A free speech advocate says punishing students for racist speech pushes the problem of racism into the shadows, so the next students will not be foolish enough to post a racist rant on TikTok. Instead, they will post to the latest white supremacist message board, where the ideas will not be challenged, but reinforced.
Photo: Twitter
Photo: Twitter

Opinion: Expelling Carrollton students shoved underlying racism into shadows

The recent posting of a racist video by two Carrollton High School seniors resulted in their expulsion.

In a guest column, Gordon Danning, youth free expression program coordinator at the National Coalition Against Censorship, writes that punishment was an inappropriate response, especially for a school dedicated to educating young people.

His concern: A punitive response pushes the problem of racism into the shadows, where it can only fester. The next students won’t be foolish enough to post a racist rant on TikTok. Instead, Danning says, they’ll post to the latest white supremacist message board, where their ideas will not be challenged, but instead will be reinforced. 

Danning holds a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and taught social studies for many years at a public high school in Oakland, California. Before joining the National Coalition Against Censorship, he  served as the History Research Fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

By Gordon Danning

Late last week, two students at Carrollton High School posted a racist video on TikTok. The district responded by denouncing the racism of the video, stating that the video was not consistent with the district’s dedication to respect for all people, and vowing to punish those involved. The district also expressed concern that the video would cause tension at school, even though school was being conducted remotely.  

Within a day of the video being posted, the district announced that the students were no longer enrolled, and media reported that they had been expelled, though the district has refused to confirm that to me.

There is no question that the district was right to respond forcefully to the video. Students, especially students of color, rightfully expect the district to ensure that they are free from harassment and discrimination. 

Moreover, if racial tension is a problem in Carrollton, as the district’s statement seems to imply, the district has a responsibility to try to address that problem. That responsibility is perhaps even more acute under current conditions, in which students, staff and parents are no doubt feeling stressed by the need to attend class remotely, the local shelter-in-place order, and general concerns about both the health threat from COVID-19 and the economic uncertainty that lies ahead. 

Gordon Danning

However, the school’s decision to punish the students was the least effective way of addressing the problem, and was a particularly inappropriate response for a school. A school’s job is to educate all students, and the best response would have been to remind its students of the history and perniciousness of racism.  

What lesson did punishing the few students involved teach? Did it teach the district’s students that all human beings are worthy of respect? Or did it instead teach them that the real problem with odious views is when someone in power hears about them? An educational, rather than punitive, approach would have brought the problem into the open, where it could have been addressed and steps made towards amelioration. 

Punishing the students shoved the serious underlying problem of racism into the shadows, where it can only fester. The school chose the latter approach, so the next student will not be foolish enough to post a racist rant on TikTok. Instead, he will post to the latest white supremacist message board, where his ideas will not be challenged, but instead will be reinforced. 

By simply punishing the students, the school treated them as essentially irredeemable. That is despite the fact that evidence shows even hardcore radical extremists can be deradicalized if the individual is respected while his or her opinions and behaviors are challenged. Even the most odious student deserves to be treated by his school as at least potentially redeemable, and indeed Carrollton no doubt has programs to help even violent students to reach their potential.  

It is important to note that when schools opt for punishment over education, students of color are the ones most often punished. And, if history is any guide, that is likely to be true even when schools punish racism. After all, when colleges and universities enforced speech codes in the 1990s, African American students were punished disproportionately to their numbers in the student body, and when the U.S. Supreme Court held that hate crime prosecutions are constitutional, the defendant was a young black man. 

School authorities have the responsibility to confront expressions of hate. However, instead of penalizing a few students, an easy but unproductive solution, which is unlikely to substantively change anyone’s mind, schools must do the hard thing, but the right thing, by educating and working to change attitudes in the long term. They must, quite simply, take the time to educate.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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