A teacher's point of view: Mutual respect and healthy discourse


The recent controversy over the banning of the Confederate flag and purported hate speech and conduct within the Dolores Schools has prompted the kind of discourse that characterizes a society that values free speech and diversity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the arguments of William Nelligan in recent letters to The Dolores Star and editorial columns for the Cortez Journal. It seems, however, that the majority of published opinion, including Mr. Nelligan's, weighs in against the Administration's decision to ban controversial symbols that could be construed as politically/culturally insensitive. Though, in truth, I agree with much of what Mr. Nelligan says, it is simplistic and erroneous to judge the district's actions in light of a strict interpretation of the First Amendment.

The responsibility of the public school system to educate our children and to prepare them to assume their roles as citizens of the United States, contributors to local and global communities, is daunting. Educators not only make decisions about what to teach and how to teach it but must nurture and protect the children whose education is entrusted to us. In writing their opinions, both for the majority and in dissent, justices of the Supreme Court have recognized this responsibility and noted that "the rights of students must be applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeir, 1988)." Since the 1969 decision of Tinker v. Des Moines, the case to which Mr. Nelligan often referred, the Court has repeatedly sided with school administrators in restricting students' free speech, observing that "the constitutional rights of students are not automatically co-extensive with the rights of adults in other settings (Bethal School District No. 403 v. Fraser, 1986)." The most recent case, Frederick v. Morse (2007), further restricted students' rights to free speech, supporting an administrative decision even when there was not evidence of disruption of school activities, a condition that was imposed on schools with the development of the "Tinker Test." The decision of Dolores Re-4a administrators to ban the Confederate flag and other controversial political symbols is not unconstitutional. It is a choice they have the right to make.

Balancing "legitimate educational objectives and the need for school discipline against First Amendment values" requires careful consideration. Perhaps the most important civics lesson that can come from this act of censorship is not what students gained or lost but how they see us - their teachers, parents and community members - dealing with this and other important issues currently facing the Dolores School Board and Administration. Analyzing a situation, stating one's opinion and backing it with evidence, listening respectfully, reflecting thoughtfully on another's point of view, and working together to find solutions are critical to the well being of our District and, incidentally, are the same 21st Century skills we seek to develop in our students. I am grateful for Mr. Nelligan's thoughtful challenge and his model of the First Amendment in action. It is through mutual respect and healthy discourse that we will be able to create a better school.

Melanie Cook, teacher

Dolores Middle School

Via email