Let's Have Fewer Rules

My alma mater, Madison East High School, made the national news recently. Perhaps you saw the story. It was about a painting in the school art gallery called "Madonna and Rat." The painting, by Wisconsin artist Valerie Mangion, showed the Madonna suckling a large white rat. (Madonna as in the Blessed Mother, that is, not the pop star.)The painting caused a lot of controversy. Helen Nicholson, chairwoman of the ominous-sounding Morality in Media committee of the Madison Catholic Women's Club, called the school to complain."I just don't want a rat nursing on a woman," she explained. "If that artist wanted to do that, that's her business. But I just don't like it."Persuaded by the vehemence -- if not the logical force -- of that argument, and under pressure from other members of the community who said the painting was "offensive to Catholics and women," East principal Milton McPike took it down. It so happened that one of the girls I coach on the East cross-country team, Anna Shelton, was writing a story about the art gallery for the school paper when the "Madonna and Rat" issue erupted. Anna said some of her teachers warned her that if her story was too controversial, the school might close down the whole art gallery once and for all.Anna had a long time to think about that -- the student paper doesn't come out very often -- and it weighed heavily on her. But it turned out that she didn't have to take full responsibility for the controversy. Despite the best efforts of school officials and the Morality in Media committee to suppress it, the "Madonna and Rat" story spread like a prairie fire.The Wisconsin State Journal ran a feature on the front page of the local news section, along with a large color photo of the painting. The State Journal quoted outraged citizens, as well as the artist, who, it turns out, is an ardent animal-rights activist and a rat-lover. Her mission, she said, is to elevate the status of rats. "Maybe I relate to them so much because I feel misunderstood," she said.The painting may not have cleared up any misunderstandings, but it certainly caught on. It must have been a slow news day when the State Journal piece went out over the wires, because "Madonna and Rat" began showing up everywhere. USA Today ran it, then Newsweek picked it up. A week later, teenagers around the country got to see "Madonna and Rat" featured on the "Weekend Update" segment of Saturday Night Live.All of this provided an entertaining study of art and free expression for the students at East High School.Finally, Anna's article came out in the Tower Times -- a carefully researched, excruciatingly well-balanced story, in which she explored the legal history and philosophy behind policies affecting free speech in the public schools.That's a lot more than can be said for the State Journal, which, after pumping up the "Madonna and Rat" story in the news section, printed a rabid editorial excoriating the school for displaying "this derisive, satiric, age-inappropriate painting in the first place."The editors denied that they were advocating censorship: "Censorship is when the powers-that-be tell artists what they can or cannot create," the editors wrote. "Censorship is when those powers threaten artists with official punishment-fines or imprisonment, for example-if the artists violate the guidelines. Censorship is what happened during the bad old days of the Soviet Union, for instance, when artists could be sent to the gulag for producing anti-Soviet works."That's a pretty pitiful standard of free speech for a newspaper to promote. But it seems to be a sign of the times. As a nation, we are increasingly tolerant of repression these days, especially in the schools.The public schools have become more and more restrictive over the last decade, thanks to a series of court decisions that give school officials broad powers to search lockers, control the content of student newspapers, and generally curtail students' rights.One absurd story after another has been appearing around the nation lately about school administrators cracking down on kids.There was the girl in Texas, an honor student, who was suspended for carrying a bottle of Advil in her backpack. The Advil violated a zero-tolerance drug policy. School officials nabbed the girl by using drug-sniffing dogs to check lockers during gym class. The principal in that case, Steve Busch of Riverwood High, told The Washington Post that the girl's suspension was a moderate punishment considering the gravity of her crime. "We shouldn't trivialize this," Busch said. "There are so many risks. You want these kids to know they're not supposed to have any of this." (It's a slippery slope, apparently, from Advil to the hard stuff.)Then there was the eleven-year-old in South Carolina who was suspended for carrying a dull-edged knife in her lunch box to cut a piece of chicken. When she asked her teacher if she could use the knife, the teacher turned her in. The local police showed up and arrested her at the schoolhouse door.In Illinois, an African-American seventh-grader was sent home from Rickover Junior High for wearing her hair in braids; school officials said the braids were a gang sign.The common thread in these stories, besides their outright silliness, is the seemingly unlimited, unreasonable power of school authorities.I participated in a panel discussion in Milwaukee recently, sponsored by the ACLU, on civil liberties in the schools.Kids are always testing the limits of authority, and it's up to the schools to impose some kind of structure and order. It's also up to the schools to transmit the basic tenets of democracy, one of which is free expression.Free expression, when you get right down to it, is a radically optimistic principle. And particularly when it comes to teenagers, the country is not in a very optimistic mood. What with all the news about gangs and drugs and "predatory" crimes, it's easy to get the impression that if there's one thing teenagers need it's less freedom and more reining in.The ACLU issued its policy directive on free speech for secondary-school students in 1968-in many ways a considerably more optimistic era."If secondary-school students are to become citizens trained in the democratic process, they must be given every opportunity to participate in the school and in the community with rights broadly analogous to those of adult citizens," the policy guide states.Since those words were published, gangs and increased violence in the schools-kids getting shot for wearing the wrong colors, or turning their hats the wrong way-have made free expression a trickier issue.In the Milwaukee schools, administrators are preoccupied with gangs-hence a proliferation of rules regulating student dress to stamp out gang signs. There are rules against hats, against wearing certain colors, against having one pant leg rolled up, or one overall strap hanging loose over your shoulder.The dangers cited are so dire, it's hard to argue on the side of restraining the authoritarian impulse and protecting freedom for teenagers. But I tried to argue on the panel that too many authoritarian rules have a negative effect. They telegraph the message that we don't trust students. They make kids jaded and resentful. And they create an oppressive environment. It often seems as though there is absolutely no limit on the number of rules and regulations we're willing to impose on kids.Eunice Edgar, former director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, pointed out one extreme case in Milwaukee: A teacher confiscated a six-year-old's painter's cap at school, because she said it was a gang sign. Surely this was an overreaction. But Milwaukee public-schools administrator Robert Nelson explained that he has seen snap-shots of whole families standing around holding automatic weapons, with kids as young as six months old wearing gang paraphernalia. So while some rules might seem silly, he said, the situation is graver than you might imagine. (Think twice next time before you smile at a six-month-old baby wearing a cap.) Is there absolutely no common-sense limit on the ever-more-restrictive trend in the schools?"We consider the schools to be acting in place of parents," Aquine Jackson, director of the division of parent/student services for the Milwaukee public schools explained. But, of course, schools are not parents. They're bureaucratic institutions.The difference was driven home by a couple of actual parents in the audience who got up to leave early. Before she headed out the door, one mother told Jackson that she was going to tell her daughter to carry a bottle of Midol to school when she had her period, and not hand it over to the school nurse, in flagrant violation of the Milwaukee public schools' zero-tolerance drug policy. Another member of the audience, a forty-seven-year-old man, announced to the administrators that he would have been the kid who wore one of his overalls straps unbuckled (in violation of the "no-gang-signs" rule) just to take them to court over it! There's nothing like overbearing institutional authority to bring out the defiant adolescent in people -- even parents.The two school officials folded their arms and frowned. I felt for them. Just look at the kind of rebelliousness they have to put up with.It's heartening to see parents and students refuse to be cowed. Take Anna. Not only did she get her article on the "Madonna and Rat" published, she is now helping to organize a forum at East on youth and civil liberties, and she's inviting a representative from the ACLU.She had to overcome a lot of opposition to do what schools ought to encourage -- thinking hard about an issue that's fundamental to our system of government, researching it, developing an opinion, debating it. It practically gives one hope.


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