South High School Sucks
April 8, 2002 11:37 PM   Subscribe

South High School Sucks but not for the normal reasons that most students give. Apparently four students were suspended for a poll on their website, "the multiple-choice topic of whether a certain assistant principal at the school most closely resembles a witch, Big Bird, or a dead body." David tells that school officials told him the poll is a "death threat." So they've taken the ball and done something positive with it. They've been mentioned in the WSJ opinion pages, and they're starting a coalition that's attempting to help kids practice free speech in their schools.
posted by Ufez Jones (14 comments total)
This happened in a form to some of my friends in high school. They were suspended for selling a (fairly crappy, yet humorous) zine that contained some foul language, drug references, and criticisms of the faculty and football team, which was praised year round at my school. They all went to a private school and probably got a better education, so i guess they got the last laugh anyway.
posted by Ufez Jones at 11:39 PM on April 8, 2002

I'd say that if I was that Assistant Principal, I'd probably be freaked by reading that poll. Maybe a little scared of being compared to a 'dead body'. Free speech is not without responsibility, and it brings it into disrepute when people abuse it to just be plain hurtful against people.
posted by boneybaloney at 12:22 AM on April 9, 2002

boneybaloney, while there is some responsibility involved with free speech, that doesn't seem to be what is at issue here. All I see, is some students calling an administrator some funny (or not-so-funny) names and the administrator getting pissed off and having them suspended.

If these students had said these things to the administrator's face, at school, fine, suspend them for being disrespectful little punks, however that's not anywhere close to what happened. These students did this in their spare time off of school property and IMHO made no clear threats against the administrator in question.

Honestly, I think the administrator who was compared to a corpse needs to get some thicker skin and do a reality check. Anyone, involved with public education should be fully aware that some students not liking you and probably calling you names comes with the territory. I'm not justifying name calling or saying that its a decidedly couth thing to do; only that its to be expected. If you don't think you're up to handling those types of comments thrown at you then maybe being an administrator at a public school isn't for you.
posted by darainwa at 1:03 AM on April 9, 2002

Well, here she is. To me, she looks fine. Not dead. Not a witch. She might be big and friendly like Big Bird, but she doesn't have that avian look.

> If these students had said these things to the
> administrator's face, at school, fine, suspend them

And they should be able to put posters up around town. If their speech is free, it's free. In fact, let them call her lardass at school. To avoid disrupting things, though, maybe they should be required to whisper their insults in her ear before school starts. "Morning, fishlips." "Have a nice day, corpse face."

And the administrator, who also lives in the land o' freely complaining about free speech, should mock the kids right back. Because it's fair. It's free speech. I bet at least one of them is pimply, one is tiny, one is scrawny, one is dim, etc. Easy targets. She could do it from home on her own web page.

Screw it. I don't care. It's another suspension case that should have been settled quietly and differently -- the administrator could have asked them to remove what she though was offensive and the kids (or their parents) could have been civilized and complied. Instead, I smell lawyers. Fee speech.
posted by pracowity at 2:10 AM on April 9, 2002

"And they should be able to put posters up around town."

I think that would border on harassment. Its one thing to run a website that you are requied to choose to look at that has its ideas well defined (hint: Its another to force someone who you are passing commentary on to see and hear what you have to say. You free speech ends when it impinges on my right to peace and quiet (most are nice enough to except protests, however these often get broken up for disturbing the peace).

Just like I might not agree with everything I see and hear on TV or in the Newspaper, I am free to ignore that, just as the writers are free to have their say. If, however, I see another one of those "Free XYZ imprisoned wrongly by our gov't" posters on a lampost, I swear I will rip it off, because they are forcing me to read their viewpoint.

Freedom of ignorance is just as much a right as freedom of speech. And, if anything, is a more important right to a school administrator than anyone.

Just imagine if our politicians did the same things as these administrators did whenever something nasty was said about them. "Joe, you said I'm a killer because I didn't give money to homeless people. That's not nice, so I'm passing an anti-joe law." It wouldn't fly 2 inches.
posted by shepd at 2:45 AM on April 9, 2002

shepd, I disagree. You have the right to ignore anything; but I do not believe that anyone has the right to not be bothered, or not be offended. If expression is made in a public area, and you happen to see/hear it, that is not the same thing as "impinging on your right to peace and quiet."

I would turn what you said around, in fact, and say that your right to peace and quiet in a public place ends when it impinges on my right to freedom of expression.

Of course, you have a right to peace and quiet in your own home, but I don't believe you have the right when in public to insist that you never see or hear anything that might bother you. It is the price we pay for living among other people.

One other price is the necessity to act civil, which is probably why we DON'T see more posters out there comparing teachers' visages to that of Big Bird. What the students did was rude, but I believe it was well within their rights, whether on a web site or postered all over the city. A suspension is an overreaction. Perhaps a better reaction would be a required project that would focus on teaching the students some empathy.

(Full disclosure: in high school, I wrote a satirical poem, a rip off of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, in which the principal and several teachers were mercilessly made fun of, and which ended with the school being blown up. I was a TA at the time, so I had access to the ditto machine. I ran off a few hundred copies and left them throughout the school. I heard that the administration were furious, but I never got caught -- I was not known as a troublemaking type. Nowdays I would probably get a police record for "threatening to bomb the high school." Times have changed.)
posted by litlnemo at 4:34 AM on April 9, 2002

You! We have been looking for that wrongdoer for years, young lady! And now we know!

The Principal
Nathan Hale High School
Jumping into his car to come and get you right now.
posted by pracowity at 4:59 AM on April 9, 2002

O.K. -- here's what bugs me about this. On the one hand, it does look like oversensitivity on the school's part; certainly, a more moderate response might have been more productive: the administrator could have met with the kids and asked them to talk the fact that they are choosing to publicly mock her appearance. Most students, however obnoxious, don't really want to believe they are doing bad or cruel things. It might not have worked, but it would have been an opportunity to use the students actions to teach them something about the fact that administrators are also human beings.

But on the other hand, these kids were very deliberately insulting to a school official in language they are now old enough to know is a hot button (and if they don't know, they need to learn, fast) -- they posted flyers around the school to advertise the site and the poll, according to the City Pages story. If true, they were pretty persistent in getting their sorry little experiment in free speech noticed. They were taunting the administration. They got burned. Would I have had them suspended? No. But it is not the worst thing that could have happened.

I am much more concerned about the censorship being performed in schools around students expressing political views; guys like these have a way of grabbing all the attention with their antics. I don't think their case is worth crying over.
posted by BT at 5:12 AM on April 9, 2002

It has been over a decade since my high school days. Still, even in those less sensitive times, I quickly realized that students do not have rights like an adult citizen. It is not fair, but I realized any resentment I might feel about the matter would be moot after I graduated. It was strangely settling to realize that. Sure there were accounts of seeming injustice. But I never saw any kids coming back to protest these matters after getting out of school. It is the job of the school administrators to keep the peace. That someone might gain a little book-learnin' along the way always seemed incidental. The real lessons ultimately were social, and in many cases, seemed to center around knowing which conflicts were worth fighting over and which were worth walking away from.
posted by piskycritters at 5:36 AM on April 9, 2002

i published an underground newspaper when i was in high school.
looking bac -- as much as i would like to believe that i was precociously sophisticated -- much of my rhetoric seems overwraught, my positions petty, and my arguments fallacious.
but shit, man. i was in high school. and the very act of testing the envelope of free speech and subversion by publishing a little broadsheet -- as opposed to say, planting a pipe-bomb, or coating the stairs in oil, or hijacking the shipment of foetal pigs and crucifying them on selected varsity cheerleaders' lockers (all of which happened when i was in school) -- was pretty sophisticated, if not entirely original.

and i learned a valuable lesson from my little experiment. because while i was unofficially blacklisted and punished in a number of subtle and entirely unprovable ways involving my official, school-related activities, the school did not try to suspend me. This goes to show that maybe my administrators were not quite as out to lunch as i liked to portray them -- and as i watched my bomb-planting and pig-crucifying colleagues get suspended, expelled, or arrested -- i began to understand the genius of free-speech.

What is at issue is really not the quality or ingenuity of the students' invective, nor is it whether the administration is actually full of 'curruption and graft', as the website says it is. The issue is that the designation of 'threat' is robbed of its power when it is irresponsibly used to curtail the inevitable whining of some 18-year old -- and when that is then extended to justify interrupting the education of the students and leaving a mark on their academic records, then the school is damaging its credibility and reinforcing the very need to test authority and push the envelope with this sort of thing.

making a distinction between political speech writ large and even immature speech regarding the local politics of the school also misses the point, i think. because making that distinction still requires the authority to dictate what is 'acceptable disruptive speech' and what is not. which still allows the administration the ability to censor the students' speech.

i just think it's a great exercise. and these kids will grow up and probably blush a little bit about the crudeness of their joke. but hopefully they'll keep being antagonistic towards overbearing and irrational application of beurocracy and authority. The school system which they are attacking helped shape them, and it should be proud.
posted by milkman at 7:40 AM on April 9, 2002

Speaking of suspensions, here's the update on that knife-and-onion kid.
posted by pracowity at 8:21 AM on April 9, 2002

Remember all the jokes about Al Gore being only slightly more animated than a corpse? According to this school's reasoning, the Secret Service should have arrested all those comedians for threatening to assassinate the Vice-President.

posted by Mars Saxman at 8:52 AM on April 9, 2002

litlnemo, wether or not I agree with it (sometimes I do, sometimes I don't) you have the right not to be harassed, and you have the right to complain about anything you consider a disruption to the peace to the police.

As far as harassment goes, a judge will decide. And, as far as disturbing the peace goes, the police decide.

All of these rights stand, outside or inside one's home. And its important they do, or else those looneys that scream all day on the streets drive everyone NUTS. :-)

You are right that you don't have any right to stop anyone writing their thoughts down on a semi-private forum (like a website) and I completely agree, something like this doesn't deserve a suspension -- it deserves a good sitdown between the students, their parents, and the people whose integrity has been called into question on the website.

As it stands, those students are going to back to school hating these administrators even more. Not a good thing. Wouldn't it have been better for all involved if they could have sorted out their differences?
posted by shepd at 11:21 AM on April 9, 2002

shepd, what you say there is fairly common-sense. It was your example above about the posters that I took issue with. I mean, hey, I'm offended by some people's clothing, but that doesn't mean I have the right to keep them off the streets for having bad taste. The whole idea of "the right not to be bothered" opens up a major can of worms. This is not to say that a lot of people wouldn't support it, though. For example, it's certainly one of the impulses behind anti-flag-burning crusades.

pracowity, the principal at Nathan Hale the year I wrote the poem was a woman. So, HA!
posted by litlnemo at 4:13 PM on April 9, 2002

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