When I was in first grade I got beaten up on the way home from school. It wasn’t too horrible as these things go: a kid came up from behind, grabbed the hood of my jacket, and swung me to the ground. He was in second grade and, as I look back on it, apparently having some issues with impulse control. But it was clearly unacceptable and I found it fairly traumatic (it was an absurdly safe neighborhood, so it wasn’t as if I was expecting trouble). So the school helped me identify the kid responsible and then addressed his behavior with him. At the time, and perhaps even in retrospect, all that seemed an appropriate role for the school to have played.
However, technically I wasn’t on school grounds anymore, and it didn’t take place while school was in session. The only connection to the school was that we had all just left it to walk home, and the kid was a fellow student there. And we were all so young, still learning how to get along with people as much as we were learning reading and math. These were life skills the school was trying to teach us too, and here was a very tangible teaching moment for the school to weigh in on.
But I do not find this logic compelling when it comes to the overreaching some schools have been making with regards to student speech, including off-campus, online speech. Schools have been justifying their punishment of this speech with similar rationales that my elementary school had for punishing my attacker: it’s disruptive to the school community, and people who attack others need to learn not to.
Yet the situations aren’t the same. In my story, the attacker and victim were little kids in primary school, whereas in most of these instances the kids in question are adolescents on the cusp of legal and physical adulthood. (In some instances they are already fully into legal and physical adulthood.) And in my story there was no speech angle. The school sought to punish a violent action, not the expression of an idea. Continue reading »