School Climate & Safety News in Brief

Anthem Protests,Teachable Moment

By Evie Blad & Stephen Sawchuk — October 03, 2017 1 min read

If the past is any indicator, public schools are about to offer a big learning opportunity about the First Amendment, sparked by tension between President Donald Trump and professional athletes over game-day protests surrounding the national anthem.

And that teachable moment is anything but academic.

Whatever educators’ personal views on current protests, courts have ruled in the past that schools can’t force students into acts of patriotism.

In the 1943 case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a school would violate the free speech rights of its student, a Jehovah’s Witness, if it forced him to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Schools’ authority to discipline students for such protests isn’t heightened if those students are taking part in a privilege, like being members of a football team, Frank LoMonte, the former executive director of the Student Press Law Center, told Education Week last year when the first-round of such protests spread into classrooms.

Real-World Lessons

Meanwhile, some teachers see the most recent round of protests as real-world content for the classroom.

Ashley Johnson, a U.S. History, government, and economics high school teacher in the Wharton school district in Texas, seized on the recent protests by football players kneeling for the national anthem to have students debate the topic using well-crafted arguments. She provided students with news articles about the protests and summaries of Supreme Court rulings on First Amendment issues.

“I told them every argument you make has to be supported by something in this packet,” she said.

Tracy Gamache, a teacher in the Corona-Norco district in Riverside, Calif., used singer John Legend’s editorial in the magazine Slate, which argues that the protests are patriotic, as a good example of how an argumentative essay is put together.

But teachers also know they’re treading on sensitive ground in using such volatile topics as classroom material.

“I keep my perspective out of it, unless I’m directly asked,” Gamache said. “And I’m very clear that we can disagree through arguments, but we do not attack people in our classroom.” —Evie Blad & Stephen Sawchuk

A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2017 edition of Education Week as Anthem Protests, Teachable Moment

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