Is it right for a high school teacher to talk politics?
In the latest post-election fallout, Oakmont High School officials warned teachers and staff Monday not to share their political views in the classroom after a teacher gave safety pins to students.
Americans have donned ordinary safety pins as a silent protest demonstrating solidarity with people feeling disenfranchised after last week’s election of Republican Donald Trump as the next president. The idea was borrowed from Great Britain, where safety pins were worn for similar reasons after voters there approved an exit from the European Union.
Oakmont photography teacher Danielle Michel provided safety pins in class Monday, though the extent to which she encouraged students to wear them was in dispute.
Tina Mateo said she learned Monday from her son that Michel distributed safety pins to students in her photography class, reportedly as an anti-Trump gesture. She said as a mother who has had many conversations with her children about the election, she was “completely offended” by the teacher’s actions. She said her son “can form his own opinions.”
Michel said her gesture was more passive. She said she told students they could have safety pins if they wanted and that they could look up the meaning on their own. She said the episode was “a misunderstanding” and that she did not encourage students to wear the safety pins.
Since the national election, middle schools and high schools nationally have reported race-based bullying, hate crimes and students fearful of deportation. The conflicts extend to adults, whose political divisions have erupted on social media, turned friends into foes and estranged family members.
While voters in Oakmont’s boundary area generally supported Trump, several precincts leaned toward Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Brad Basham, executive director of personnel services for the Roseville Joint Union High School District, said teachers and staff have been reminded to not share political views.
“Because this action promotes a political opinion, the teacher was directed to stop distributing the pins and the teacher complied,” Basham said in a statement. “The principal has taken action to remind all staff that teachers may not share their non-school-related political views during instructional time. Any political discussions should be tied to a lesson in the adopted curriculum and presented in a fair and balanced manner.”
After classes Monday, most Oakmont students said they were unfamiliar with the symbolism attached to the safety pin. Several students and parents said teachers in general should not share their political views. But in certain settings such as a government class, an exchange of political ideas and viewpoints among students may be appropriate, they said.
“I don’t think that teachers should express their beliefs,” said Bryce Sidler, 15. “We are all kids. If they were talking directly to me to persuade me, I wouldn’t like it.”
Olivia Rappold, 16, said teachers are not supposed to push their political ideas onto students. “I have been to a Catholic school,” said the Oakmont junior. “They can push ideas on you. But I think everyone is entitled to their own opinions. Teachers should not be spreading their ideas onto students.”
Michele Martinez, waiting at the school to pick up her sophomore daughter, said she does not believe teachers should involve students in the political debate, particularly since most are not old enough to vote.
A few students said they saw no problem in a teacher suggesting wearing a symbol of solidarity, as long as they don’t try to force it. “Forcing people to wear it, that is a different thing,” said senior Alexis Wyscarver, 17.
Julia Harumi Mass, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said teachers can and should encourage discussions about elections and other civic events “and make space for students to express themselves.” But she said they also have a responsibility to “create a safe and creative learning environment for all students.”
She said if students feel targeted, making the safety pins available is one way to express support. But, she said, teachers “cannot force students to express a certain political opinion. Given the positions of authority that teachers have over students, it’s important that they do not encourage students to take particular positions.”
Oakmont Principal Rob Hasty said regardless of the election, students need to have the school as a safety net.
“Our district has always been about taking care of kids on campus and making sure that all kids feel safe and supported no matter what’s going on the external stratosphere,” he said.