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Encourage Good Students, Don’t Censor Them

Apr. 2, 2014
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Because the loudest critics of education don’t really like either teachers or kids very much, those two groups usually receive the most condemnation for the failings of our schools.

But what about the professional educators occupying the most responsible positions of academic leadership—school superintendents and principals?

The sad truth is far too many of those folks are too afraid of their own shadows—or of the least informed, most inflamed opinions of parents in their school districts—to stand up for good education.

Wisconsin is once again in the national media spotlight for educational embarrassment. And it has nothing to do with the academic struggles of impoverished urban school districts.

Instead, like those ignorant book bannings every decade or so that showcase some small minds in smaller communities, Fond du Lac High School is in the middle of a raging student journalism censorship debate.

It’s too bad, because at the center of the controversy is a perfect example of the kind of high-quality education and student performance that academic critics have no idea is taking place.

The story was titled “The Rape Joke” by Tanvi Kumar, co-editor of the school magazine, Cardinal Columns, part of the school’s excellent journalism program.

The story told the experiences of three sexual assault victims in the school, while protecting their identities. It dealt not only with the assaults, but the way the victims were perceived afterward by peers.

Some assumed that the victims must have done something to encourage their own assaults. Sexism reduced respect for the female victim while the male perpetrator had a locker room boast. There was casual joking about an intensely traumatic experience that can lead to life-altering depression.

It was a serious, responsible piece of journalism about a real problem experienced in high school-age relationships and, in one case, the home of a student.

The initial reaction to Kumar’s story was highly positive, not only from students but from faculty. Some teachers encouraged student discussion of the story in their classes.

The reaction of Superintendent James Sebert and Principal Jon Wiltzius was just the opposite. Sebert directed Wiltzius to immediately draft guidelines giving the principal prior approval over stories in student publications.

The vague guidelines allow the principal to refuse to publish student work deemed to interfere with the educational process, whatever that unintelligible collection of words means.

In various conversations, Sebert and Wiltzius alluded to concerns about subjects that are too controversial or political, not age appropriate or not sufficiently positive. That would seem to cover pretty much anything a journalism student might write.

And the act of rape is never age appropriate. The younger the age, the less appropriate. Kumar’s story noted that 44% of reported rapes take place before the age at which most high school students graduate.

But here’s some good news. The students and many of the faculty now are standing together to press the school district to drop the censorship guidelines.

At some risk to their professional futures, 16 English department faculty, including Matthew Smith, the journalism advisor to Cardinal Columns who edited Kumar’s story, signed a public statement:

“We believe that the story itself stands as an exemplar of high-quality, responsible journalism that has helped countless readers feel supported, speak up, seek help and come together in a way that has undoubtedly resulted in a more positive environment in our school.”


Educators Must Overcome Fear

This may be a naïve leap of faith, but let’s assume for a moment that both Superintendent Sebert and Principal Wiltzius are intelligent educators. They’ve been to college. At some point in their careers, they knew the purpose of education was to engage students in thinking and writing about important issues.

The only reason they would come down on students for doing that and on their own faculty for encouraging it is fear. Fear for their jobs. Fear of their own community. Fear that the lowest common denominator among district parents might object to students speaking or writing about a sex-related issue, even one that students have to face in their own lives.

It’s the same gutlessness among school administrators that leads some of them to avoid comprehensive sex education classes in favor of abstinence-only sex education.

Heaven forbid teenagers ever find out that sex really exists and that if anyone engages in it there are safe practices that can prevent pregnancy and disease.

There are always going to be people in any community who object to much of what goes on in our schools. Lately, some even object to national standards for what should be taught as some kind of nefarious government plot.

We call those people uneducated.

We should expect highly educated school administrators not only to know better, but also to have the courage to stand up for good educational practices by good teachers engaging good students.


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