Thursday, September 20, 2007

Bad education.

Sometimes, school-aged kids stand up in righteous indignation and reinstill your faith in humanity because you see that, after all is said and done, they really do care about more than just the the latest clothing styles or the latest music or what’s going on on their MySpace pages, that, after all is said and done, they really do care about what is going on in the world and that they want to do something about it.

Maybe not this time.

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) Sept. 20 - Two students in northern New Jersey can
wear buttons featuring a picture of Hitler youth to protest a school uniform policy, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Joseph A. Greenaway Jr. sided with the parents of the students, who had been threatened with suspension last fall for wearing the buttons. However, the judge added in his ruling that the boys will not be allowed to distribute the buttons at school.

Citing a 1969 case in Iowa involving students who wore black arm bands to protest the Vietnam War, Greenaway wrote that “a student may not be punished for merely expressing views unless the school has reason to believe that the speech or expression will ‘materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.’”

The buttons bear the words “no school uniforms” with a slash through them superimposed on a photo of young boys wearing identical shirts and neckerchiefs. There are no swastikas visible on the buttons, but the parties agreed that they depict members of Hitler youth.

After the suspension threat, the boys’ parents filed a federal lawsuit claiming the district stifled the children’s First Amendment free speech rights.

District lawyers asserted that the image of the Hitler youth was abhorrent because it conveyed intolerance and racial inequality represented by Nazism.

If you’ve read my stuff here before, you know that I am a teacher (and a parent and a citizen) who is all for students’ rights, especially the right to express themselves and to try to influence school policy. I’ve helped kids write petitions, and I have signed student petitions. I have sat sat with students at school board meetings, listening to them read statements of protest that we wrote together. We talk about the rights of students all the time, so the kids know that they have them. That they have them most of the time. In many cases. But not in all cases. In fact, that’s what the Tinker decision was about: the legal limits on students’ free speech in a public school. Because a school cannot operate if everything that is “legal and fair” outside of a school is also fair and legal inside the school walls.

And we also talk about the responsibilities that go along with those rights. Like the right of my Jewish students (and colleagues) to not have to be offended by having Nazi imagery stuck in their faces all day while at school, Nazi imagery which is being invoked and exploited to make a point about a student dress code? Um, but, excuse me? Do these kids (and the adults behind them) really believe that somehow we can equate rules that dictate how students dress when they come to school with what the Nazis did? REALLY? Being told to tuck in your shirt or to not expose too much cleavage is the same as slaughtering people by the millions?

We on the Left - and some folks on the Right (hi, Rush!) - tend to throw that word “Nazi” around a bit too easily. Not all conservatives are fascists, no matter how angry and frustrated we might be with them. Sticking a label like “Nazi” on every person with whom we disagree is as bad as the right-wingers slapping the label “godless communist” or “socialist” on any progressive with whom they might disagree. And frankly, I think that it waters-down and softens the real meaning of the word. It denigrates the memory of those who suffered and died fighting the Nazis, and those who were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. It almost helps to make the word more acceptable, more conversational: just another catch-word for those we oppose.

Which means it becomes less scary.

School administrators who want to impose dress codes may be wrong-headed, but they are not “Nazis.” Somebody should have taught these kids about the true nature of the Nazis - and about their long list of horrific crimes - long before this issue came up. If someone had done a better job of teaching them the barbaric real history of National Socialism in Germany, they might not feel so free to do this.

So now this judge says that these kids can wear their silly buttons. Good for them. High-fives all around. They get to say they beat The Man. But just as Momma Agitator used to say, because they can doesn’t mean they should.

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