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A Parkland Student and Conservative Activist Got Into Harvard. Then His Online Life Surfaced.

By Evie Blad — June 17, 2019 6 min read
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Harvard College recently revoked its admission of conservative student activist Kyle Kashuv after it discovered he used racial slurs in online messages as a high school student, he announced on Twitter Monday. The decision once again stirred up ongoing conversations about college admissions, how schools should respond to racism and other forms of discrimination, and the long digital trail students leave behind in the age of social media and education technology.

Kashuv became well known in conservative circles after 17 people died and 17 others were injured in a shooting at his Parkland, Fla. school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year. While many of his peers quickly launched a national youth movement to push for new gun restrictions, Kashuv opposed such measures and pushed for increased school security. As the Trump administration mulled its response to the Parkland shooting, Kashuv, then in 11th grade, met with President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Here’s are some discussion points following Harvard’s decision.

Colleges and Universities Can and Do Revoke Students’ Admissions

Colleges and universities can rescind acceptance offers, and they often have broad discretion to do so.

Harvard had admitted Kashuv, along with two Parkland students who helped found March for Our Lives, David Hogg and Jaclyn Corin.

According to a Twitter thread Kashuv posted Monday, the university’s dean of admissions and financial aid wrote asking for an explanation after they learned of what Kashuv described as “egregious and callous comments” he’d made as a student months prior to the shooting in an “attempt to be as extreme and shocking as possible.” Those comments included the repeated use of the n-word in a Google document he shared with a study group and in text messages.

Kashuv wrote back to the dean, restating an apology he had previously made for his comments, saying he had grown since and that he’d reached out to the university’s diversity and inclusion office to take steps to remedy the situation.

Apparently unsatisfied, Harvard rescinded Kashuv’s acceptance, according to documents he shared.

“As you know, the Committee takes seriously the qualities of maturity and moral character,” said a letter from the university that Kashuv shared. “After careful consideration the Committee has voted to rescind your admission to Harvard College.”

A spokesperson for Harvard said Monday she would not “comment publicly on the admissions status of individual applicants.” More generally, Harvard’s policies allow it to revoke admissions for a variety of reasons, including a decline in high school academic performance after acceptance, misrepresentations in a students’ application, and “behavior that brings into question their honesty, maturity or moral character.”

In 2017, for example, the school “rescinded admissions offers to at least ten prospective members of the Class of 2021 after the students traded sexually explicit memes and messages that sometimes targeted minority groups in a private Facebook group chat,” the Harvard Crimson reported.

That decision added fuel to already heated conversations about campus free speech among conservatives. The Washington Post responded with an editorial defending the decision.

“The students still have the right to post whatever garbage they like, but it is also Harvard’s right— indeed, its obligation to its mission of developing leaders—to exercise judgment in deciding who will be admitted to its educational community,” the editorial said.

Students Create Digital Wakes That Increasingly Influence Their Futures

NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch criticized Harvard’s decision in Kashuv’s case to “excoriate a teen over a bad, stupid joke.

Compared to previous generations, the hurtful, rude, and even racist comments students make are more likely to be recorded. Survey data show 70 percent of teens say they now use social media more than once a day. And that easy ability to share thoughts with peers or with the open internet often starts before teens’ sense of impulse control has fully developed.

For example, a hurtful note a student may have scrawled on a bathroom wall is more likely to show up as an inflammatory Instagram post for today’s teens.

And colleges are paying attention. An April 2018 poll by Kaplan Test Prep found that 68 percent of college admissions counselors surveyed considered students’ social media “fair game” for admissions decisions. That adds extra weight to the importance of schools’ efforts to encourage empathy and responsible internet use.

Schools also use digital tools, like blogs, podcasts, and shared digital documents for group lessons. And, as Education Week‘s Benjamin Herold recently reported, many districts surveil their students digitally. The amount of digital information students amass in their K-12 careers is likely to keep growing as education technology continues to proliferate.

Schools Must Address Racism in Meaningful Ways

Anyone who’s paid attention to the steady stream of incendiary racist incidents that have come out of K-12 schools in recent years won’t likely be surprised by Kashuv’s comments.

There was the group photo of high school seniors in Baraboo, Wisc., posing in a gesture that looked like a Nazi salute, which surfaced on Twitter months later. There was the online photo of Idaho teachers who dressed like Trump’s proposed border wall. An Education Week analysis of nearly 500 hate incidents in K-12 schools found frequent examples of racist graffitti like swastikas and students chanting “build the wall” to taunt Latino classmates.

Schools often can’t or don’t discipline students for such hurtful incidents when they occur off-campus, but that doesn’t mean they don’t disrupt students’ learning. And, when hateful speech spreads online, those effects can happen fast, school administrators say.

Even if the offending students are disciplined, schools must do more to listen to students who were hurt by the gesture and address school climate issues that may have contributed, those administrators say.

When videos of students saying the n-word sparked anger at an Austin high school, for example, the district’s director of equity, Angela Ward, held listening sessions with black students in the school. She described those sessions in her Leaders to Learn From profile earlier this year:

“Adults in the room quickly learned that students’ hurt extended beyond that one incident. Some felt like they weren’t heard at school. Others felt like they were treated differently. For example, a curvy black girl received a dress-code violation for wearing the same outfit as a petite white girl, who faced no consequences, Ward said.”

And that means finding a path forward for the offending students, too, so that they can learn from their mistakes and move forward. If Kashuv’s messages had been discovered earlier in his high school career, what would that process have looked like for his teachers and principals?

The Campus Speech Conversation Isn’t Going Away

The Kashuv story stirred up conversations among his conservative allies about the parallel issue of free speech on college campuses, which has been a focus for the Trump administration, including DeVos. Some accused liberals of hypocrisy for criticizing Kashuv. Others, including writers who address issues of race, said some conservatives where showing more empathy for Kashuv than they had for other children, like those involved in officer-involved shootings.

Photo: Kyle Kashuv became a conservative activist after a shooting at his school, Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. He spoke at the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action Leadership Forum in Indianapolis in April. --Michael Conroy/AP