Joyce Terhaar

Joyce Terhaar: School’s actions shouldn’t outweigh lesson plans

Video: McClatchy High School teacher wrestles student

This cell phone video of a Halloween-costumed teacher wrestling a student in Sacramento's C.K. McClatchy High School Friday morning was widely circulated on social media. The teacher was suspended from his job and arrested.
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This cell phone video of a Halloween-costumed teacher wrestling a student in Sacramento's C.K. McClatchy High School Friday morning was widely circulated on social media. The teacher was suspended from his job and arrested.

We’ve seen two troubling incidents on local high school campuses in recent weeks.

Both came to public attention because of student cellphone videos circulating on social media.

One school suspended the student videographer. The other did not. The differing responses send a powerful message to students about how much our schools value public transparency and constitutional rights – likely a more memorable lesson than any taught in civics class.

The entire community should take note; we can’t be casual about the First Amendment.

The first incident was a wild brawl in the lunchroom at Florin High School. Principal Don Ross, who should be lauded for striding into the fray with little regard for personal safety, was body slammed to the floor before picking himself up to break up the fighting.

In the aftermath, though, the school suspended Tiana Johnson for recording the melee and posting it on YouTube. After a Bee story and public criticism, Johnson was allowed to return to school; by that time she had served two of her three days of suspension.

The second incident came four days later at McClatchy High School, on the Friday before Halloween. Students recorded teacher David Fritz wrestling a student out of his desk and to the floor, growling as he did it. Fritz was apparently dressed for the holiday, in a puffy red polka-dot hat and black shirt. After students alerted school officials, they placed Fritz on leave and called the police, who arrested him on a misdemeanor charge of willful cruelty toward a child. No one was suspended for posting the video.

These were very different situations, similar only in that they became publicly known through social media.

Today’s high school campuses often lack journalism classes, student newspapers or online student news sites, so the traditional way in which students reported the news or held officials accountable often doesn’t exist anymore.

Instead, most students have easy access to social media. And though it’s not the protected speech of a school paper, with that access still comes important constitutional rights.

Check out the First Amendment Center online for a primer. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that online speech “is entitled to the highest level of protection, on par with the print medium,” the center reports. In California we’re more protective of student rights than most states.

The California Education Code specifies that students in all public schools, including charter schools, “shall have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press.” The caveats are that they can’t be obscene, libelous or slanderous. They can’t incite fellow students to commit unlawful acts on school grounds or to violate lawful school regulations. And they can’t substantially disrupt the school.

Given all this, was it within the purview of the Elk Grove Unified School District to suspend Johnson? The Bee’s Loretta Kalb and Diana Lambert quoted media legal experts in our coverage who argue that Johnson’s actions clearly are protected activity.

Johnson’s video brought national attention to Florin High, even airing on “Inside Edition.” It appears she was suspended because she embarrassed the school, a perception solidified by Principal Ross’ public comments that her video was “hurtful” to students who are proud of Florin High.

School officials didn’t help themselves when they changed their reasoning for the suspension to safety concerns, an area that gives schools more legal protection to crack down on student activity. The suspension document focused on Johnson’s social media comments and her refusal to write a statement about her actions.

Part of California’s freedom-of-speech protections for students are framed around student journalists, even as journalism programs become scarce. Given that decline, it’s particularly important to remember these are broad rights.

Steve O’Donoghue, director of the California Scholastic Journalism Initiative, tracks data on journalism courses statewide through the State Department of Education. From the 2000-01 school year until 2012-13, the number of schools offering journalism classes dropped from 1,093 to 859. Almost 8,000 fewer students enrolled, to 26,298.

O’Donoghue, understandably, is passionate about the need for journalism education and the commitment to First Amendment rights in the schools. His program, funded by the Sacramento County Office of Education, works with students from 10 schools around the region. The teens publish a newspaper that is distributed on all the campuses.

Such programs matter. In 2008, the Newspaper Association of America Foundation released a study of more than 31,000 students who took the ACT college admission test and found that those in journalism programs earned significantly higher grade-point averages and scores on college entrance exams. Not surprisingly, they also had better writing and grammar skills. The “High School Journalism Matters” research was led by Jack Dvorak of Indiana University and confirmed similar results from two decades earlier.

That kind of academic result is one all schools should strive to achieve. But beyond the numbers, NAA senior vice president Margaret Vassilikos said at the time that foundation research showed journalism programs helped kids become more informed and involved citizens, and more active participants in our democratic process.

Those qualities in a young adult ensure a better future for everyone.

Well under half of registered voters bothered to vote in last year’s general election, a record low. It’s so bad that Gov. Jerry Brown last month signed a bill to automatically register to vote anyone who has a driver’s license or state identification card.

That’s a start. It makes people eligible, but it doesn’t teach individuals that voting is the first, fundamental step to protecting our democracy and all it stands for – including our constitutional rights. Schools teach us about democracy and cannot let their actions outweigh the lesson plans.

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