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A School That Discourages Political Activism (UPDATED)

According to an email posted on daily KOS it appears as though a school in Wisconsin that George W. Bush recently visited refused to allow students to wear any pro-Kerry clothing or risk expulsion. Here’s the email from the daily KOS.

A friend with a child in the Richland County,WI high school where George Bush appears today reports the following. Students were told they could not wear any pro-Kerry clothing or buttons or protest in any manner, at the risk of expulsion. After a parent inquired, an alternative activity will be provided, probably a movie being shown in an auditorium. (The school secretary reportedly said that students had the choice of just staying home if they didn’t want to attend the Bush rally, but the principal subsequently offered an alternative.)

They are not just talking about suspension, but expulsion. I have to imagine this would fall under first amendment right for free speech. Many have heard about this were outraged and consequently posted all the contact information for the school and district. Both Electrolite and Boing Boing have posted this information and here it is for anyone who may be interested:

Richland Center High School
23200 Hornet High Rd
Richland Center, WI 53581
Phone: (608) 647-6131

Here’s the principal:
John Cler
608-647-6131 x1590

Here’s the local superintendant of schools:
Rachel Schultz
608-647-6106

Here’s the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction:
1-800-441-4563

Here’s the state superintendent:
Elizabeth Burmaster
state.superintendent@dpi.state.wi.us

Write them, call them or just pass this information on. What kind of message is it to send children that they do not have a right to show their support of a political candidate because the opposition is there to visit. I thought schools existed to encourage involvement in democracy. This certainly seems counterproductive.

Update 1: I just sent this letter to the state superintendent (if anyone else sends a letter please let me know and I will post it here):

Dear Ms. Burmaster,

I am writing to express my disappointment in the recent decision at Richland Center High School to not allow students to wear any pro-Kerry items while George Bush was visiting the school. Apparently these students were told they risked expulsion if they were to show protest of any kind. What kind of message is that to send to children? I always believed that part of the goal of education was to teach students the skills necessary to fulfill their civic duties. Voting, for most of these students, will be one of those duties in the next four years. While I have no information on the curriculum of the school, this incident seems to be counterproductive to that goal of civic participation. What this school has done is send a message that being actively involved and interested in politics is not in the students’ best interests. I doubt you will answer this email, but I would like to understand the reasoning behind this decision. I understand that a child with a pro-Kerry button may seem like a sign of disrespect for George Bush, who had come all the way to Wisconsin to visit the school. However, your choice to squash the students’ right of free speech is far more disrespectful to the constitution. These students have a right to have their voices heard, no matter who the audience may be. I can only hope that the students of Richland Center High School are apologized to by their administrators with an explanation that encourages the type of free speech and activism that the school decided to hold back.

Sincerely,

Noah Brier

Update 2: I received this reply:

The rental and use of school facilities is an issue that is governed by
local school districts, as is the scheduling and assignment of pupil
activities during the school day.

Joe Donovan
Communications Officer
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

My next step is to mail the letter to the principal of the school, I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Update 3: Here is the comment that Dustin Ragans posted this afternoon for those who are seeing this on the front page or via RSS:

My gf called the principle, and this is what she got:

I just spoke to the principal. btw, the area code for the principal is wrong, it’s 608 like the rest, not 508.

Basically, the town is a small town (about 5,000 people), but it’s in a fairly rural part of Wisconsin. The school auditorium was the only place big enough to hold the rally, so that’s where it was held. It was a ticketed event, but students were allowed to go without a ticket, because the principal wanted to give everyone the opportunity to see the president of the U.S. He said that there was a rule that students who were wearing pro-Kerry stuff would not be allowed in the rally, but there was nothing that stated they would be expelled from the school. He said they didn’t want protestors or picketing. He also said students were allowed to wear whatever they wanted before and after the event, but if they wanted to go into the audotorium during President Bushie’s speech, they’d have to take off pro-Kerry stuff.

I asked, “So, there was nothing stating that they would be expelled if they wore pro-Kerry paraphenilia?”, and he said “No, there was not. That would be illegal, and we wouldn’t stand for that.”

Thanks a lot to Dustin for posting and his girlfriend for making the phone call. I’m not sure exactly what to think now, I still think it’s wrong to not allow students in who are wearing pro-Kerry gear, because no matter what they have on they have a right to hear what Bush has to say. However, hearing that the expulsion part may have been overplayed makes the whole situation a little less serious. I still believe these students are being sent the wrong message, but certainly not to the level I originally believed. Did anyone else get the same response from administration? What’s the opinion on their position sans expulsion?

Update 4: Cory Doctorow has updated his original post and added these comments:

Many of you wrote to say that you communicated with the the principal listed above that that he says:

1. The Bush people rented the gymnasium, and the school was just enforcing their requirement that students not wear Kerry-supporting materials
2. The principal didn’t threaten expulsion

I don’t buy it: signing up to do #1, enforcing a ban on political expression, at a political event, in a political season, is a betrayal of an educator’s duty. And anything a school administrator bans carries with it the implicit threat of discipline. One student reports being threatened with expulsion, the principal denies it. It may be that the principal didn’t make the threat of expulsion, but telling students that it is forbidden to do foo implies that students who undertake foo will be punished somehow.

I’m still not quite sure what to think on this. I agree with Doctorow, it’s hard to say what the truth is at this point and the whole situation sounds quite fishy. I’d really like to hear a firsthand account from some students, anyone know if that’s out there yet?

October 27, 2004