Editorial: Missed Chance for a Civics Lesson in Claremont

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Life is full of teachable moments, if only teachers are alert to the possibilities. Sadly, school officials in Claremont last week missed a golden opportunity to provide their students with a civics lesson in real time.

At a School Board meeting on Wednesday night, Stevens High Principal Pat Barry and Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin tried to head off an anti-bullying demonstration planned by a small group of residents for the following afternoon outside the school. The demonstration, organized on Facebook, “is not coming from a student-centered place, and I would urge adults to think about the students,” Barry said. “Seeing strangers and potential police and media presence, for many students, will not be a positive experience.”

McGoodwin urged people not to join the demonstration but instead to participate on a subcommittee he is establishing to start a communitywide dialogue on issues of bullying and racism. And Lexi Grenier, student representative to the board, said, “It is scary, and frustrating because no one asked us how we feel.”

Not to be outdone, School Board Chairman Chris Irish accused the protest organizers of arrogance and asserted that, “They don’t care about the students; they care about the issues they are trying to promote.” How exactly he ascertained that was not clear, given that a couple of the organizers who were present at the meeting left without speaking. When board member Patrick Adrian offered to explain to his colleagues the group’s motivation, Irish shouted him down. “I don’t want to hear it,” he said, according to an account by Valley News correspondent Patrick O’Grady. This apparently is Irish’s idea of being a good role model for students who eventually might want to participate in politics. In our book, it was a major embarrassment and one for which he should apologize abjectly.

But the bigger point is that school officials had the opportunity here to use this concrete, local event to educate their students about the right to protest, the exercise of which is as old as the Republic and as American as cherry pie. In fact, the Founders considered it so central to the democratic project that they enshrined it in the First Amendment, which guarantees, along with free speech, freedom of the press and religious liberty, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

They might have also pointed out that demonstrations and other forms of protest have been the drivers of social and political change from the Boston Tea Party to female suffrage to civil rights to the Vietnam War, especially when official and institutional channels, such as the one McGoodwin proposes, have lagged behind.

And the educators could have noted that while demonstrations sometimes make onlookers uncomfortable, that, too, can contribute to progress. High school students are not too young to understand this, nor should they be shielded from seeing the police and news media representatives fulfilling their appointed and important roles in democracy.

A main complaint of school officials seemed to be that they weren’t consulted about the planned demonstration. Why in that case they failed to reach out to the organizers to reassure themselves that their intent and plans were benign was not explained, but it would have been a logical step.

As it turned out, the small group of protesters moved the demonstration several hundred yards away to nearby Broad Street Park to address the officials’ concerns and held posters that passersby could sign as an anti-bullying pledge, which, as O’Grady reported, a number of students did. Two sixth-graders did so after talking with a demonstrator. “Awesome,” pronounced one of the them. “I think this will help,” said the other. In short, the teachable moment was seized, although not by school officials.

And, in fact, the protesters said that were not targeting the schools for criticism of their anti-bullying efforts, but rather attempting to involve the broader community, as the original Facebook post by an organizer indicated: “Schools have a responsibility to keep children safe when they are at school and it is the parent’s responsibility to keep them safe at home, but what about in between? Isn’t it up to the community to model good behavior then?” It is, and the demonstrators appear to have done so, even if school officials failed to recognize it.