Thursday, March 24, 2011

Department of Education Mandates School Censorship

The Daily Censored reported recently that the US Department of Education has mandated school principals to censor student speech, in cafeterias, classrooms and at online sites, like Facebook. The DOE sent out “Dear Colleague” letters requiring principals to stop all physical bullying, as well as sexist, racist and bullying speech. The DOE will hold them liable for student bullying, even if it occurs off campus, and even if they were unaware that it was occurring. Principals that fail to act decisively enough will face DOE lawsuits.

Of course bullying is terrible and administrators, teachers and parents need to really pay attention and put a stop to it when they see it. The problem is that the rule is so vague that it is virtually impossible to comply with it. For example, administrators will be held liable if they “reasonably should have known” about their students’ misconduct, but failed to curb it. Yet how would they know about Facebook bullying unless they regularly scanned every one of their students’ Facebook pages, or were informed about it by students?

According to the Daily Censored, Facebook is uncritically complying with the new mandate, while the National School Board Association is opposing it. The NSBA has said that the new rule will violate the privacy and free-speech rights of students and their families and promote expensive lawsuits against districts that are already struggling financially. Indeed, the letter stated that harassment and bullying does not have to “be directed at a specific target, or involve repeated incidents [but] creates a hostile environment . . . [which can] limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school.” Under this definition almost any statement or act could be considered bullying if a student claims that it offended them. A t-shirt satirizing sexism could be interpreted as a provocation against boys, or Christian students talking about a church function could be seen as intimidating or alienating to non-Christian students. In fact, Christian students could argue that they were bullied by their science teacher for stating that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and that the Biblical date is inaccurate.

Requiring schools to monitor and police students’ private activities outside of school is oppressive and unreasonable, particularly if students are not using school email or equipment. This is the responsibility of parents and, if necessary, the police. Not only does the DOE rule impose an undue burden on schools, it lets parents off the hook. Parents want their children to be safe and treated well, but they must also step up and take responsibility by monitoring their own kids, checking in with them regularly, and being able to listen to them and support them non-judgmentally. And when their kids are doing dangerous, stupid or mean things, they must also be able to set boundaries with them.

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