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We Can’t All Just Get Along: Handling Student Disagreement on Sensitive Issues

K-12 Education Publications

One of the loftiest goals of K-12 education is to teach children to disagree respectfully, but what do you do if they disrespectfully disagree—especially on a hot button, highly-sensitive topic? Many school districts find it difficult to balance the need to limit school speech with the fear of criticism from students, parents, and outside groups for purported free speech violations. A recent incident in a central Illinois school district showed that although there is a thin line between addressing disruptive speech and protecting student rights, the line can be managed. In that case, middle school students clashed when discussing sexual identity, and the school directed students to temporarily avoid such conversations. Although civil rights groups quickly cried foul, the uproar died down after a community meeting at which District officials explained their actions to the community. What lessons can other school leaders take from his example?

The situation involved discussions about sexual orientation among students at the middle school. A small group of students reportedly engaged in a “back and forth verbal tussle for weeks that would wax and wane.” The school attributed the conflict to “a lack of maturity, age, and skill set” among the students. The conflict came to a climax when a bisexual male student, in an apparent response to the ongoing disagreement with other students, gave out rainbow heart stickers during the school day. School administration said this “quickly became a disruption to the learning process,” with students making comments about the stickers during class time. The school administration told the student to stop distributing the stickers at school, claiming it was not because of the intended message of the stickers but because of the disruption their distribution caused. The school also sent home a letter to parents explaining that students have the right to attend school free of harassment, intimidation, and bullying, but do not “have the right to dictate when and where they will discuss their sexual orientation or identity.” The letter stated further: “As a school, we are trying to instill in our students, who are early adolescents, when it is appropriate to convey one’s sexual orientation and when it is inappropriate.”

Area LGBT groups and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) quickly criticized the school’s actions, claiming they limited students’ free speech. The school district held a town hall meeting for parents and staff, at which the school leadership explained that the limitation on discourse about sexual orientation was intended to provide the students involved in the back and forth “a break while the district decided its next step.” The school described those next steps at the meeting, which included beginning a program of positive reinforcement to recognize students who adhere to the district’s Code of Conduct, promoting instruction on how to engage in respectful discussions and how to be empathetic to others, and working with the Illinois Safe School Alliance to provide professional development to staff on how to create affirming environments for LGBT students. After the meeting, the district’s superintendent said: “As I was anticipating, once our parents were able to hear what the intent of the letter was being sent home and our plans moving forward, that there would be a clear understanding where we were at and what we are doing. We had almost an hour and a half of civil discourse. It’s a sensitive topic, but I couldn’t be prouder of our parents.” With this plan in place, the school said it would not restrict discussions among students during free time at school as long as there was no disruption or infringement on the rights of others.

Some key takeaways for school leaders from this situation are:

  • Some limits on student speech are appropriate. Student speech can be limited in the school environment if the speech is disruptive or infringes on the rights of other students, even if it is a speech on a sensitive topic such as sexual orientation.
  • Limit scope. The temporary nature of the school’s ban on discussing sexual orientation at school was likely pivotal to its success; a longer ban would need to be supported by specific facts showing a likelihood of disruption, likely based on past incidents and lack of success of prior attempts to address the student conduct.
  • A simple plan. The school’s three-pronged plan of positively reinforcing the rules of the Code of Conduct, teaching civil discourse, and encouraging an affirming environment for LGBT students is a good roadmap for ways to mitigate disruption around sensitive topics, and can be used even if no disruption has occurred.
  • Parent buy-in. The school district’s town hall meeting allowed parents an opportunity to express concerns and ended with parent buy-in, which can be a strong antidote to criticism by outside groups.

This case is an important reminder to schools that they must proceed with care when limiting student speech on sensitive topics in schools. The case shows, however, that schools can address disruptive speech on sensitive issues without infringing on student rights.