Free Turk!

March 1, 2006

Central Dauphin School District is the largest in Dauphin county (and the thirteenth largest in Pennsylvania), serving almost 12,000 students. (The district where I live and where Lynn went to school has not quite 4,000 students.) Most of my father’s career was spent in the Central Dauphin school district, from his early days as a junior high music teacher to his retirement as an administrator in 1980.

The story broke yesterday in the local newspaper. Some time ago (it’s not clear when) a student at Central Dauphin High School (identified in the newspaper only by his nickname, “Turk”), was sent to an alternative school for students with discipline problems, for reasons not specified (and not important to what happened next).

Typically, such a school-within-a-school serves students who have demonstrated an unwillingness to modify some troublesome behavior, be it truancy, fighting, defiance of authority, petty theft, and the like. Assignments generally run thirty days, during which the student receives instruction in his academic subjects from the alternative school staff and is counseled about the behaviors that landed him there. He then returns to the regular school.

Some of Turk’s friends thought the remand was unfair or unwarranted and, probably in a spirit of fun, began sporting t-shirts on which they’d painted “Free Turk!” They also wrote the words on their bookcovers and their folders, and on their hands and forearms. School officials called the protesting students out of class and suspended them for displaying the slogan.

About twenty students were disciplined in this way. (A suspension usually involves one to three days in which the student may not attend classes or participate in extra-curricular activities but is afforded the opportunity to complete assignments due or to take tests given during the period of suspension.)

As the suspensions continued to be handed down, other students began including the names of the newly-disciplined in the protests, displaying “Free Jenny!” or “Free Jake!” on their clothing and books. And the school continued to suspend students, until the speech was finally suppressed.

Some affected students, and their parents, believe that the suspensions are a violation of the students’ rights to free speech. “Free Turk!” is a political statement and was being made in a peaceful and nonobtrusive way (that is, no one was disrupting class to shout it and no school property was marked, temporarily or otherwise, with the words). They have enlisted the help of the ACLU, which has requested that the suspensions be cancelled and expunged from the students’ records. If the district fails to comply, the parents and the ACLU will file a federal lawsuit compelling them to do so. (The issue of the suspensions seems moot, since they have already been served. A ruling in the case would establish precedent and help insure that students’ rights to free speech at this school will be honored in the future.)

According to a follow-up in today’s paper, the school district has informed the ACLU that they have no intention of rescinding the suspensions. The letter was brief, and indicated that in the eyes of district officials, this is a closed matter. The ACLU spokeswoman said that they and the parents are ready to follow through with filing the lawsuit.

As it happens, I have some experience in these matters. I was, of course, a classroom teacher for nearly thirty years in Lower Dauphin, a school district that borders Central Dauphin on the east. (The school district I live in hugs part of the western edge of CD’s extensive geography.) During my time at LD there were few issues that aroused much oppositional passion from students.

There was a boycott of the lunches for a few days the time that the cafeteria service suddenly raised prices in the middle of the year at the same time that the quality and quantity of the selections declined. Kids brown-bagged it while the food service stood firm, and eventually the students returned to buying their lunches (for what real choice did they have?), their annoyance made palpable. And there was a messy and ill-conceived “sit-in” in the early 1990s when a faculty member was (unjustly, it turned out) accused of using undue force to subdue an unruly student at a basketball game. (A colleague walked among the youngsters questioning them and determined that only about 1 in 25 actually knew what the brouhaha was about. The students dispersed quickly when the subject of the protest told them to go back to class, that they were both wasting their time and annoying him.)

I say that I was at LD for nearly thirty years. The first year of my career, however, the school year that began in the fall of 1969 (three months after I graduated from college and three weeks after I danced at Woodstock), was spent teaching eleventh grade English at Central Dauphin High School. That was at the height of the protests against the war in Vietnam.

Protesting the war was considered by many to be the province of hippy-dippy, spoiled brat youngsters, their judgment clouded by drugs and their minds irredeemably bent by the lyrics of weird music that promoted nothing but sexual license and personal pleasure (“Come on baby, light my fire” — “Strawberry fields forever”*). In the halls of Central Dauphin, the cultural divide split between the “preppies,” students in the college prep curriculum who, it was thought, didn’t do much all day but think and spout opinions, and “shoppies,” blue collar kids who toiled in the trowel trades and the sheet metal shop and who would, in a few months (if they didn’t get drafted), be supporting themselves with full-time jobs while their preppy counterparts were still sitting around in student union buildings eating pizza and spouting the same opinions.

There were occasional confrontations in the hallways, sometimes loud but never physical. That changed, however, when some of the “preppies” began sporting black armbands. As I recall, this action took place on October 15, 1969, a Wednesday, the day set by the National Moratorium Committee for peaceful protest of U.S. involvement in the war. Students who wanted to protest the protesters did so by ripping off their arm bands, something that would now be considered actionable physical assault. Things got even louder between the two groups. A principal visited my classroom and directed the two or three students who were wearing armbands to accompany him to the office. At length it was announced that armbands were forbidden and anyone continuing to wear one would face disciplinary consequences.

The next day I received a note from the principal directing me to remove from my bulletin board certain material he deemed “inflammatory.” This included a magazine ad placed by some antipoverty organization that showed a cityscape of slums and sorrow above the words “thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears,” and an ad placed by the Xerox corporation that showed a black hand and a white hand clasping each other and a small American flag. Underneath was a card on which I’d printed the words “There will be no peace without love, no love without understanding, no understanding without knowledge, no knowledge without work, no work without peace,” a thought I’d gleaned from some reading done that summer.

Evidently the administration of Central Dauphin High School was unaware (or chose to ignore the fact) that a Supreme Court decision handed down eight months before (Tinker vs. Des Moines, involving black armbands used by high school students in 1965) held that students indeed did have the right to such symbolic speech if it did not cause a substantial disruption of the school’s educational mission. I witnessed the Supression of 1969 at Central Dauphin High School, and in my mind, it might have been better to discipline the students who were assaulting others by pulling off parts of their clothing than to demand that the protesters keep their opinions to themselves.

But I was also very young, very inexperienced, and loathe to embarrass my father. So I took down the problematic material. The incident, however, led me to examine my motives carefully and determine exactly why I should stand against the war. One month later I was in Washington, D.C. for the largest antiwar protest that had yet been mounted. And four months after that I secured a job in a different school district, where I remained for the rest of my career and where I taught the daughters and, eventually, the granddaughters of the principal who had treated me like a subversive.

I don’t know for sure, of course, about the merits on either side of the “Free Turk!” incident, since I wasn’t there and have only the newspaper reports to go on. But it seems that Central Dauphin High School has a long history of quashing free speech, and I will follow the present case with interest.

(“Strawberry Fields” is actually about loneliness and feeling misunderstood. The other one, well, yeah, that is about igniting a fire in the loins, right now, no obligations, no regrets.)

Love it? Hate it? Just want to say Hi? Leave a comment, or e-mail me:
margaretdeangelis [at] gmail [dot] com (replace the brackets with @ and a period)

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One thought on “Free Turk!

  1. Followup, March 3: According to today’s newspaper, a suit was filed yesterday in U.S. Middle District Court (the same court that heard the Dover School District creationism case last fall) on behalf of three ninth-grade girls who were suspended. The suit seeks an injunction against the suspension, expunging of information regarding the suspensions from the students’ records, attorneys’ fees and court costs, and “reasonable” damages. The district has made no comment except to say that it is “confident . . in the merits of its defense.” Uh-huh.

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