Donal Brown

Student T-Shirts Censored in Time of War

Anarchy T-shirtWhen a student showed up at Leland High School in San Jose, Calif., last week wearing a T-shirt that said  "Bomb Saddam" on one side and  "Attack Iraq" on the other, the vice principal in charge of discipline told him if he wore the shirt again, he would be suspended.

It is one incident among many in a new tide of censorship spreading beyond just schools. Last week, a mall in Guilderland, N.Y., banned T-shirts with the slogans  "Peace on Earth" and  "Give Peace a Chance." The Arkansas legislature is acting to ban  "I'm with Stupid" shirts. In West Virginia, a 15-year-old high school girl was suspended partly for defying an order to stop wearing a T-shirt sarcastically labeled,  "When I saw the dead and dying Afghani children on TV, I felt a newly recovered sense of national security. God Bless America."

Principal Tony Parker of South View High School in Hope Mills, N.C., not only banned the T-shirts of rock and hip-hop stars Marilyn Manson, Wu-Tang Clan and Tupac Shakur, he further extended the ban to include all T-shirts with  "controversial" messages.

Much of the censorship stems from pressures on school administrators to uphold exacting campus safety standards in the jittery, post-Columbine era. Leland Vice Principal John Tavella said he made the suspension threat to safeguard other students. In an interview, Tavella said that because a number of Middle Eastern students attend the school, he feared that an Iraqi with a relative in Baghdad might start a fight over the shirt.

In the Leland case, school administrators missed an opportunity to educate students about their rights under the Constitution. Such an education, in fact, could help create a more peaceful campus.

Judge Abe Fortas' majority opinion for the Supreme Court in the landmark case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) provides guidance. The decision effectively balances the need for order in schools with student rights.

In December 1965, three junior high school students in Des Moines, Iowa, were suspended from school for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.

A lower court ruled that school authorities had acted reasonably based on their fears that the wearing of the armbands could cause a disturbance.

By banning T-shirts, administrators are missing a chance to educate students about how to react to contrary views.

The case made its way to the Supreme Court, where the court held that wearing the armbands was  "silent, passive expression of opinion" and not disorderly, violent, disruptive of school processes or apt to interfere with the rights of other students.

The Court majority held that censorship was permissible when there was "substantial disruption," but that fear of such disturbances was not enough to justify suspending First Amendment rights.

Nearly 20 years after Tinker, in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, a more conservative Supreme Court preserved the Tinker  "substantial disruption" standard for non-school-sponsored speech, such as  "Bomb Saddam" shirts.

Tavella said that at Leland High School, 65 percent of students go on to four-year colleges, and that the school's speech and debate team was ranked No. 1 in California. He said the school had its share of fights, but had fewer than other schools. Furthermore, he said there had been no demonstrations or fights over the Iraq war.

In the absence of a recent history of violence and disruption at Leland, it would be unreasonable for the school authorities to ban the T-shirt and violate the student's First Amendment rights. More important, by banning the shirt, administrators would be missing a chance to educate students about how to react to contrary views.

Leland High School officials and other school administrators across the country should seize such moments as opportunities to hold assemblies to discuss with students the importance of our country's history of dissent and debate.

Bush T-shirtAs President George W. Bush insists we are going to war in Iraq for freedom and democracy, would it not be ironic during these times to deny even once the foundation of freedom and democracy in our public schools?

To protect students, administrators need to zero in on those students who might be tempted to use violence to express their anger at opinions they find offensive.

It is typical of totalitarian societies that thugs beat up those expressing opinions contrary to those of the government. In a school society, it is the responsibility of the administration to protect those expressing contrary opinions that others may find distasteful.

Whatever we think of  "Bomb Saddam," in free, civilized and democratic society we respond with thoughtful discussion -- not violence, and not repression.

Hollywood Profs Flunk Teaching Test

Hollywood just can't get education right.

Its latest prep-school drama, "The Emperor's Club," is well worth seeing as a thought-provoking story of honor and ambition. As a portrayal of an effective teacher plying his trade, however, grade it an "F."

The teaching methods used by William Hundert -- deftly portrayed by Kevin Kline -- on his charges at the prestigious St. Benedict's prep school were of questionable merit even 25 years ago.

True, a teacher like Hundert could have had a positive impact. He was a decent man who cared for his students and had a passion for his subject, Roman and Greek history. That would have rubbed off on many of his 14-year-old boarding school students.

But by the 1970s -- the era in which the film is set -- American education had undergone a much-needed revolution in methods, prompted in part by educational reformers such as John Holt, author of "Why Children Fail." Holt, James Moffett and others shifted the focus from teachers to students.

They argued that students failed because they were stifled by a top-down educational style that tried to pour knowledge into students' brains. Under this approach, pupils became passive participants without any commitment to learning.

The reformers challenged teachers to stop dominating the classroom and allow student voices to fill the room. Students, they argued, should not parrot the teacher, but be encouraged to express their own values, assessments and theories.

Holt thought it a waste of time for teachers to ask students to give answers already known by the teacher. He called that "fishing."

Hundert's students, which included Sedgewick Bell, the shallow, tuned-out, narcissistic son of a senator, struggle in the film to learn a vast array of historical facts they then recite when called upon. These are facts available to anyone who had access to reference books.

Hundert could have made a more substantial contribution to his students' education by asking them to debate among themselves which cause of Rome's decline was the most important. Some of their answers would involve the expression of their own, personal knowledge -- something nearly impossible to reveal through "fishing."

In the movie's key scene, Sedgewick had emerged -- only briefly, as it turned out -- from his haughty shell and seemed dedicated to winning the title of "Mr. Julius Caesar" in an academic, "quiz-show" contest. He sought to attract the attention of his senator father, who, before the contest, was always too busy to listen to his son.

At a fateful moment in the contest -- with parents, students and the senator assembled -- Hundert notices that Sedgewick is cheating. His intent to mold the boy's character for good has gone for naught.

In such "educational" contests, hidden cheat notes could serve Sedgewick's cynical purpose. If the contest required the students to retreat to separate rooms with their notes and reference books to write essays of interpretation or analysis, there would be no cheating.

Of course, that would have required Hundert to read and evaluate the essays, and would have taken the drama out of the contest. And it would have made it difficult for visiting alumni to witness the event for the purpose of boosting the school's endowment.

It is every teacher's dream to build their students' character. Hundert aptly expressed his hope with the maxim, "A man's character is his fate." But character is shaped more by family and the totality of life's experiences than by any single student-teacher relationship. It is better for teachers to concentrate on challenging a student's intellect.

Other influential movies also failed to deliver. In the popular "Dead Poets Society” (1989), Robin Williams played another prep school teacher, John Keating. Keating used comic routines and other eccentric ploys to fire his students. He does get his students to write their own poems, but there is no discussion of them. Keating dominates, on one occasion taking his students into the quad to march, all for the purpose of getting them to have faith in their own beliefs and uniqueness.

In the 1999 movie "Election," Matthew Broderick played Jim McAllister, who botches both his marriage and his teaching career and, sure enough, conducts classroom discussions like a true fisherman.

After 37 years of teaching, I find it disturbing to see educators in movies and on television -- many held up as models in their profession -- teach in such inept ways. The present state of our nation indicates we need leaders with innovative thinking, problem-solving abilities and vision. Hollywood's way of teaching is not likely to nurture those capacities.

It's time for the entertainment industry to clue into the changes in the profession and show audiences the real ways our children learn, discover and grow.

PNS contributor Donal Brown ( taught in the California public school system for 35 years and in Africa for two

New Bill Could Make it Tough for Iranian Tourists to Get Visas

Fearing restraints that could prevent an Iranian mother from comforting a daughter in childbirth in the United States, Iranian Americans are rallying against a bill under consideration in the U.S. Congress.

The bill, H.R. 3525: Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, strengthens border and airport security and gives the Attorney General and State Department power to restrict nonimmigrant visas for countries like Iran designated as terrorist states.

The wording of the bill would require extensive checks on each traveler from designated terrorist states. "No nonimmigrant visa may be issued to an alien from a country designated as a state-sponsor of terrorism, unless the Secretary of State, after consulting with the Attorney General and others, determines that the alien poses no safety or national security threat to the United States."

It is not clear what procedures the government would set up to enact the requirement, but checking each visa applicant would be time-consuming and expensive and could create a de facto ban on travel from Iran by ordinary citizens.

Mozhgan Mojab of the Persian Watch Center gained 10,000 signatures in five days on a petition opposing the bill.

Mojab sees no valid reason for the visa ban. "There has been no terrorist act committed by people of Iranian heritage on U.S. soil. On the contrary, over one million Iranian Americans and their Iranian relatives in the U.S. are highly educated and have made important social and scientific contributions. They are simply not terrorists."

Johns Hopkins Ph.D candidate Trita Parsi says the bill will do little to stop the terrorist acts of Sept. 11 since the terrorists were from countries considered to be allies.

Parsi is hopeful that reasonable procedures will allow travel from Iran to the U.S. to continue. "The procedures in place for Iran visas are already tough," he said. "They could keep the Iranian procedures the same and increase the restrictions for other countries to the level of Iran."

Badi Badiozamani, director of the Center for East-West Understanding supports any measure that identifies terrorists but says there needs to be a balance to allow innocent people to travel to the U.S. "The bill," he says, "deprives countries of bridges to the U.S. People coming here can be ambassadors of good will. And they need to see for themselves how freedom and democracy works."

In the meantime, there is renewed hope for a thaw between the U.S. and Iran. In his State of the Union last January, President Bush grouped Iran, Iraq, and North Korea together as the "axis of evil." After the speech, there were indications that Iran's reformist president, Mohammad Khatami had been granted permission to explore the possibility of negotiating with the U.S. after a 20-year diplomatic freeze.

But the freeze continued this week as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said that Iran's support of terrorism and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction placed it squarely in the "axis of evil." Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded by renouncing U.S. policies and declaring it useless to negotiate with the U.S.

Iran's position had always been that as precondition for talks, the U.S. had to lift the economic embargo or unfreeze Iranian assets. Now it is thought that any thaw in relations rests on the Bush administration's abandoning the "axis of evil" terminology.

Report Cards in Cyberspace

Gone are the days when students rush home to intercept their report cards from the mail.

Today, schools everywhere can purchase software that allows parents daily access to test scores, grades, attendance records, discipline reports and homework assignments.

There can be several benefits to using the program. Parents can see if their student's grades fall precipitously. A sudden fall in grades often means the student is depressed or using drugs, so parents can intervene in a timely way.

Since students can also log on, they can keep track of their daily progress. There is evidence that if students themselves keep track of how they are doing, they tend to improve.

For sure, students need to take charge of their learning. Too often in my 37 years of teaching, I saw students -- invariably male -- whose parents failed to promote personal responsibility in their children. The students were bright and capable, but doing little or no work.

It was sad to see the parents turning up in despair at parents' night with junior in tow and often a sibling or two along for the ride. It was clear that education was a huge priority to the family. The parents would do all the talking and refer to their son as if he were not there. Sometimes they would ask him a question to which they already had the answer. "You haven't turned in any work?"

With a trapped look on his face, the young man stammered some evasive answer and looked away. It emerged that the parents were doing what they thought was necessary to get their son's grades up -- hiring tutors, restricting favorite pastimes, enforcing study hours, restricting time with friends -- all to no avail.

It was difficult to say to parents -- these deeply concerned, conscientious parents -- that their son's problem was that he hadn't taken responsibility for his own learning. With his parents trying to control his life, the young man had taken his revenge in the area of most concern to the parents, his own schooling. It's the best way to get back, to refuse to dance to the tune of academic rectitude, a perfect revenge, hang the consequences to his own future.

Providing a space-age monitoring system to anxious parents may in many cases hurt education. Schools will install the system because parents often complain about not knowing how their students are doing in a timely way, but schools should also caution parents about the best strategies to help their young people commit to education. Education should not be a matter for satisfying parents' goals for their offspring but a young person's quest for identity and enlightenment.

As difficult as it can be for parents, the best way for parents who find their children tuned out is to insist on regular study hours. On every school night, they must stay in a quiet room, with no TV or telephone -- music negotiable. If their child does not study, let the Ds and Fs fall as they may.

As a parent I found this strategy fiendishly difficult to follow, but studies show that the best way to encourage low-achieving students is to put the lid on an outrage or anger at a poor report and find something to encourage.

After dealing with grades, parents can then talk to their student, again without anger or scorn, about the student's goals and whether the Ds and Fs serve these goals.

Adolescence can be hell. Parents need to listen carefully and sympathetically to their young people. Crises at the high school level can be minimized if from the time their students are in kindergarten and the first grade, parents talk with them about their experiences at school and allow them choices appropriate to their maturity.

At all levels -- and particularly during adolescence -- students need love, support and understanding more than website monitoring. Adolescents will experience successes and failures and will learn from both if allowed the freedom that responsibility brings.

Donal Brown ( taught high school for 37 years.

Diamonds and Blood in Sierra Leone

Diamonds -- the symbol of lasting love in the west -- are behind the chaos and carnage in Sierra Leone today.

Central to the fighting is a struggle over control of the diamond trade which is the source of funds that enable the rebels to make war.

Led by Foday Sankoh, Revolutionary United Front (RUF) forces have terrorized the country with a pattern of sneak attacks on civilians, raping women, abducting children to serve as soldiers, and chopping off the limbs of those considered sympathetic to the government.

From 1991 to 1999, 75,000 died. Half the country's 4.5 million people have been forced to move from their homes, And some 500,000 have become refugees.

Pressed by memory of the Rwandan genocide, the Security Council arranged to enter Sierra Leone with a peace-keeping force of 11,000, severely limiting its ability to attack. When the UN troops tried to enter the diamond areas, rebels confronted and stopped them.

Observers say it will take 100,000 troops to pacify the rebels, who are thought to number 45,000. According to Canadian and Sierra Leone expert Ian Smilie, the RUF has no ideology, political agenda or tribal identity of the sort that usually forms the base for a rebellion.

Indeed, the RUF comes from no single tribe. After purportedly fighting for democracy when a military regime ruled Sierra Leone, it stayed on to keep control of the diamond provinces when democracy was established in 1996. Then in January of 1999, the RUF entered Freetown for two weeks of arson, killing and dismemberment.

That led to the departure of a UN-sponsored Nigerian peace-keeping force which had lost 800 to 1,200 men over two years. When the last Nigerian soldiers pulled out earlier this month, the rebels went on the attack and the peace-keeping force reports that 500 of its number are now missing, presumably taken prisoners by the RUF.

In a summit in Abuja, Nigeria last week, West African leaders expressed support for defending the democratic government in Sierra Leone.

According to a UN spokesman, David Wimhurst, said one reason for the current disarray was that only 8,700 soldiers were actually in place. Their immediate objective, he said, was to secure Freetown.

Residents panicked last week at rumors that the rebel forces were entering the capital, and hundreds of refugees from the countryside are currently entering Freetown, causing more unrest.

Wimhurst said British forces were on the ground in Freetown to evacuate and protect their citizens and had helped calm the city by their very presence. ""We (the UN) will stay," he added.

The UN mission was concerned about Sankoh's disappearance after his compound was stormed by Freetown residents last week. "We need to contact him to persuade him that his current course is a road to nowhere," said Wimhurst.

To avoid a serious defeat and save the people of Sierra Leone, Smilie thinks the Security Council should send in an experienced, combat-ready force. He sees anything less as appeasement.

In his seminal report on Sierra Leone for Partnership Africa Canada, Smillie and his co-authors make recommendations for ending the diamond trade. He notes that diamond wars -- like those being waged in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- cannot be ended until the international community stops the illicit diamond trade which provides cash rebels need to buy arms.

Smillie also wants the Security Council to put diplomatic pressure on countries that make or sell the arms or allow their passage.

De Beers, which operates a world-wide diamond cartel, has sworn not to buy diamonds in conflict areas including Sierra Leone. But Smillie said that DeBeers still maintains a diamond trading company in Liberia knowing that Liberia has no diamonds of its own, only ones from Sierra Leone. Because diamonds are small and easily smuggled, it is difficult to control them.

The Canadian government has appropriated money to develop electronic fingerprinting for diamonds which could precisely identify a diamond's origin, but that process will take some time to develop.

With the world's attention shifted to Sierra Leone, the international community may be able to make some progress in curtailing the deadly trade in diamonds and the grisly war there.


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