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April 20, 2005

Filth Or Freedom

Is loving one's vagina grounds for being suspended or expelled from school? Apparently it is in Winona, Minnesota. It seems that two students at Winona High School saw The Vagina Monologues, and wore buttons to school that read "I [heart] My Vagina".

Two Winona High School students have found themselves in hot water with school officials.

Why? Because after Carrie Rethlefsen attended a performance of the play "The Vagina Monologues" last month, she and Emily Nixon wore buttons to school that read: "I [heart] My Vagina."

School leaders said that the pin is inappropriate and that the discomfort it causes trumps the girls' right to free speech. The girls disagree. And despite repeated threats of suspension and expulsion, Rethlefsen has continued to wear her button.

The girls have won support from other students and community members.

More than 100 students have ordered T-shirts bearing "I [heart] My Vagina" for girls and "I Support Your Vagina" for boys.

"We can't really find out what is inappropriate about it," Rethlefsen, 18, said of the button she wears to raise awareness about women's issues. "I don't think banning things like that is appropriate."

Hmmmm.....

I'll tell you, I have some mixed emotions here. There is clearly some redeeming content here, designed to address an "Important Issue" in society. I don't particularly want to see that stifled. Given that we are dealing with high school students, it isn't like they are unfamiliar with what a vagina is, nor with the issues in question. So while I wish the girls would find a different way to address the women's issues (after all, one act in the play glorifies the sexual abuse of a young girl by a lesbian babysitter who plies her with alcohol) I don't find the button that disruptive. I think the school administrators have likely made a serious mistake in their handling of the situation.

The buttons were not disruptive, it seems, until spotted by a secretary. Later, one teacher appears to have completely over-reacted.

Rethlefsen said school officials first told her the button was inappropriate in mid-March when a school secretary spotted it. That started a string of visits -- and debates -- with teachers, counselors, an assistant principal and the principal. A teacher barred Rethlefsen from her classroom as long as she wore her button.

"The principal said that by wearing the pin, I was giving people wrong ideas," Rethlefsen said. "That I was giving an open invitation [to guys]."

The girls said they tried to explain that the buttons are meant to spark discussion about violence against women, about women's rights. But Principal Nancy Wondrasch said others find the buttons offensive.

"We support free speech," she said. "But when it does infringe on other people's rights and our school policies, then we need to take a look at that."

Wondrasch said she thought they had worked out a compromise with the girls, allowing them to set up a table in the school to discuss women's issues. But Rethlefsen said school officials are insisting that they review and approve any information the girls want to present.

And then comes the issue of the shirts that the girls have ordered. Again, that is political speech that is protected. Here is where the school has gotten particularly heavy-handed, even more that with the prior approval requirement for the information table, which doesn't strike me as particularly unreasonable except for the circumstances that led up to that "compromise".

Nixon said more than 100 students are expected to wear the shirts. She added that officials have threatened real consequences if that happens.

"They told us that if a single person showed up wearing them, we're going to get expelled," she said. "People are going to wear them anyway."

And these shirts are where I could see a problem arising -- actually the same problem that might have been feared by those who objected to the buttons. What happens when the first satirist shows up wearing a shirt that says "I [heart] My Penis"? What about "My Penis [hearts] Your Vagina"? The whole thing has the potential to spiral out of control. Do we want various and sundry vaginas and penises, each with a different message, wandering the hallways of the high school? Is the decision of the school administration really all that unreasonable?

Frankly, I'm not sure. On the one hand, I applaud the girls in question and their supporters for dealing seriously with a serious issue. On the other, I see the potential difficulties. I am, without question, loathe to see prior restraint based upon a mere hypothetical. And I don't see how or where a bright line can be drawn between supporting the constitutional rights of students and lat the same time letting them know when they have crossed a line. If anything, this case is much more difficult than the Day of Silence/Day of Truth conflict I wrote about over the weekend.

Still, in the end I have to side with the "Vagina Warriors". They seem to have learned their lessons well when it comes to exercising their civil rights. Here's hoping they have learned to do so responsibly and respectfully.

UPDATE: Well, today was t-shirt day in Winona. About 40 kids wore the shirts -- turned inside out -- and two wore them right-side-out. The two girls were suspended.

After all the radio interviews, after all the newspaper stories and television stories and hundreds and hundreds of e-mails, Carrie Rethlefsen ended her lesson in free speech and democracy today by doing a simple thing:

She walked into school with her "I [heart] My Vagina" T-shirt's message in plain sight. About 40 classmates had walked in just seconds before after turning their T-shirts inside out.

And, minutes later, she emerged with another lesson learned. The administrators at Winona Senior High School mean what they say. They sent her home for the day.

"I'm happy," said Rethlefsen, 18. "I got my message out there."

Also sent home was senior Katelyn Delvaux.

Congratulations, girls, for standing up for freedom of speech in schools.



» Zero Intelligence links with: Vagina Monologue buttons forbidden at Minnesota school



|| Greg, 10:57 PM || Permalink || Comments (3) || Comments

Comments on Filth Or Freedom

I totally agree with your conclusion. The key is what you said, "political speech". They have chosen a politically correct way to express their views. Also I do not have a problem with boys wearing "My penis hearts your vagina" t-shirts. It's true, we all know it's true, why are we always so afraid of hearing the honest truth? We as a culture have a weird relationship with sex. The great majority of us like it, our media outlets go nuts with it and yet we try to stifle one another when it comes to talking about it OPENLY and HONESTLY...why??????????

Laura H.

|| Posted by Laura Harmon, April 21, 2005 08:30 AM ||

Responsibly and respectfully, indeed. Now, imagine the The Vagina Monologues done in sign language.

http://kokonutpundits.blogspot.com/2005/02/virginia-monologues.html

|| Posted by mcconnell, April 21, 2005 11:04 PM ||

Sometimes I wonder if there is traumatic amnesia surrounding adolescence for most adults. It's clear that most adults in positions of authority have absolutely no sense of humor or proportion. No, strike that. Adults in positions of authority who have no sense of humor end up in the news after a stunt like this.

Yes, it's a serious point being made. It happens to be one I agree with (revealing bias) but just for the sake of argument - let's say that someone came to school with a shirt saying "Christian Identity is Half Right".

Would it be better to freak out at such an "obviously" racist shirt - or allow the wearer to take the lumps God gave them the horse-sense to expect? Perhaps there's a third way - like asking them what reaction they were hoping to provoke by it, and therefore discovering the real issue.

Broadening the context of an issue that has been relegated to "taboo, do not speak of this, it's tacky" when there are issues that arise on a daily basis simply because they are NEVER discussed is vital. If it isn't handled appropriately by adults , the problem simply continues.

This is now mission-critical to schools, parents and society alike; you see, simply refusing to discuss an issue no longer suffices. The information is available to any child who has access to the Internet. And they do. If you or your school filters content, libraries do not. And very likely their OWN computer does not - even if you think it does.

Especially if you are sure it does, in direct correspondence to how serious you are about protecting their "innocence."

I attended Catholic parochial schools. There may have been physical virgins there, but by 7th grade , I think I was the closest thing to an "innocent."

Now; an example from my own life. I was sent to a Jesuit boarding school in 9th grade.

There, I was forced to learn Latin. I came to appreciate Latin in time, but it seemed even more of an imposition than religion class then. So, in cahoots with others in my class, a phrase appeared on the board:

SEMPER PENIS ERECTUS

Fr. Cletus walked in, saw it, snorted, and erased it, commenting only that we seemed to have mastered the proper tenses and declensions.

In other words, he took it as seriously as the matter it deserved. The essence, of course, was not to say "penis," it was to see what a Jesuit teacher would do when the word "penis" appeared in a properly constructed sentence.

There is a deeper and more important issue here; and that is this; adolescents test adults all the time. Adults often see this as disrespect for their authority, or defiance, per se, rather than the consequence of failing the test.

The girls said they tried to explain that the buttons are meant to spark discussion about violence against women, about women's rights. But Principal Nancy Wondrasch said others find the buttons offensive.

"We support free speech," she said. "But when it does infringe on other people's rights and our school policies, then we need to take a look at that."

Wondrasch said she thought they had worked out a compromise with the girls, allowing them to set up a table in the school to discuss women's issues. But Rethlefsen said school officials are insisting that they review and approve any information the girls want to present.

They think this is a solution. And the girls in question know that the principle and teacher think this is a reasonable "compromise."

That does not mean that the girls will not discuss vaginae, women's issues, or bore/stroke compatibility factors in terms that would make a stevedore faint. They will discuss them, and probably on a more committed and expanded level, using this experience as the classic example that it is.

In order to avoid "offending" people (who really should be offended in a useful way), or dealing with the issue as a "pass-fail" test to see if they were "cool" enough to be trusted with serious issues, this school has pretty much established that the first time they will ever hear about an "issue" is when it's already beyond the point where it can be dealt with.

Worse yet, I'd say that is likely the most reasonable way for adolescents to deal with authority of this type. Network around it when possible, when not possible, provoke them into actions that will get them either fired or promoted.

This was the norm when I was in junior high and high school. If such an "issue" came up in front of a teacher or administrator, it was almost always a test. The good ones passed, the bad ones flunked. In no way was the "pass" dependent upon their approval or disapproval of the issue itself, it was based on their reaction to having to deal with it at all.

"Question Authority - Answers will count for 80% of your grade."

|| Posted by Bob King, April 26, 2005 09:41 AM ||
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