If a resident of a country voices discontent with the head of state and she's punished for it, where would you guess she lives? Stalinist Russia? Afghanistan under the Taliban? Egypt before Mubarak's ouster? Or how about good old Burlington, Connecticut, USA?
No, we're not throwing that last one in there to trick you. It happens to be home to Avery Doninger, who was a cranky high school junior when she called her school's administration "douchebags" in a blog posting back in 2007. To which the school responded by telling Doninger they were striking her name from the ballot for class elections. Yeah, you tell 'em administrators! How dare she question your iron-fisted authority?
To add insult to injury, Doninger not only questioned them once -- in her Internet complaint that the administration had canceled a musical festival -- but she's taken the matter to court, which is why a 2007 blog post is in the news in 2011. She's been working the case's way through the courts on the basis of free speech, although it hasn't been pretty. Courts have sided with the school's assertion that she displayed behavior not befitting a class officer.
I'm no judge. I can't argue with the letter of the law. I can argue with the way school administrators take criticism, especially from students. Using the word "douchebag" isn't kind or especially honorable. But it was how Doninger, a teenager, felt at the time. She was angry, she showed it. And instead of meeting her anger front and center and addressing it, she did what so many administrations have done time and again, they made the little thorn in their side go away.
I remember many years ago, when I was still a beat reporter, covering a school board meeting that ran late into the night. The agenda was long and varied, but the teenagers sitting beside me, even as the hands of the clock passed far past bedtime, had just one thing to talk about. A teacher whose position was about to be cut, a teacher they were begging the board to keep. It was an impossible task -- the budget was tight, the teacher lacked seniority. As an adult, I understood. But as the kids sat there, growing increasingly frustrated with a board of education ignoring them, I saw their shoulders slumping. And with every sigh, a bit of their idealism was breathed out of their lungs.
They didn't have to be catered to. There was literally nothing the school could do. But they did need to be acknowledged, to have things explained to them, to be told that their voice matters.
And so it was in Connecticut, where administrators had a choice to make. They could sit a frustrated teenager trying to find her voice down and take her seriously. They could find out why she was so angry, explain their side of it, give her a chance to have her say. They could, in short, treat her like the adult she was trying to become.
But they did as administrators so often do. They took the easy way out. They punished instead of instructed. Just because it's legal doesn't make it right.
Who are you siding with here? The kid or the school?
Image via antigone78/Flickr