National Day of Silence
Recent court decisions in Massachusetts regarding same-sex marriage has once again brought this social conflict to the forefront. Many school district administrators are receiving requests from students to support the National Day of Silence to recognize and protest the discrimination and harassment of those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. April 21, 2004 has been set as this year’s date by the sponsoring organizations: the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Network (GLSEN) in collaboration with the United States Students Association (USSA).
This is a growing movement and many districts that have not heard about it before are likely to hear about it this year. That may in part result from recent court decisions regarding same-sex marriages in Massachusetts that have reignited the controversy surrounding homosexuality and its acceptance or endorsement in our culture. These issues provoke some of the deepest passions in our divided culture. How you handle student interest in it can determine whether it explodes into a controversy that polarizes your district or whether it becomes a tool to help students, staff and parents in your district understand their personal freedoms, anti-harassment and ant-discrimination policies in your district and the mission of public education.
What can you say to students who ask you to support the National Day of Silence?
First, assure them that you want the public school campus to be a safe place for all students and staff. Remind them of the procedures students can utilize if they feel they are being harassed and discriminated against. If you don’t have these policies in place, this would be an excellent time to develop them and train staff and students accordingly. Ask them if they know of specific ways that students are not being treated fairly and help them become part of a solution that will benefit everyone.
Second, affirm their efforts to get involved in something they feel passionate about and remind them of their free speech rights on a public school campus. The Day of Silence should be treated just as See You At the Pole or any other student-initiated activity. Students have the freedom to express their political or religious views in ways that are not disruptive to the curricular day and this is no exception. Students may participate in a Day of Silence as a political statement as long as it does not intrude on a teacher’s responsibility to teach, and they may make it available to other students through announcements and posters in the same way that any other outside group is allowed to do so.
Third, you can encourage students who want to participate in the Day of Silence to talk with their teachers in advance and make arrangements so they will not have to make presentations or participate in classroom discussion on that day. Teachers would be wise to accommodate these students if possible, but their right to teach in the classroom, by whatever means they deem necessary, is not trumped by a student’s right to free speech. Just as a student cannot choose to start praying, even silently, when called upon by a teacher for a classroom activity, neither can a student refuse to participate without consequence to make a political statement.
Fourth, make it clear to them that it is not the district’s purpose to endorse the political or religious views of any particular group or to encourage student involvement in specific activities sponsored by such groups, and you will not do so here. To do so aligns the school district with advocacy groups that will alienate other parents and students the district serves.
If this becomes a volatile issue in your schools, you can use it as an opportunity to retrain staff and students on political and religious speech on the public school campus. This will allow students to express differing views without subjecting the public school to accusations of acting as a tool for any one particular social agenda. Common Ground Thinking can provide the First Amendment framework to disarm controversies like this and has proven successful in helping cultivate mutual respect even across differences like this.
At the same time all have something to gain by making sure our school districts provide a safe environment for all students, and that no one group falls through the cracks of that protection, either because it is unpopular or because educators prefer not to get involved. This issue is not just about gay and lesbian students. One survey indicates that 82% of sexual-orientation discrimination and harassment is directed at heterosexual students. Name-calling, teasing and bullying on the basis of real or perceived sexuality is all too common in our culture and in many public schools.
(For those in California state law specifically protects staff and students from harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Failure to resolve complaints successfully in this regard expose school officials to significant liability.)
By helping staff and students appreciate how their free speech rights intersect with the public school environment will help you create an environment that is fair for all constituencies in you district.
Wayne Jacobsen, President
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