Precinct 333

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Censored – But Why?

A group of students, formerly members of an eighth-grade gifted class, will finally get their day in court. The issue is the heavy hand of censorship. And for the life of me, I cannot figure out why it came to this.

Now high schoolers, the 27 students haven't backed down. They're suing for damages and asking the school to expunge records of any disciplinary action against them for the 2003 episode.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve gave their case steam by certifying the students as a different kind of class -- the kind that can legally seek damages by attaining class action status.

The Chicago Board of Education had asked for students to submit to depositions before the class status was determined, but when St. Eve denied the motion, board attorneys said they would no longer oppose class certification. St. Eve quickly asked if the two sides could settle now that the students have the status, their attorney Irene Dymkar said.

The issue centers on a 2003 vote for a class shirt at the school, 5025 N. Laramie. Students believed one concept won: The name "Gifties" written on the back and a caricature of a boy walking a dog on the front. But school administrators didn't like the design and kept the election results secret, telling students to take another vote, according to the federal complaint.

The students, who were in the gifted program, challenged the election and asked the school to disclose the results. Students and parents said they didn't get anywhere, so students decided to wear the "Gifties" design they believed won.

Though students were asked not to wear the design to school, they wore the shirts anyway in protest.

"That's when the principal told them they'd be suspended for five to seven days," violating the students' First Amendment right to free speech, Dymkar said.
However, none of the students was suspended.

Now it seems to me that this is a clear case of overreaction. I can see no way in which the shirt design could be deemed offensive. The parents involved were supportive of the design, and supported the students in their actions against what appears to be an arbitrary and unreasonable abuse of discretion. And the administration freaked out. They went off on a group of CHILDREN!

Look at the actions taken against them.

Dymkar said Principal Chris N. Kotis did try to punish them. The students say Kotis confined them to their classrooms and denied them access to different parts of the school. Administrators wouldn't allow them to use the bathroom unless they removed the shirts, according to the students.

At one point, they were forced to write an essay describing whether they felt worthy of using the computer lab, the lawsuit says. Later, the school allegedly threatened disciplinary action against any student who signed a petition supporting the T-shirt.

Denial of bathroom privileges over the design on a shirt? That gets into a question of health and hygiene. And determining whether or not they are “worthy” of using academic resources paid for by taxpayer dollars? Perhaps they should have gone the next step and denied them use of textbooks and the pencil sharpener.

And then there is the big screw-up – the threat to punish kids for signing a petition. Unless it was being circulated in class and causing a serious disruption, that is simply out of line. Remember, Tinker v. Des Moines enunciated a clear principle – students do not shed their rights at the schoolhouse gate. The right to petition government officials and employees for the redress of grievances is fundamental to our system of government, and yet these folks sought to punish peaceful and civil activities that should have been encouraged by an institution intended to educate citizens in a free society. That is unacceptable, as anyone who has taken a course in education law in the last three decades would know.

Of even greater concern is that the school has denied parents access to student records. Given that the school was keeping a list of “troublemakers” who wore the shirt and was engaging in abusive practices to coerce conformity, it is reasonable for parents to want to see what has been entered in the multitude of files the school keeps on their children. More to the point, it is their right under state and federal law to see such records. So this isn’t just a dress code issue blown out of proportion – it is an assertion of the rights of parents to oversee the education of their children, and to dispute inaccurate or prejudicial information in their records.

As you can see, what started as a relatively trivial matter has become a situation of very serious concern – because a school administrator didn’t like having his authority challenged. I hope he pays personally and professionally, and that the district that enabled him to do so does as well.

And I still don’t get what the big deal was over the design.


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