech of our nation’s next generation of leaders,” said ACLU Missouri legal director Tony Rothert.
  • Social Commentary, Or Promoting Violence? Since the horrific Parkland school shooting, gun violence has become a scorching political topic. But where is the line between commenting on violence and promoting it? Two districts saw division over the appropriateness of art commenting on gun violence. In Leander, Texas, some parents objected to the middle school showing the video for the social commentary song “This is America” by Childish Gambino, in which among other targets Gambino is shown shooting a church choir. One father said, “a lot of stuff that’s shown is true but it’s just not right to show to a middle school environment.” In Tacoma, Washington, a principal who is also a rapper was the focus of conflict over lyrics that some thought promoted school shootings. “Give me a reason just to load up a rifle, Pull the fire alarm in the lobby of my high school,” went some of the words. “Leave the halls bloody like a high noon tycoon.” Objected one parent: “No one in a position of authority who is mentoring or monitoring our children, my children, anyone’s children, should be glorifying shooting up a school.” The principal said he wasn’t trying to glorify violence, but to tell a “story of something that happened to a young person that inspired and caused him to commit acts of violence.”
  • Dress Codes: Contending over what is acceptable to wear in school is constant, and remained so in May. In two states we saw officials telling girls to cover up lest they be distracting to boys, or maybe just not live up to community norms of propriety. We also saw a student get punished—and subsequently sue his district—for refusing to remove a t-shirt that read, “Donald J. Trump Border Wall Construction Co.” and “The Wall Just Got 10 Feet Taller.” The shirt violated the dress code prohibiting “clothing decorated with illustrations, words, or phrases that are disruptive or potentially disruptive, and/or that promote superiority of one group over another.” Said the student’s lawyer, “If people are offended by his shirt - that’s their right to be offended. But it’s also his right to have his opinion, as well.” In Montana, there was a lengthy standoff over a Confederate flag sweatshirt. Finally, May saw a battle over a student who had enlisted in the Army and wanted to wear an Army sash at graduation. The request was denied, but not without a struggle. It came down to the student’s pride in her accomplishments and country versus a school’s need to maintain order. While defending the district’s patriotism, the district superintendent said “the rule is in place to prevent student’s writing the silly ‘Hi, Mom’ on the hat and goofy things. We’re trying to keep our graduations somewhat dignified.”

As always, the monthly battles weren’t restricted to these trends. We also witnessed trouble over revolutionary themed prom tickets, disposing of pest animals, evolution, and more. And we had two surveys on our Facebook page. The first asked whether pulling the sleeping student’s hair was “OK” for the teacher to do. 21 percent of respondents said yes, 79 percent no. The second asked about constantly contested territory, the student vaeldictory speech that exalts God, stemming from this skirmish. We asked, “Should valedictorians be able to thank God in a public school graduation speech?” Three quarters of respondents answered yes, one quarter no.

Back in a month with the June Dispatch, then maybe the fighting will subside during summer vacation. Maybe…

Public Schooling Battles: April Dispatch

With 25 conflicts added to the Battle Map, April was a busy month. So busy the Dispatch was delayed again. But better late than never, right?

Just like March, April was heavy with conflicts revolving around guns, as the debate spurred by the Parkland shooting continued. But seemingly eternal hot-spots including Confederate flag displays, prayer in schools, and sex ed flared up, too.

  • Guns: We recorded seven gun-related incidents, most pitting freedom of expression against safety or beliefs about the appropriateness of gun-related messages. Allegations of curbed speech included the Shawnee Mission, KS, school district telling students what they could or could not say at their April 20 walkout to protest gun violence. Students in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Nevada alleged that their pro-gun expression was curbed in various ways. A principal’s pro-gun comments in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, NC, led to possible disciplinary action against her and prompted Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC) to write a letter to the U.S. Department of Education asking if other districts had seen an employee’s speech bring out the “thought police.” A North Carolina state legislator made a moral plea for arming teachers, saying, “We should give them a fighting chance. Otherwise, when they die, and children die whom they could have defended, their blood will be on our hands.” Finally, Kyle Kashuv, a Parkland survivor who has defended gun rights, was repeatedly in the news for actions school personnel allegedly took against him.
  • Confederate Flags: Overall the Map contains 34 conflicts involving displays of Confederate flags, and two new ones were added in April, both revolving around displays on trucks in school parking lots. In Bay City, Michigan, accusations that an African-American student ripped a flag off a truck and the school did nothing about it prompted both pro-flag and Black Lives Matter demonstrations that closed the high school for a day. In Cleveland County, NC, students were suspended for flying Confederate flags. District officials, reacting to widespread displeasure over stories that flag displays were banned, said that it was fine to fly American flags, just not Confederate.
  • Sex Education: Sexuality has so many moral, religious, and safety ramifications, it’s no wonder it is constantly inflaming conflict. Indeed, I still need to read the book (it’s actually been a busy several years, not just month) but scorching disagreement over sex ed is an international phenomenon. April saw a national, coordinated effort to get parents to remove their kids from school to protest overly explicit sex education—dubbed the “Sex Ed Sit Out”—no doubt patterned after the Parkland gun walkout. Meanwhile a bill was introduced in Louisiana to go in the opposite direction, moving away from abstinence-only sex education.
  • Religion: Sex ed elicits a lot of religious concerns, but more directly religious expression and activities also spurred battles in April, as religion has done from the very beginning of public schooling. A bill was introduced in the Louisiana Senate to allow teachers to pray with students during the school day as long it doesn’t interfere with teaching. The Freedom from Religion Foundation warned that the legislation “would encourage teachers to show their students that they prefer and endorse Christianity, ostracizing non-Christian students.” Meanwhile, a teacher in Mobile, AL, was sent home after wearing a t-shirt that said “Just Pray.” Wrote teacher Chris Burrell in a since-deleted Facebook post, “I wasn’t trying to promote religion, it was just my Monday feel-good shirt.” Finally, Worcester, Maryland, saw people (ironically) getting angry over “Mindfulness” yoga, which some residents thought was putting Hindu spiritual activities into the schools, not just promoting good social and emotional health.

There were other conflicts in “the cruelest month,” of course—big headline grabbers involved a racially charged “promposal,” flowers for a gay teacher, and ordered use of Band-Aids—and we also asked a poll question on our Facebook page: “Should parents have the right to keep their child home to protest sex education?” The overwhelming response—95 to 5 percent—was “yes.” Right now we’re asking if it is acceptable for a teacher to pull a student’s hair, presumably in jest, to wake him up. Vote now, and we’ll report the results next month—hopefully towards the beginning of the month.

Public Schooling Battles: March Dispatch

The country saw other kinds of identity and values-based battles in March, but the month was dominated by one thing: guns, especially how you protest against them, for them, or try your best to stay neutral.

Of the 24 conflicts recorded on the Battle Map in March, 15 involved guns in some way. The large majority were directly about the March 14 National School Walkout, primarily whether schools should allow walkouts without ramifications in support of free speech; whether concerns about order and safety required that those who walked out be punished; if allowing a walkout to protest gun violence but not other causes amounted to viewpoint discrimination; and what to say, if anything, in events held in lieu of walkouts. Gun-related conflicts were recorded in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Jersey, Illinois, New York, California, Arkansas, Michigan, Ohio, and South Carolina, and there were likely many we did not find.

Among the incidents that got the most press attention was the case of Rocklin, CA teacher Julianne Benzel, who was apparently suspended by the district for holding an in-class discussion in which she mused that if an anti-gun walkout were allowed, so should a protest opposing abortion, lest the district treat some views unequally. So intrigued by the idea was student Brandon Gillespie that he planned a national pro-life walkout on April 11, which may well be a prominent battle in the April Dispatch. In a reversal of the expected walkout fear—kids getting in trouble for walking out in protest—a student in Hilliard City, Ohio, was punished for staying in his classroom during outdoor activities sanctioned by the school on Walkout Day. District officials said the student was punished for failing to go to the right place for students choosing not to participate, but the boy’s father said, “He was uncomfortable…as he thought that going outside would most likely be politicizing a horrific event which he wanted no part of.” Finally, a girl in New Jersey was punished for walking out, but what grabbed headlines was that the school would not accept roughly $1000 worth of flowers sent to her by people who admired her standing up for what she believed in. Said the student, “They’re always like, ‘You can always speak your mind and stuff, you have the freedom of speech here,’ and then when we do it, we’re always getting in trouble.”

Public schools absolutely upholding freedom of expression is impossible unless schools have no rules about what you can wear or say, when, about what, and to whom. But having no rules would render effective teaching very difficult, if not impossible. Not surprisingly, this tends to come to a head with highly charged issues like the war in Vietnam, or gun violence, especially when schools and students are so immediately affected by them. It is no coincidence that of all the polls we’ve put on the Battle Map Facebook page the one that has gotten by far the most attention—as the Dispatch reported last month—was about guns in schools. And it is not surprising to see quotes like this from coverage of a battle in Lacey Township, New Jersey, where two students were suspended for a Facebook post showing pictures of a family trip to a gun range: “People like us are under attack,” said resident John Pinto.

No one should feel besieged by the schools for which they must pay. But we know that they often do, because when opposing views collide in public schools, one must lose. School choice would go a long way to ending that.

Public Schooling Battles: February Dispatch

February is a short month, so March caught me by surprise. Hence the late Dispatch. But if February had 31 days, it would be like this came out on March 11. Not that bad, right? Anyway, on with the February battles, which are heavy on books, slavery lessons, and…dances.

  • Books: February saw three new book challenges: Both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird were removed from required reading lists in Duluth, MN; Stick was removed from all classrooms and libraries below the high school level in Beaverton, OR; and The Hate U Give was pulled as an assignment in Springfield, MO. Three of these books are not newly contested territory in our public schools’ constant values and identity-based battles. Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird have been flashpoints for decades—and the latter, several times in the last few months—while we saw a battle over The Hate U Give in Texas in 2017.
  • Slavery illustrations: A teacher in Leander, TX, assigned students to draw pictures of themselves as slaves for homework and to “write one sentence that describes your surroundings using each of the 5 senses.” A New York City teacher made her African-American students lie down on the floor and then she stepped on their backs to try to give them a sense for how slavery felt. Needless to say these things disturbed many parents. But they aren’t the first concerning “immersion” assignments—which seem largely intended to help kids get a better feeling for historical events—we’ve tracked. In just the last few months we’ve also seen two in Georgia and one in Massachusetts.
  • Dances: Conflicts over dress codes at school dances are common—the Map has almost 10 such incidents—but in February we saw two dance-related battles that are much less familiar. Unprecedented, at least as far as the Map indicates, was a conflict in Weber, UT, over a policy prohibiting girls from saying “no” to boys who asked them to dance at a Valentine’s Day event. At issue was disempowering girls versus protecting the feelings of potentially rejected boys. The second battle was in Staten Island, New York, where the annual father-daughter dance was cancelled in an effort to end potentially discriminatory “gender-based” activities. There is only one similar dispute I could find on the Map, a 2012 conflict in Cranston, RI.

Of course there were more battles to check out, including over an offensive science project, the National Anthem, and Cool Runnings. Meanwhile, we have continued to post polls on the Battle Map Facebook page, and utterly dwarfed old voting records with a question, in the wake of the horrific Parkland, FL, school shooting, whether teachers should be able to bring guns to work. Around 5,500 people voted, with 85 percent saying “yes” in answer to “Should a teacher’s right to bear arms extend to the classroom?” 15 percent said “no.” Of course this is unscientific, but it certainly suggests that like so many things, non-negligible percentages of the population can have differing, mutually exclusive views on crucial issues. Which is, of course, why school choice is the only system of education consistent with diversity and liberty.

Public Schooling Battles: January Dispatch

January brought a new year to our calendars—more on calendars shortly—but a look at the public schooling values and identity-based battles for the month shows that nothing much has really changed. Some of the big battlegrounds of 2017—and years before that—are still big battlegrounds at the outset of 2018. Which should come as no surprise: A new year doesn’t suddenly make diverse people abandon the cultures, histories, and values they cherish.

Public Schooling Battles: December Dispatch

Did we experience heavenly peace in public schools this December? No, but the month tends to be more peaceful than most. With schools typically out for about the latter third of the month, there’s just less time to fight. We also, though, observed something that was out-of-the-ordinary peaceful for the month: no conflicts over Christmas in schools hit our radar. The last time that happened was in 2010. Every other year going back to 2005 we catalogued at least one, and typically three or four, battles over Christmas displays, singing religious carols in concerts, or other Christmas-related flaps. (The Map, by the way, lists years going back to 2001, but we only started collecting in 2005, and any years before that are there because conflicts we found in 2005 or later originated in those years.) Is this absence of acrimony because President Trump ended the war on Christmas? It’s just as likely that he sucked up so many headlines that less reporting was directed at Yuletide tiffs, but it could also be there just weren’t any significant Christmas battles in public schools this year.

Of course, there were some battles, including a couple of trends:

  • Dress Codes: This was also a trend in November, and in December it included an Iowa district dress coding a cancer patient who wore a knit beanie after a round of chemotherapy, and a girl in Kentucky who was sent home for an exposed collarbone.
  • Teacher Language: In New York City, a teacher who is also a comedian, and whose act is about her experiences as an educator, came under fire because part of her show involved her quoting an unidentified child saying, “Yo, n—a. What’s poppin’?” Meanwhile, a Colorado teacher was placed on administrative leave for writing on the classroom whiteboard, “I want to kill children but I am a loving Christian man who never would hurt a flee (sic) so please sit down and read.” Some parents believed it was a joke and supported the teacher.

Perhaps the biggest headline-grabbing incident of the month was the firing of a teacher in Utah for, he says accidentally, allowing grade school children to see some famous nude paintings, setting off a dispute over where art ends and indecency—or age inappropriateness—begins. This does not constitute a trend—there are no similar fights over nude paintings in the Battle Map database—which is perhaps a bit of a surprise. It could be, like teaching rigorous evolution, that most art teachers skip nudes to avoid controversy. Or perhaps most art taught in schools simply never reaches that level of sophistication. Or maybe people just aren’t that uncomfortable with nude paintings.

No matter what the reason for the dearth of art vs. decency battles, our newest (unscientific) poll on the Battle Map Facebook page asks whether schools should show nude paintings or sculptures in class. (By the way, you’ll love Venus’s shirt.) Vote now! Earlier December polls found 79 percent of respondents opposing corporal punishment in schools and 21 percent supporting it; 65 percent saying public schools should “formally recognize Christmas with displays, songs, or parties” and 35 percent opposing; and 74 percent believing that 2018 will be even more contentious in public schools than was 2017.

Will that 74 percent be correct? Stay tuned!

Public Schooling Battles: November Dispatch

Last month we posted our first “dispatch” from the frontlines of public schooling’s values and identity-based wars, conflicts ultimately entered on the Public Schooling Battle Map, an interactive database of such contests. The monthly dispatch is intended to lay out some of the themes we’ve observed in battles during the month, and to give you a sense over which basic values the public schools—inherently zero-sum arenas—have people battling. Here are the themes of November:

  • Discriminatory Dress Codes: Allegations that school dress codes discriminate against girls, proscribing lots of attire options for them on the grounds that they are too revealing—and may be distracting for boys—while prohibiting far less for the guys were prevalent in November. Of course, dress code conflicts are not new—the Battle Map contains nearly 90 such fights—but it seems those fueled by accusations of gender discrimination, as opposed to, say, freedom of expression, may be growing. Conflicts in November flared up in Oxnard, CA; Loyalsock Township, PA; and Washington Township, IN.
  • Sex Ed: Putting at odds basic beliefs about moral behavior, health, and age appropriateness of instruction, sex education has been a war zone for decades. But it seemed to have faded at bit over the last few years, eclipsed by contests over bathroom access and other, even hotter-button issues. But it made a bit of return in November, with battles over proposed online, parent-selected sex education in Utah; the presence of Sex, Etc. magazine—with articles such as “Where do you stand on Friends With Benefits?” and “The clitoris and pleasure: What you should know”—in a New Jersey middle school; and a proposal in Niagara Falls, NY that could involve escorting Planned Parenthood reps through schools.
  • Curricula: What public schools teach is, of course, controversial, beyond the extremely contentious subject of sex education. In November we also saw Mexican American studies—and one proposed textbook in particular—create fireworks in Texas; disagreements over the definition of “civic readiness” in Nebraska; and a proposal in Florida not just to let parents challenge textbooks, but propose replacements.

There were lots of other conflicts—over The Hate U Give, Bible study, and more—but these seem to be the trends.

By the way, over on the Battle Map Facebook page we have started posting twice-weekly polls on the kinds of conflicts we see repeatedly. They are not scientific, and we are just starting to build traffic on the page, but they often suggest significant divides among, presumably, perfectly decent people. For instance, our question whether school officials or students should decide which bathrooms and locker rooms students can use saw an almost 50/50 split, with 48 percent choosing “public school officials” and 52 percent “students.” Asked whether the tenor of American history taught in public schools tends to be “too critical” or “too celebratory,” 65 percent chose the latter, but a still significant 35 percent picked the former.

Now, head over to the Facebook page and vote on the active questions: Should student journalists or school administrators ultimately decide what gets published in school newspapers, and who should decide what kids read in public schools? Also, please send any values or identity-based battles you find to nmccluskey [at] cato.org. And ask yourself: Why should we be forced to fight, or sacrifice what matters to us, in educating our children? Why shouldn’t we be free to choose?