I served as a principal of public schools for nearly 20 years, so it is with tremendous empathy toward the administrators at Morgan Hill’s Live Oak High School that I write this week’s post. I also have empathy for the students on both sides of the political maelstrom.
One of the reasons I earned the respect from the preponderance of my former students was my unwavering respect for the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. I most often tried to bring students with disparate viewpoints together in the same room at the same time, beginning with the student leaders of the various sides. I also relied on my student government elected leaders to be involved to help facilitate the dialogue. If student government elections are done well, then students trust their student leaders. Student government leaders can bring remarkable clarity to contentious issues quickly.
The First Amendment along with the entire Bill of Rights was adopted nearly 220 years ago to ensure certain guarantees for civil liberties of every American. The U.S. Constitution is the ultimate source of law in this country and it must be used to be the guiding document behind controversial decisions in schools.
It might be instructive here to cite the text of the First Amendment:
“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.”
No matter how we cut it race issues are just beneath the surface of our work in schools. Too often the issues that manifest themselves on Cinco de Mayo celebrations have not been adequately discussed in classes, debates or in seminars. I fear our curriculum has been narrowed since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. History/Social Science classes have dwindled in importance. This is a very sad commentary of schools today and I think we must reinvigorate the teaching of history, government, civics, psychology, sociology, and economics in all high schools. We should have school summits about immigration, Bill of Rights, gang affiliation, law-related education and the like.
As a principal, sometimes I got split-second decisions right and sometimes I got them wrong. I hope the record demonstrates that my “batting average” on upholding the U.S. Constitution was close to perfect. Safety for all was the primary consideration when confronting contentious issues or “incendiary” words/behavior from students, parents or faculty. Being a principal or school administrator in today’s increasingly polarized world is difficult to say the least, however, if administrators hold the Constitutional precepts sacrosanct we all would be better off.
Scott Herhold, columnist for the SJ Mercury News said it best in his column on Saturday, “It was still a mistake for an assistant principal to ask them to turn T-shirts inside out or go home. It was a mistake not to let them wear the flag…I don’t say that because I’m a flag-waving patriot. I loathe the simple dictums of the tea party movement. I hate the Arizona law that allows cops to demand papers on the street…But as a professional rabble-rouser, I believe in free speech, even offensive speech. And I don’t think an American flag T-shirt meets the standard for squelching.”
I hope Live Oak High School administration will use this opportunity even as the school year winds down to bring student leaders on all sides of the issue together with the most respected members of the faculty and staff to create a 1 year plan to ameliorate the issues that surfaced last Wednesday. At some point involve the community’s leaders, PTA, police, and legal community to the table for the development of a comprehensive plan going forward.