Attending occasional high school activities I observe that some students do stupid things — impetuous, spur-of-the moment, dumb things. As reported, the white-hooded incident at Alta High School was certainly inappropriate. But was it premeditated; was it an outward expression of racial intolerance; was it "an act of terror" as Jeanetta Williams of the NAACP was quoted?
The no-win dilemma faced by school administrators is just this: when to act, to restrain, to condemn, to punish … and when to be tolerant, allowing students their "protected rights" to free speech and expression. By crossing or not crossing that line, administrators are constantly subject to criticism. Foul language is offensive, appropriate dress is a battle long ago lost, disrespect of teachers is deplorable, religious intolerance is unacceptable and there is no place for racial prejudice. But to act on any given student offense using "decency" as the standard could, and has, subjected administrators themselves to the wrath of not only parents, but district/board officials, the ACLU and others.
Unfortunately, a standard of civility, decency and mutual respect is much higher than we are capable of living. Hence, the laws of our land both protect crudity as "expression" and condemn specific acts of intolerance based on both intent and effect. As a society, we have placed administrators and teachers in an impossible position: whether to risk taking action or to respect the "rights" of student expression.
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