April 17, 2005

School Teaches Wrong Lesson -- Censors Students

Students do not shed their rights at the schoolhouse gate, according to the Supreme Court of the United States. However, student speech which disrupts the educational process may be suppressed by administrators in the interest of preserving the mission of the school. That is why this situation in Connecticut concerns me.

Four South Windsor high school students were sent home Friday after T-shirts they wore bearing anti-gay slogans caused disturbances, students and school officials said.

The boys, who wore white T-shirts with the statement, "Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve," say their constitutional right to free speech was violated.

"We were just voicing our opinions," said Steven Vendetta, who made the T-shirts with his friends, Kyle Shinfield, David Grimaldi and another student who was not identified by the Journal Inquirer of Manchester. "We didn't tell other people to think what we're thinking. We just told them what we think."

Hold it here -- THE SHIRTS caused the disturbance? How did the articles of apparel cause a disturbance? It must have been the words on the shirts that were the problem, the message that they conveyed. But how did they cause a disruption? Obviously, they did not -- it must have been the response to the shirts.

Other students say they felt threatened by the shirts, which also quoted Bible verses pertaining to homosexuality.

"I didn't feel safe at this school today," said Diana Rosen, who is co-president of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance.

You don't feel safe at school because of the words? They contained no threat. They expressed an opinion. Do you mean, Diana, that you feel unsafe when others are permitted to publicly disagree with you? How, pray tell (and I don't care if you are offended by my use of the word "pray") does the expression of an alternative religious, political, or social view make you unsafe? How do you expect to survive in American society, with its robust protection of free speech, if the expression of a contrary view reduces you to a tearful quivering mass of gelatin?

There is, of course more to the story, as this article makes clear.

Vendetta said the impetus for the T-shirts came earlier in the week, when students at the high school took part in the annual Day of Silence, a project orchestrated by the national Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. On the Day of Silence, students across the country do not speak, as a reminder of the discrimination and harassment experienced by homosexuals.

Students at the high school also wore signs showing their support for legislation that would recognize civil unions for same-sex couples in Connecticut, Vendetta said.

Vendetta and his friends, who oppose civil unions, wanted to make their feelings known.

"We felt if they could voice their opinions for it, we could voice our opinion against it," he said. "There is another side to this debate, and we're representing it."

So, after showing respect and tolerance for the views of the pro-homosexuality/pro-civil union students, who seem to have gone through the day unmolested, they decided to exercise the same rights, and expected the same courtesy. After all, the school clearly had created something of an open forum by allowing (perhaps promoting?) the earlier event. That made what these boys did fair game -- and it should have been expected.

Instead of tolerance, what the boys got from Ms. Rosen and her fellow students was something different. What they got from the administration was a threat of censorship, and the promise of a heckler's veto.

Almost immediately, the shirts drew comment and debate from other students, Vendetta said.

"I walked down the hall, and people were either cheering me on, yelling at me, or just sneering," he said. "It was the most intense experience."

Teachers brought the situation to the attention of high school Principal John DiIorio, who said Friday that the law protects students' freedom of speech, as long as that speech doesn't disrupt the educational process.

He told the boys they could continue to wear the shirts as long as they didn't become a distraction to others.

The students returned to class. But heated arguments and altercations ensued almost immediately, with some students becoming "very emotional," said student Sam Etter.

Rosen said that when she first saw the shirts, she "almost didn't believe it." She became very upset, crying and spending most of the day in administrators' and guidance counselor's offices. She also got into several arguments, she said.

"I saw a large crowd gathered during one of our lunch waves," said senior William "B.J." Haun. "A large debate was going on. It involved a lot of people. By the end of the day, everyone was talking about it and giving their two cents."

Eventually, DiIorio called the boys into the office and told them that other students were becoming "emotionally distraught," Shinfield said. He then asked the boys to remove the shirts. They refused and were sent home.

Gee, imagine that. The shirts promoted discussion. Where I come from, that is called learning, and perhaps even citizenship. Some of the discussions became heated and may have threatened to become physical. That should have resulted in the punishment of those who were fighting, not the censorship of the message. And poor, overly-sensitive Ms. Rosen seems to have spent the day lobbying for that censorship, when she was not confronting students and actively creating the disruption. Unfortunately, the spineless Principal DiIorio gave into those who wanted to make sure that the anti-homosexual/anti-civil union message was suppressed.

When all is said and done, I have three observations.

Steven Vendetta, Kyle Shinfield, David Grimaldi and unnamed friend, while the message on your shirts may have been a bit more juvenile than I would have liked, I applaud you for being willing to voice your beliefs even in the face of an administrator who was wishy-washy about protecting your civil rights. I wish there were more like you. I hope that you and your supporters continue to press for your rights to be respected -- and demand that either you be allowed to wear your shirts or that the Gay-Straight Alliance be shut down as incompatible with the policies of the school, which forbid free and open discussion of homosexuality.

Diana Rosen, you should be ashamed of yourself. If you had any principles, you would have been out there defending the rights of your classmates to voice their beliefs, even when (especially when) you disagree. You are more than willing to make use of the First Amendment when it suits your purposes, but your actions that day showed that you are a censor and a dictator at heart. And since you are head of the group that conducted the Day of Silence, I suggest that you do not plan on holding one again. You have supplied your opponents with the weapon they need to shut you down by asserting that your fear and emotional weakness are grounds for silencing those with whom you disagree. All they have to do now is claim that your group and its message frighten and anger them. You may as well disband the group now, because you have made it impossible for your message of "tolerance" to ever be taken seriously.

Principal DiIorio, you are a failure as an educator. You had the opportunity to teach citizenship and respect. What you taught was censorship. Your actions were fundamentally wrong, and betrayed the very values your school is supposed to be teaching. At the first sign of a problem, you should have been on the PA system reminding the students of the values contained in the First Amendment, their obligation to tolerate messages with which they disagree, and the school's obligation to protect the rights of every student. You didn't. Instead you let the situation get out of control, and then silenced the victims. What you have taught is that hurt feelings and offended ideologies matter more than the US Constitution. In other words, you have undermined one of the very things your school is responsible for teaching. More to the point, you would NEVER have shut down the Day of Silence because students were angry, offended or "scared" by the message it communicated. You are simply a PC weenie who set these boys up to take a fall. You have no legitimate place in education.

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