40 years ago the Supreme Court declared that neither students nor teachers lose their free speech rights on a public school campus, ruling that students could wear armbands in protest of the Viet Nam war. The ruling was in marked contrast to the private sector, where free speech is still severely restricted.
Students’ rights have been steadily eroding since the 1980s, when the courts allowed a principal to prevent a student newspaper from publishing articles on pregnancy and divorce. In 2007, the courts permitted a school to suspend a kid for hanging a banner that said “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” Such court rulings have emboldened schools to further encroach on students’ rights in many ways, including locker searchers, drug testing and even using webcams to spy on children at home. Fortunately, Philadelphia families have won their lawsuit in the webcam spying case.
A Silsbee, Texas, cheerleader was not so lucky. She was raped by a player on her school’s basketball team. Pending trial, he was allowed back to school and permitted to continue playing ball, thus protecting his right to be treated as an innocent man until proven guilty. However, when the victim refused to cheer for him as he shot free throws, she was kicked off the squad on orders of the superintendent, who was angered by her protest. Her rights were apparently less important than the athlete’s. The young man eventually pled guilty to misdemeanor assault and was slapped with a small fine and community service.
When the cheerleader’s parents sued the school district, the local court ruled that her action was not free speech because she conveyed no specific message. Yet her message should have been obvious to everyone at the game. It was public knowledge that she had accused the player of raping her. Fans in the bleachers were taunting her throughout the game.
The appeals court argued that as a cheerleader she served as a mouthpiece for the district and that she was interfering with the business of the school. However, the primary business of a school is to promote the well being, dignity and safety of all students, not just the student athletes.
As is often the case, the adults at the school were asleep at the wheel and failed to protect the student, not from being raped, which happened off campus, but from the public humiliation that would inevitably arise from her participation in the basketball game. She never should have been put in the position of having to choose between cheering her rapist versus being kicked off the team. Adults at the school were aware of her accusations. They should have assumed they were founded in reality and that she was likely traumatized. A sensible response would have been to excuse her from games in which the accused rapist was playing. Instead, when her parents complained about classmates mocking her and calling her a slut, the school recommended that she stay away from school for a while.
This case highlights the sexist and misogynistic double standards that continue to permeate our society. The rape victim’s accusations were not taken seriously by the school or the local community. Her rights to learn in a safe environment and to participate in school activities were undermined in favor of her assailant’s, ostensibly because he was not yet convicted, but more likely because of the high value the school and community placed on boys’ athletics. Her sport, cheerleading, which is predominantly female, was treated as subservient to the boy’s basketball team. (The school jumped through hoops to keep an accused rapist eligible to play basketball, but didn’t mind losing one of their cheerleaders).
It also highlights the rigid, punitive and self-serving mentality that governs many of our educational systems. Instead of publicly disciplining the cheerleader at the game, school officials could have ignored her or allowed her to sit out the game and then discussed the matter at a less fraught time. Instead of prioritizing the needs of an anguished student, school officials compounded her disgrace and suffering because it served their interests.