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Jack Weinstein

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Last week Kansas high school student Emma Sullivan visited her state capital and then tweeted that she wished she could tell her governor that “he sucked” in person. She then ended the tweet with the hashtag: “#heblowsalot.” I will admit, I think that’s a funny hashtag.

One of the Governor’s staff members found the tweet and called the Principal who demanded she write a letter of apology. Then the Governor experienced The Streisand Effect, the online phenomenon in which the attempt to hide something calls disproportionate attention to the thing one is trying to hide. In response to the fracas, Sullivan’s Twitter followers went from about fifty people to over 8,000, and media coverage went national. Today, Governor Brownback apologized for the reaction; the complete opposite of what his Communications Director wanted. No one is asking Sullivan to apologize anymore.

What interests me is not the reaction to the tweet – karma and the Streisand Effect took care of that. I am concerned, instead, with the fact that is was the Principal who demanded Sullivan write an apology, and that this was done in response to a political opinion expressed through a student’s personal account. The US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals found that schools do not have the right to discipline students for off-campus behavior that does not risk significant disruption, a finding that is enhanced, in this case, by Sullivan being eighteen years old and a legal adult. They did not have a compelling legal interest in disciplining her other than stopping the browbeating from the Governor’s office.

But that’s a legal question; as a philosopher I have to ask the moral version. Should schools discipline students for off-campus behavior? The answer in favor is obvious, kids need to learn that there are consequences for their action and school discipline often seems more serious than punishments at home. But the argument against can be summarized like this: school kids are whole people and like workers who should be allowed to have lives outside of their employment, kids need places where they can act independently of school authority. I don’t see that she did anything wrong (except perhaps using rude language), but even if she had, shouldn’t she have the space to act out without school intervention? Parents, police, neighbors, religious communities, all have different kind of authority over kids’ lives; there is no shortage of people to yell at them. Isn’t school oversight of this kind just another reason to hate school and the authorities that represent it every day?

Schools are largely about socialization – they educate pupils to acquiesce to community standards at least as much as they teach skills and facts. (For more about this, listen to Michael Apple’s episode of WHY?) But this standard is not unchallengeable. In fact some might find it profoundly objectionable, as many do when schools refuse to let gay students attend proms with same-sex dates. If the school has authority over every aspect of a kids’ life, then there is no venue for him or her to challenge those standards. And, what happens when the parents’ standards contradict the schools’? On campus, the school has final authority, but who has it on the street, in the home, or out in the community? Why should school rules trump all other authority?

Sullivan won this round; the school and the Governor were adequately humbled. But what if no one had come to her defense and who will protect her when the school inevitably finds another excuse to punish her for no reason other than retribution? At root, these questions point to deep controversies about what it means to be an independent child and a full human being. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

3 comments on “How much authority should schools have over a child’s life?

  1. Scottso says:

    I'd bet this is the last one Emma wins. She could be easily fired from a job as an adult for such behavior. Swan song of innocence, I'd say. America doesn't believe in private life anymore.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hah! As a product of Philadelphia Catholic schools, I can relate. Adults had no qualms about calling the principal upon seeing a student in uniform at the local 7-eleven during school hours or witnessing a girl in a kilt lighting up her cigarette at the mall after school. Oddly, this seemed rational to me as a student, but I will defend my child's right to free speech to the end. Is it because I'm a lawyer, a helicopter parent, or something else? Maybe it is the bigger philosophical question.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “I will defend my child's right to free speech to the end. Is it because I'm a lawyer, a helicopter parent, or something else? Maybe it is the bigger philosophical question.”

    Will you similarly put up with her directing that same ennobling, complimentary language toward you yourself? Should she feel similarly free to direct such language at a judge in a courtroom? Where are the appropriate limits?

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