A classic management pitfall tripped the Shawnee Mission School District.
You can inadvertently cause more damage by tepidly circling concerns. The proverbial elephant in the classroom is the fallout from the presidential election.
Shawnee Mission officials decreed that wearing a safety pin is forbidden political speech.
The district sent an email to its teachers Monday afternoon advising them to heed the warning. No safety pins are to be worn by staff while at school, for fear that the gesture will stir divisive or partisan political speech and disrupt studies.
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In case anyone has completely disengaged after the presidential election: Wearing a safety pin has emerged as a way to signify that the bearer is in solidarity with people who are feeling threatened — immigrants, gay and lesbian people, women, Muslims. The list is sadly long.
Notice that there’s no mention of president-elect Donald Trump in the prior paragraph. That’s because Trump supporters are just as welcome to don a safety pin.
In fact, the safety pin movement didn’t begin with the U.S. election. It started with Brexit, the decision by the U.K. to leave the European Union. An American woman is credited with invoking its use as a way to show her solidarity with migrants to the U.K. Concerns about immigration and terrorism were cited by many as a rationale for wanting to break with the European Union.
Like anywhere in the world, schools here are microcosms of the communities they serve. What happens at home, discussions that students hear, impacts the school day. There’s no way around it. And really, why would we want to dissuade students from thinking critically about current events?
The rhetoric of the presidential campaign has elicited fear and concern. Many students are having deep feelings of anxiety as talk about deporting immigrants and rolling back civil rights gains makes the news. Ignoring that fact or being hesitant about allowing teachers to address it within classrooms aren’t going to lift students’ unease.
The ACLU of Kansas, in urging the district to reconsider, eloquently made the point.
“The district’s policy censoring teachers from making that statement, by wearing safety pins, suggests that the district does indeed believe it is ‘political’ or ‘controversial’ to say that the safety and success of all students is important. That sends a clear signal to students, parents, and members of the community that the district’s leadership does not regard the safety and success of all students as important.”
Understandably, the district doesn’t want teachers to take time away from other studies. And skill is required to keep student discussions from veering into political speech. This needs to be acknowledged. Shawnee Mission surely has good intentions.
But they bungled an opportunity to emphasize what every local district seeks — physical and emotional safety for all students.
Shawnee Mission probably has already faced backlash from parents who misunderstood the intent behind the safety pins. The pins could have been explained in the context of the district’s anti-bullying policy.
After all, as one Shawnee Mission teacher noted in a conversation (outside of school) Monday evening, teachers often wear pins like the GLSEN ones to show support for gay and lesbian students. How is this different, he asked?
In its email to teachers, the district counseled them to avoid wearing the pins “unless such activity is specifically in conjunction with District curriculum.” That’s an opening to stretch curriculum to an emphasis on policy. Every school district in the greater metropolitan area should re-emphasize their zero-tolerance policies for bullying in this post-election atmosphere. It can be done without igniting partisan politics.
Some districts have already done so. They acted in response to offensive actions and comments. Most of what trickles out to media are difficult-to-substantiate reports about mumbled comments in hallways between students. But one middle school apparently swiftly disciplined a student who recently made a pro-Nazi statement. Juvenile antics? Not to the Jewish student in class that day.
Deeming a banal utilitarian device like the safety pin off limits is not a solution. It instead sidesteps something that every school district in this area has found to be abhorrent. And that is the belittling, bullying or targeting of any student.
We’re all against such behavior. If some teachers want to use a safety pin to convey that message, let them.