In the News: Dancing the Rights Away

The New York Times reports this morning on a strange crackdown in Cranston, Rhode Island.  Seems a father-daughter dance tradition had been taking place despite a state law and district policy against it.  In addition, Federal Title IX rules forbid any gender-discriminatory activities.  In this case, a single mother of a daughter objected to the dance.  Though the school had also organized a mother-son baseball game, the two events were ruled to be not similar enough to avoid charges of sex discrimination.

In the big scheme of things, this tempest on a dance floor seems like no big deal.  The mother attended the dance with her daughter, and the school district reminded dance organizers of their ban on gender-specific events.

But the story serves as an illustration of a few items of perennial interest to those trying to understand the conservative impulse in American education.  First of all, we see again that school policy does not always match school practice.  Most memorably, when the US Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that school-sponsored prayer and Bible-reading violated students’ First Amendment rights, many schools continued to sponsor prayers and Bible-reading regardless.  As political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillip Hammond found in their 1971 study, many towns and schools continued to pray and read the Bible without eliciting a whisper of controversy.

Even the district in Cranston, Rhode Island, had hung a “prayer banner” in its high school, according to the New York Times.

As in many other cases, we see in this disco scuffle the ways conservatives embrace such seeming government overreach as a culture-war cause.  In this case, Sean Gately, a candidate for State Senate, along with Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, have come out strongly in favor of father-daughter dances. Such politicians have publicized the ban and tried to associate it with their Democratic opponents.  As Gately told the NYT, “Having those little father-daughter dances and seeing her all dressed up in her pretty dress — it’s a very special moment.”  Gately said the ban “offended me as a father and a husband.”   In the end, Gately insisted, “Nobody is being hurt by a father-daughter dance.”   Fox News condemned the “political-correctness police” of the American Civil Liberties Union for stirring up controversy where none existed.  The ACLU, according to Fox, had objected to the dance tradition as perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes: fancy dances for girls, baseball games for boys.  Gately told Fox this was a case of the “local ACLU kind of bullying our school system.”

From the ACLU’s perspective, local school officials just don’t “get it yet,” as state ACLU director Steven Brown told the New York Times.  Gately would likely respond that Brown simply does not “get” that most Cranstonites have no problem with reinforcing gender stereotypes for their children.

Perhaps most important, this dance debate demonstrates the way schools are more often guided by tradition than by explicit policy.  According to the NYT, the district had banned this father-daughter dance years ago.  However, no one on the current Parent-Teacher Organization was aware of that policy.  They organized the “Me and My Guy” dance simply because they had done so in the past.

In dancing as in much else, these kinds of traditions tend to be more powerful than any policy, whether in Cranston, Rhode Island, or from the US Supreme Court.