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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Moral panic in public schools

I could never have been a public school teacher, much less administrator. And I have tremendous respect and admiration for those who do that job, especially those who do it well. But then there are those who don't do it well or who repeatedly fall prey to moral panics . . .

1) The ACLU last week settledlawsuit by a student against the Tunkhannock Area School District (Wyoming County, PA), after a school principal rummaged through a student's cell phone, found naked and partially naked pictures, suspended the student and called the police and the district attorney. The student and her attorney got $ 33,000, with no admission of wrongdoing. The principal apparently needed to look very hard and take multiple steps to find the pictures, which also were stored on her phone and never shared with anyone (other than the girl's long-time (for high school) boyfriend). Just a slight overreaction there.

Here's the interesting part: The settlement is only as to the school; the lawsuit continues against former DA George Skumanick, who threatened to prosecute N.N.; Police Detective David Ide, who investigated and viewed the images; and Jeff Mitchell, the current Wyoming County District Attorney. If those names sound familiar, this case is part of the big sexting scandal in which the (now former) DA threatened to prosecute almost two-dozen high school students on child pornography charges unless they agreed to participate in a re-education course about why sexting (and other teen sexuality) were wrong. Three girls refused to take the course and filed suit, obtaining a preliminary injunction that was affirmed by the Third Circuit. The plaintiff in this case was one of seventeen students who went into the re-education program and her forced participation in it is part of her constitutional claim.

2) Keep-A-Breast is a breast cancer awareness organization specifically targeting young women and teen-age (motto: "Never Let Anyone Tell You 'You're Too Young for Breast Cancer''"). Given the target audience, the organization went for the lowest common denominator--putting out a line of t-shirts, rubber bracelets, and other swag with slogans such as "I love boobies," "I heart boobies," "Love your boobies" . . . you get the point. I previously considered the use of sexually suggestive humor in furtherance of important causes--whether it works and whether it is a good idea. Well, it turns out that school officials in several states have cracked down on wearing these clothes in school, suspending students or requiring them to turn them inside out so the text does not show.

Just a slight over-reaction, no? One principal insisted it was not the "proper way" to call attention to the cause. On the other hand, that message has people talking. Most important, however sophomoric (I hesitate to call the word boobies "dirty" or "sexually suggestive") it resonates with the target audience, the very group of kids (especially girls) we want thinking about this issue. Is that really disruptive to the school and educational environment? And is it really about the manner of speech? Should we really believe that the principal at Baltic High School in South Dakota would not have objected to a t-shirt that said, coldly, "Save the Breasts" or "Keep-A-Breast"? I imagine the reaction would have been the same--suggesting that this is just about keeping kids from talking about certain things.

In our post-Morse world, the students do not have a prayer on a First Amendment claim. But might officials exercise a little bit of First-Amendment-informed common sense?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 23, 2010 at 01:18 PM in Current Affairs, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink


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Asking for a book to be banned and asking for dress guidelines are two different things.

The difficult thing with clothing is that it is hard to manage in an equitable way. Some students will use clothing in a provocative manner in an effort to cause disruption and gain attention. (If you doubt this, spend more time in high schools.) On the flip side, administrators and teachers over-react to anyone 'disrespecting their authority.'

I agree that the likely reason why people seeking to ban the "Love your boobies" shirts is the shock value and, to use the post's title, moral panic. Nevertheless, that does not mean there is no basis at all for regulating dress at school.

For example, how much clothing should students be allowed to not where? Should skirts and dresses on girls go to their ankles? To their knees? No more higher than mid-thigh? Or, should female students be allowed to wear their bikinis and lingerie? (Once again, if you think the idea of a school student wanting to wear their bikini to school is ridiculous, hang around more public high schools.)

As for males, should they be allowed to have their pants sag, showing their underwear? How much underwear should be shown? Is a half-inch okay? A whole inch? The full bottom?

It is easy to scoff at these examples, and to be incredulous at the actions of administrators and teachers, but clothing decisions are nothing if not difficult. You'd be surprised at how often this sort of thing comes up.

That's why I'd always recommend uniforms, as silly as they might seem.

As for the book banning -- those people have their own special circles where the fires are hot. Then again, I married a librarian—I may be biased.

Posted by: John W. Nelson | Sep 24, 2010 11:39:23 AM

My first struggle with these idiots occurred in high school, against a protowingnut (it was a long time ago) and her crusade for decency in the classroom and high school library. She eventually put a petition up in front of the school board to remove a book from the curriculum and library because it "encouraged disrespect for authority."

It was pretty obvious that she had no sense of irony: The book she wanted to censor was Fahrenheit 451.

The scary part? The school board only voted 43 against her proposal...

Posted by: C.E. Petit | Sep 24, 2010 11:20:14 AM

"Love your boobies" may get younger audiences talking, but I think that with these groups its more about the 'shock value' than anything else. I believe that they are more amused by this than they are impacted by it. With that said, I will not underestimate some students ability to understand the true meaning and significance of what's behind the wording either.

Posted by: Clay Boggess | Sep 24, 2010 10:19:24 AM

Just a random quick aside: Just as you can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater; you can't yell "Boobies" in the hormonal flux of a public high school.

Posted by: John W. Nelson | Sep 23, 2010 10:43:14 PM

I'm going to dissent on the "Save the Boobies" T-Shirts. It is a different kind of case from the cell-phone search.

School attire has both the ability to act as speech and the ability to distract. I agree that taking issue over the shirts on moral grounds is wrong, but I see very real reasons why the shirts could be an issue because of the distractions they cause.

It's easy to forget that high school students are not college students are not law students. There is a progression of maturity and responsibility that these students go through, but more importantly there is also a physical change in how they approach the world because of brain and hormonal developments.

These shirts may have caused distractions for other students. Whether or not other students should be distracted is moot if they are, indeed, being distracted. This is a valid, and constitutional, reason for restricting the wearing of these shirts. (Constitutional in the old-sense, not the post-Morse "We don't need no stinking Constitution" sense.)

Then again, I'd probably advocate uniforms myself. I think it solves the situation by laying down clear ground rules rather than relying on ad hoc decisions made by administrators who might be acting in a moral panic rather than on reason.

Posted by: John W. Nelson | Sep 23, 2010 10:39:45 PM

It's prurience masked by a claim of prudery.

Posted by: Kristen | Sep 23, 2010 8:44:58 PM

Do you really think First-Amendment-informed common sense has a prayer (so to speak) against religiously-inspired prudery?

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Sep 23, 2010 1:23:12 PM

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