This sign has been posted by teachers fromYorktown High School and was approved by the Arlington School Board. Some parents have complained that the sign delivers a political message. But the school board disagrees and has told the complaining parents that the sign will not be removed. Larry chatted with Dr. Barbara J. Kanninen, Vice Chair of the Arlington School Board, regarding the controversial sign spotted in an area high school.
An excerpt from the interview can be found below:
Kanninen: You asked if this sign is political. I want to make very clear that first of all, it is not a school board decision about approving signs or not approving signs. This came to us because parents asked about it. We have a very clear policy on our teacher conduct and that is simply teachers do have First Amendment rights. But we do have a policy about political activity and that is teachers are not allowed to endorse a political candidate, they are not allowed to endorse a political party while in the schools and using school resources. The question of whether a sign is political or not is not a question that comes to the level of a policy decision. Again, teachers have a First Amendment right and they are – the particular comments on this sign are about science and they’re about being supportive of all the students in our schools. So the teachers are fully within their right to make those types of statements and comments in our school.
O’Connor: Are they within their rights? Because my understanding of this situation is that one teacher also hung a sign that was produced by the political action group, MoveOn.org and that teacher was asked to remove that sign. Are you aware of that?
Kanninen: The parent asked me about that. Again, I’m on the school board and I don’t micromanage the school so we don’t approve or not approve signs in our schools or classrooms. But let me make one thing very clear. When you walk through any school you see in the hallways as well as – especially in the teacher’s classrooms – a great deal of posters and signs and materials on every teacher’s wall. And that’s all apart of teaching and preventing that culture and environment of support and academics. So on any teacher’s walls that you go into you would see material about their academic content, the subject they are teaching. You will often also see things like inspirational posters, you might see Mahatma Gandhi, you might see historical figures. So there are all sorts of – and we encourage that. So you have to be careful by getting to the point of calling something somehow inappropriately political, which I think you’re getting at, because teachers need to be supportive of their students and their rights to express themselves as long as they are teaching their material and being supportive of the full array of students.
O’Connor: So I mean obviously high school students are coming of age politically and intellectually. So say you want to create a safe place for your students, if there is a student who maybe has more conservative ideology that they’re exploring and might be embracing, when they see some of these signs wouldn’t this actually be an affront to them. For instance, because I think the origin of these phrases is very important. One of them right in the middle says, ‘Women’s Rights Are Human Rights’. Now here’s my understanding, I’ve done some research this is the origin of that statement.
Hillary Clinton Audio Clip: If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.
O’Connor: That of course is First Lady Hillary Clinton speaking in Beijing, China back in the 90’s, 1995. And if you go to Wikipedia, on the page, ‘women’s rights are human rights’ it describes it this way, ‘women’s rights are human rights is a phrase used in the feminist movement’ . Now if you’re a young Trump supporter and you’re a high school student in that class, how could you not see that posted by your teacher and think, ‘Well this is kind of a hostile learning environment for me?’
Kanninen: Okay, yes. That is a great question. Thank you for asking that and you pointed out something that was most important in how to distinguish these things. You referenced a speech that the First Lady made in China in the 90’s, is that correct? That is now a historical speech. You referenced the feminist movement, that’s a historical fact as well. I expect many of our teachers in Arlington Public Schools have historical quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt. I expect that they have quotes about …
O’Connor: Well come on. Hold on. I know where you’re going here but a historical quote from Strom Thurmond would be seen as hostile to an African American student, wouldn’t it? Just because it’s a historical quote doesn’t mean that it’s neutral.
Kanninen: Okay, but let’s be very careful here and you’re trying to divert the conversation from the key point here, which is policy and history are not politics. You referred to a historical speech by the First Lady and the feminist movement and then you went to anti-Trump. First of all, President Trump is the President of the United States. His actions are policy. When you comment on his actions, you’re commenting on policy, you are not endorsing a political party. If you say ‘anti-Trump’ you are assumed saying, that’s the Democratic Party’s message. You cannot make that distinction. You are kind of muddying a lot of things. Any teacher can have quotes on their walls from the feminist movement, can have quotes on their walls from historical First Ladies, as long as they are not then getting to the point of endorsing – and for that matter they can respond to President Trump’s actions. They cannot however endorse a Democratic Party or another party specifically as part of what they are doing. I will say we have history teachers of course who will often have multiple political posters on their walls. They just make sure that they balance those out, so that there isn’t a priority for one party. They will have illustrations from a variety of parties and candidates on their walls and that of course is also acceptable.