Bullies, Schools, Homosexuality, and the Confederate Flag

Who is a school bully?  Can it be a teacher who disciplines students for wearing Confederate flags or for denouncing homosexuality?

That is the question conservative commentator Anthony Esolen asks today on The Public Discourse.

Esolen, Professor of English at Providence College, considers a recent case from Michigan.

In this compellingly tangled case of homosexuality, history, religion, and education, a teacher hoped to fight anti-homosexual attitudes among his students.  This teacher participated in a school event in which teachers and students wore t-shirts opposing anti-gay bullying.  The teacher showed his class a video about anti-gay bullying, then engaged in a discussion about it.  During the discussion, the teacher noticed that one student wore a Confederate-flag belt buckle.  The teacher ordered the student to remove the buckle.  When another student asked about the obvious contradiction between the student’s right to wear the buckle and the teacher’s right to wear the t-shirt, the discussion exploded.  The teacher eventually disciplined both students, one for the buckle, and one for insisting that his Catholic faith forced him to disapprove of homosexuality.

Esolen brings up these snarled issues in all their complexity.  Does a Catholic student have a right to disapprove of homosexuality?  Does a teacher have a duty to discipline dissenting students?  Can a student wear offensive belt buckles or t-shirts?  What ideas are too offensive to be protected in schools?

Also, importantly, Esolen considers whether an economics teacher should be engaged in these sorts of pedagogical discussions.  If teachers are, as Esolen argues, “a group of tutors hired by a group of parents,” shouldn’t those teachers respect parents’ beliefs more rigorously?


A Christian Teen Army in Public Schools

“High school Christian teens, Join Us!”

That is the call of a new video promoted by the evangelical Christian group Reach America.

In the video, teenagers ask a series of provocative questions, such as the following:

Why can’t I pray in school?  Why do I have to check my religion at the door?  Why can’t I write about God in my school papers?  Why do I have to tolerate people cursing my God, but I’m not allowed to talk about God and my faith? Why are they taking God out of my history books? Why do they teach every other theory in science besides creation?  Why am I called names because I believe in marriage the way God designed it?

Like many conservative evangelical educational activists, Gary Brown, founder of Reach America, believes that public schools have lost their way.  Beginning with the prayer and Bible SCOTUS decisions in 1962 and 1963, Brown insists, God has been systematically frozen out of schools.  Christian students have been targeted for bullying, indoctrination, and harassment.  Every part of public education is a threat, from pornographic sex education to mandatory dating.

Brown’s answer has been a call for youth engagement.  In the recent video, Reach America teens warn, “People who do not love our God have stolen our country. . . . We are an army.  Christ is our commander. . . . We are in a war for the hearts and souls of our generation.  And we know it.”

This culture-war army can be directed, Reach America promises, by programs such as its new Educational Partnership.  From its headquarters in northern Idaho, Reach America wants to organize a non-school school.  At this “partnership,” students will come to this non-school school every day, September through June.  In the mornings, they will work on academic work.  That work, though, will not come from the non-school, but rather from parent-directed online education or homeschool assignments.  In the afternoons, students will work on the “four Cs:” Christ-Centered Counter-Culture.

So how is this school not a school?  Parents pay tuition.  Students study there.  The program even offers “P.E. and electives.”  Do the Browns avoid calling this a school to avoid legal hassles?  It certainly looks that way.

How big is the program?  Not too big.  According to Brown, twenty-three students are enrolled for the current non-school year.  My guess is that Reach America will attract the attention of scribblers like me with the culture-war rhetoric of this video, but will soon encounter the difficulties that plague every Christian school, even non-school ones.

In any case, the message of the teens’ video is clear.  The way to prevent bullying is to fight back.  As they declare, “America will be one nation under God, again.”


Death, Taxes, … and Teacher Abuse?

School bullying can be tough.  Once kids get the taste of blood, they will often hound their victims mercilessly.  The victims have no place to run, especially in the new world of cyber-bullying.

Anyone who survived middle-school in America knows that the tired old advice to “tell the teacher” is only guaranteed to make it worse.  But what about when the victim is the teacher himself?

A story on National Public Radio this morning details a new law in North Carolina designed to protect teachers from student cyberbullying.

Lisa Miller reported the story of one teacher:

“Chip Douglas knew something was up with his 10th-grade English class.  When he was teaching, sometimes he’d get a strange question and the kids would laugh.  It started to make sense when he learned a student had created a fake Twitter account using his name.

“‘It was awful,’ he says. ‘It had this image of me as this drug addict, violent person, supersexual, that I wouldn’t want to portray.’

“Douglas told the kids he planned to call the police—because under the new North Carolina law, the student behind the tweets could spend a month in jail and pay a $1,000 fine.”

As any educational historian will tell you, Facebook and Twitter aside, there is nothing new to teacher abuse.  In nineteenth-century schools, a prime consideration of teaching prowess was physical prowess.  In those “good old days,” teachers often had to physically overpower their students in order to control a classroom.  As historical Carl Kaestle argued in Pillars of the Republic (New York, 1983, p. 19), many schools in the 1800s required male teachers, since “the older boys were often stronger than [women teachers] were.  It was for this latter reason that female teachers were in many districts employed only during the summer sessions, when the older children were generally working.”

My research for my 1920s book found similar assumptions during that decade.  Perhaps the most intriguing glimpse of teacher abuse came in a little snippet I uncovered in the legislative record for the Florida State House of Representatives for 1923.  Tucked away with all the other proposed bills was this little mystery:

“House Bill No. 747:

“A bill to be entitled An Act to amend Section 5443 of the Revised General Statutes of Florida, relating to the insulting of teachers upon the school grounds. 

“Which was read the first time by its title and referred to the Committee on Education.”

Despite my digging, I couldn’t find out any more about the fate of this odd little bill.  I do know that it was submitted by request, meaning that some Floridian wrote to his or her state representative and asked for a law like this.

Did a teacher suffer insults on school grounds?

Did he or she yearn to prosecute the little brat?  Or brats?

If so, the hapless teacher would have been better off to teach in North Carolina in 2013.

Or maybe not.  The teacher described in the NPR story had to resign.  The law could not protect him after all.

In the News: Gay Rights, Bullying, and the “Homosexual Agenda”

Thanks again to Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center for drawing our attention to Missouri’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

This bill, Missouri House Bill 2051, would prohibit teachers in public schools from discussing homosexuality with their students.

The impetus for the bill comes from a widespread belief in Fundamentalist America that public schools push what Fundamentalists call a “homosexual agenda.”

Understandably, non-fundamentalists see bills like this as an attempt to limit rights for gay people.  One Missouri activist called this bill “a desperate tactic by frightened, bigoted, cynical individuals who are terrified at the advancement the LGBT community has made.”  Other interweb voices blasted the move as “moronic legislation” by the “elected bullies” in the Missouri legislature.

I agree with the sentiment expressed by these anti-2051 activists.  This Missouri bill, like other bills that seek to control teachers’ ideological performance, promotes a poisonous educational atmosphere in which the best teachers are forced into cynicism or subversion.  Meanwhile, the bulk of public school teachers trudge along in a bland mediocrity, avoiding any topic that might have potential interest or relevance in students’ real lives.

But I wonder if opponents of the Missouri bill understand that the polemic strategy they use actually reinforces the notions of their Fundamentalist opponents.  Here’s what I mean:  The most common defense of discussing sexual orientation openly and frankly in public schools is that such discussions can help limit bullying.  Defenders of the rights of gay people, especially of gay students in schools, point to the dangerous and even fatal bullying of gay students as the threat of gag rules like HB 2051.  To attack HB 2051, gay-rights activists wrap their assertion of rights for homosexuals in the language of a wider, faddish anti-bullying campaign.

In doing so, they confirm the suspicion of anti-gay activists from Fundamentalist America.  Such activists warn of a creeping “homosexual agenda.”  Such an agenda, Fundamentalists warn, focuses on using public schools to promote an idea that all sexual orientations must be considered equal.  A central trait of this “homosexual agenda” in public schools, as this CitizenLink (an offshoot of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family) video emphasizes, is that the homosexual agenda is “sneaky.”  [This video is just under ten minutes long, but well worth the time for those who hope to understand the thinking of Fundamentalist America.]

Fundamentalists warn that homosexual activists will wrap their true agenda in other causes.  And, when gay-rights activists point to bullying as the main reason to oppose 2051, they add more legitimacy to this Fundamentalist claim.

Let me be clear here: I am not in support of 2051.  But arguing that this is a bullying issue, instead of a gay-rights issue, is exactly what Fundamentalist America expects of gay-rights activists.  I suspect a better understanding of Fundamentalist America would allow gay-rights activists to avoid playing into Fundamentalists’ hands in this way.  Using the broader issue of bullying to promote fuller equality in public schools ends up strengthening Fundamentalist arguments, not weakening them.  Equality should be enough.  That is, gay-rights activists and others should keep it simple: Public schools must be places where every student, teacher, parent, staff member, and administrator feels welcomed and valued.  Regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or other distinction.  This is sufficient reason to oppose Missouri’s 2051 and similar bills.  Saying that gay students must have equal rights only because they might otherwise be bullied muddies the issue.  It fuels Fundamentalist fears that a “homosexual agenda” is being foisted on public schools, hidden in common anti-bullying campaigns.